"Cute, fun and cool, the retro-looking Fiat 500 is a hugely stylish, if slightly compromised small car choice."
If you’re after fun city car with a real sense of style, then the retro styling of the Fiat 500 could well be the perfect car for you. Many see it as nothing more than an expensive fashion accessory, but the little Italian motor is a very real rival for the likes of MINI and the newer Vauxhall Adam. It doesn’t take long to see why, with its compact dimensions, solid bodywork and light steering making it truly easy to park, while its responsive engines and smooth gearbox make it equally as assured and fun on the open road, as well. There's a souped-up Abarth performance model available that will go from 0-60mph in under eight seconds, but it's not quite as entertaining to drive as the MINI Cooper S. The entry-level 1.2-litre Pop models are somewhat basic in specification, though, doing without normally standard equipment such as air-conditioning and alloy wheels – but they do still come with an MP3-compatible stereo, power steering and electric mirrors. Sport and Lounge models are more luxurious, thankfully, adding accessories like Bluetooth and USB connectivity. TwinAir models are free from road tax thanks to rock-bottom CO2 emissions, and all models come fitted with stop-start technology, which makes them cheap to insure and ideal for first-time drivers.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
It's so little, the Fiat 500 had better be cheap to run. Luckily, every engine in the range offers low running costs. The 1.4-litre MultiJet diesel is the most economical engine, returning 76.4mpg in fuel economy, while emitting a tax-free 97g/km of CO2. However, the most environmentally friendly is actually the 900cc TwinAir Dualogic petrol, which emits an impressive 90g/km of CO2 and returns an equally excellent 72.4mpg. We’d still recommend the 1.3-litre MultiJet if you do regular longer motorway journeys, however. Stop-start is now fitted as standard across the whole range. All versions are cheap to insure and resale values in the used car market remain strong.
Interior & comfort
It may be little, but the Fiat 500 is a very comfortable car. When driving around town it's brilliant, and it's also fairly reasonable for longer journeys as well. The suspension is quite firm but still offers a good amount of cushioning, while the driving position is good, with both an adjustable seat and steering wheel. However, your lower back may suffer a bit thanks to a lack of proper bolstering, and the adjustment in the steering wheel actually turns out to be a bit limited. But once you do manage to find a set up that suits you (and you can, just keep at it), the 500 begins to feel smooth, responsive and even fun. There are space issues in the back, of course, with legroom very tight and headroom particularly problematic for tall passengers because of the sloping roofline. Go for the sunroof option and it has poor headroom in the front, too. The diesel cars are better suited to motorway journeys, though even then wind and road noise can become fairly intrusive.
Practicality & boot space
As a car of small dimensions, you wouldn’t expect the Fiat 500 to be hugely practical – and you’d be right. But, with that in mind, the 500 actually has a reasonably-sized boot for a compact car. It offers 185 litres of storage, which is bigger than both the MINI hatchback (infamous for its poor boot capacity) and the similarly stylish Vauxhall Adam. However, it's also quite a lot smaller than the boot in the Ford Ka, which the 500 shares many of its parts and mechanicals with. Fold down the back seats and that capacity expands to 560 litres, which isn’t bad at all. Alas, the entry-level Pop model doesn’t get split-fold rear seats as standard, unlike the rest of the 500 range. The front of the 500 feels light and airy, offering a decent amount of room for both passenger and driver. The driving position is good, which is lucky considering the lack of adjustment in the steering wheel, while the dash-mounted gear lever is handily placed. Get in the back, however, and it's a something of a different story, with the sloping roof and squeezed dimensions making it feel really quite claustrophobic in the rear seats. There are also quite of lot of handy cubby holes, so the 500 quickly proves to be more practical than it at first seems.
Reliability & safety
Fiat has been fighting to fend off its poor reputation for reliability and quality in recent years, and there's no doubting that the 500 has been a roaring success for it. However, after making a so-so debut in the 2012 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, it actually fell another 70 places in the 2013 poll, ranking 142nd in the list of top 150 cars. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Add to that the fact that Fiat itself ranked 30th out of 32 in the Driver Power list of manufacturers, and it would seem that Fiat is actually struggling to make a difference. Which is a bit of shame, because the 500's upmarket interior is actually much better than Fiats of old. From behind the wheel it really does feel like a quality product, with the fit and finish marking a particularly big improvement. The baby Fiat is a safe car, securing the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests. All 500 models come fitted with seven airbags and ISOFIX child seat mountings, plus anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and hazard light activation - which automatically triggers under hard braking; but be aware it's a little over-sensitive – all as standard equipment.
Engines, drive & performance
To say that the 500 is easy to manoeuvre and a doddle to park is a big understatement. Fiat deliberately made the 500's steering incredibly light with that very much in mind, so it really is in its element zipping through busy city traffic. The suspension is firm, but not uncomfortable, and it has lots of grip when driving around tight corners. You get to choose from a range of petrol and diesel engines, but the 875cc TwinAir would be the one we’d recommend. The tiny 85bhp two-cylinder petrol engine is both lively and economical, rewarding enthusiastic driving with some truly punchy performance that is a really nice surprise. That said, if you spend a lot of time clocking up the mileage on long journeys, you’ll actually be better off going with the frugal 1.3-litre Multijet diesel, which is much more comfortable on the motorway and can manage to return more than 70mpg in combined fuel economy. The manual gearbox is easily the best option unless you really do need an automatic, because the Dualogic automatic gearbox is jerky and frankly overpriced – not at all suited to a tiny Italian supermini.
Price, value for money & options
Even though it's been on the market since 2008, the Fiat 500 is still one of the most fashionable small cars that you can buy in the UK. Newcomers like the Citroen DS3 and Vauxhall Adam may have attempted to cash in on the 500's storming success, but nothing else has yet managed to have the same level of impact. That means that residual values remain high, even though there are still lots of good used examples for sale, so it should be quite easy to find a deal and spec to suit. Also, while electric windows, power steering and an MP3-compatible stereo are all standard across the range, you will need to upgrade to a mid-spec model if you want to have some basic equipment like air-conditioning.