The Fiat 500 is a three-door city car that – like the Volkswagen Beetle and MINI hatchback – evokes a nostalgic appeal thanks to its retro styling and cute looks. Despite looking like the Fiat 500 of the fifties, it's every inch a modern car that competes with more conventionally styled models such as the Renault Twingo, Skoda Citigo, Volkswagen up! and SEAT Mii, as well as the Toyota Aygo, Citroen C1 and Peugeot 108.
The 500 has been so successful that the range has grown to include the Fiat 500L MPV and Fiat 500X crossover, for those after retro charm with a bit of extra practicality. There's also the Fiat 500C convertible, which offers open-air thrills thanks to its folding fabric roof. We’ve reviewed all of these cars separately.
It's worth noting that an all-new Fiat 500 is expected in 2017, although the current model did receive a mid-life facelift in 2015. This left its distinctive looks largely unchanged, but did bring an updated interior and simplify the range of trim levels slightly.
Although it's only available as a three-door model, the Fiat 500 is – unlike some city cars – available as a diesel as well as a petrol. You can also choose to fit an automatic gearbox, should you wish. The 500 is available with three engines: two petrols and a diesel. The cheapest is the 1.2-litre 69bhp petrol, which gets the 500 from 0-62mph in 12.9 seconds, returns 60.1mpg and costs £20 a year in road tax.
While those figures are reasonably impressive, the 1.2-litre engine feels slightly old-fashioned compared to the 500's fizzy two-cylinder turbocharged 875cc TwinAir petrol engine, which suits the car's character well. It's available with either 84 or 104bhp and both versions are exempt from road tax thanks to their low CO2 emissions. The 84bhp gets the 500 from 0-62mph in 11 seconds, while the 104bhp is slightly quicker, with 0-62mph taking 10 seconds.
The TwinAir engines are more economical on paper than the 1.2-litre, with the 84bhp returning 74.3 and the 104bhp managing 67.3mpg. They have to be worked hard to make progress, though, so those figures are hard to match in real-world driving conditions. The 1.3-litre 95bhp diesel engine will get the Fiat 500 from 0-62mph in 10.7 seconds and offers impressive economy, returning 83.1mpg; it's also exempt from road tax.
The Fiat 500's natural habitat is town, where its diminutive size, good visibility and light steering make it enjoyable to drive and easy to park. There's also a ‘City Steering’ mode that makes manoeuvring even easier by lightening the steering further. While few will buy one with long-distance cruising in mind, the Fiat 500 is not entirely out of its depth on the motorway, although the diesel engine performs better than the petrols at speed.
The 500's interior echoes the retro exterior thanks to its body-coloured dashboard, while there's just about room for four adults – but as a three-door-only car, access to the back is a hassle for larger passengers; it's strictly a four-seater as well, with only two seatbelts in the back. The 185-litre boot is by no means commodious, but only about 25 litres smaller than the MINI hatchback's; it would’ve been nice to see split-folding rear seats as standard on all 500s rather than just the higher trim levels, though.
Specifying a 500 is a simple affair: there are three trims, ranging from the entry-level Pop, through Pop Star and on to the top-of-the-range Lounge model. Pop cars are only available with the 1.2-litre petrol engine and are pretty sparsely equipped. You get LED running lights, electric windows in the front, USB connectivity and remote central locking, but little else in the way of creature comforts.
We think it's worth spending £900 more for Pop Star trim, which adds alloy wheels, air-conditioning, body-coloured wing mirrors and split-folding rear seats. Top-spec Lounge cars get a five-inch touchscreen infotainment system (a £250 option on lesser models) with Bluetooth connectivity, chrome trim details, a panoramic sunroof and rear parking sensors.
Reliability and safety are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, when the Fiat 500 was crash-tested back in 2007, it scored five stars from Euro NCAP. Since then, though, the test criteria have been toughened up, so the five-star results obtained by more modern cars represent a higher level of safety. Still, all 500s come with several airbags and electronic safety systems, so you should be well taken care of. Fiat's last-place finish in our 2016 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey's manufacturer table represents a drop of eight places over the previous year, and is a far greater cause for concern.