Fiat 500 hatchback
"The Fiat 500 has an unashamedly retro style, but fairly economical engines, making it a strong city-car performer"
- Cheap to buy and own
- Trendy retro looks
- Easy to drive
- Poor safety rating
- Pricey special editions
- Fuel economy can fall short of claims
Some best-selling cars draw heavily on the past for their design inspiration, but the Fiat 500 takes that even further than most. If you place today's 500 next to its 1960s forebear, it's clear just how close the resemblance is – albeit enlarged by about 50%.
Like the MINI hatchback and now-discontinued Volkswagen Beetle, though, the 500's retro looks are only skin deep – its oily bits are slightly more up-to-date. The same is true inside, where its charmingly quaint appearance mixes with technology such as Bluetooth phone integration and air-conditioning. The new 500 is no spring chicken itself, being launched well over a decade ago, but a major update in 2016 helped keep it up-to-date.
It now sits alongside the third-generation Fiat 500, which represents the future of the model and is fully electric. The electric 500’s new design is a further evolution of the model’s looks, and it features a more modern interior design with upgraded infotainment. The trouble is, it’s expensive, with a starting price of £26,000 in la Prima trim.
The 'old' 500 now exists as a value proposition for Fiat buyers who aren't quite ready to make the switch to an electric car, and it remains an alternative to the Hyundai i10 and Peugeot 108. It's three-door only, so might not be the most practical choice for a young family, but it's rich in upmarket appeal and looks right at home sharing driveway space with a Mercedes or Porsche.
Like the MINI, the 500 has been successful enough since its rebirth almost a decade ago to hatch a whole range of cars, which includes the far larger Fiat 500L MPV and Nissan Juke-rivalling Fiat 500X crossover – the first of which stretches the 500's retro identity to near breaking-point. The Fiat 500C convertible, meanwhile, adds fresh-air appeal to what's already a fun package, while the Abarth 595 hot hatchback adds a huge shot of adrenaline to the 500's frothy cappuccino.
Crucially, Fiat has avoided fiddling with the 500's much-loved formula too heavily since 2007 – only a handful of relatively trivial external updates separate the earliest cars from the latest examples.
The entry-level 68bhp 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine has been a popular model and can return 46.3mpg, but it begins to feel a little underpowered if more than one friend joins you on your journey. It's now only available with an automatic gearbox. The 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir engines are good fun with 84bhp, but we've failed to come close to realising Fiat's 52.3mpg fuel economy claims.
Fiat has also introduced the 500 Mild Hybrid, fitted with a new 1.0-litre petrol engine and 12-volt mild hybrid technology. It stores energy into a compact battery as the car decelerates, with a starter generator to assist acceleration that also helps improve stop and start so it works more effectively. It can manage fuel-efficiency of 53.3mpg and 88g/km CO2 emissions - an improvement of 30% over the 1.2-litre.
Driving the Fiat 500 is simplicity itself – you sit quite upright with great visibility, and the small size and light steering means it really feels at home in the urban jungle – particularly when the ‘City Steering’ button is used to take unwanted weight from the steering when you’re manoeuvring at parking speeds. It doesn’t feel out of its depth beyond the city limits either; all models acquit themselves fairly well on the motorway.
The interior design highlight is a dashboard colour-matched to the exterior paintwork to give a real ‘classic car’ feel. The rather upright seating position and tall roof means four adults can fit inside, but getting in the back is a bit awkward. And, although few will choose a city car for its luggage space, the 185 litres on offer here is considerably less than the 250 litres in a Volkswagen up! and Hyundai i10. It’s also worth noting that only the Lounge trim level and above get a 50:50 split-folding rear seat.
Speaking of trim levels, permanently resident in the range are the Pop and Lounge, but Fiat also offers special-edition versions that change frequently and tend to add unique styling, colours and wheels, along with different equipment and upholstery. Pop gets some desirable features like LED ‘halo’ daytime running lights, electric windows and a USB connection, but we’d recommend upgrading to Lounge, because it adds air-conditioning, alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, cruise control, fog lights and a split-folding rear seat, which many people won’t want to do without.
Lounge cars also get a seven-inch infotainment system called Uconnect, including Bluetooth connectivity, DAB radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. However, this system is starting to feel its age, particularly compared with the technology in the latest Fiat 500. New to the line-up in 2019 are Star and Rockstar, which feature larger alloy wheels, a digital instrument cluster, styling upgrades and sat nav. There has tended to be a special-edition trim released every few months but this is likely to slow down now the second-generation model has effectively been superseded.
Reliability and safety both cause some concerns. All 500s come with seven airbags, anti-lock brakes, hill-start assistance and systems to help with emergency stops. But the latest 2017 version of the 500 received a disappointing score of three out of five stars when it was crash-tested by Euro NCAP, so it falls well short of rivals in that department. The 500 finished 45th out of the 75 cars ranked in our 2020 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey of cars currently on sale in the UK.