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With June Neary
Fiat's 500 is the citycar of the moment. June Neary looks at the revised version
I'm pleased to say that I don't remember the original Fiat 500. It was half a century ago that car was launched after all. So I can't tell you whether the latest Fiat 500, now recently updated, is a true retro tribute to the original. Sorry. But of course, like me, you don't care. All that matters is that it's cute, it's nippy and it's the latest thing to be seen in. A MINI? That's so yesterday...
I was a bit disappointed to learn that for all its Italian heritage, this car is in fact built in Poland. Oh well, better news comes in the realisation that it has a reputation as an entertaining steer. At 1.65m wide, 1.49m high and 3.55m long, the 500 doesn't take up a great deal of space. For reference, a MINI is much wider, a little lower and a fair bit longer. Even little runabouts like Hyundai's i10 or Volkswagen's up! won't fit into some parking spaces the 500 will be able to squeeze into. My local Lidl supermarket has a ridiculously tight underground carpark, so I can testify to the benefits of this. I tried the revised mild hybrid version but to me, it looks no different. As before, delicious design details drip from this design. It's like a tiny pearl, especially when the ivory finish interior fitted to my test car is specified. There's a very well-judged blend of retro chic and ruthlessly modern contemporary design inside, with circular head restraints, a glass roof and iconic 500 badging on the Panda-sourced dashboard. Chrome-ringed vents and a fascia that can be specified in the same colour as the body are just some of the interior design features. The exterior treatment is cool and clean too. The neighbours had a good old stare.
Fiat knows how to make great little engines for great little cars. But I did wonder what the petrol mild hybrid version might be like. Fiat claims that it's one of the world's cleanest and greenest four-seater petrol-powered production cars. My expectations weren't high. Something driven by battery packs perhaps? Or perhaps so feebly powered that it would struggle to show a bike courier a clean pair of tailpipes. I was wrong. The latest 1.0-litre engine has decent pulling power and works via a 6-speed manual gearbox integrated with a 12-volt 'BSG' 'Belt-integrated Starter Generator', allowing for a quiet, vibration-free restart of the internal combustion engine in Stop&Start mode. The new system also involves lowering the entire power unit 45mm so the car behaves better on the road thanks to the lower centre of gravity. In preference to a 500, you could save a few thousand and buy the more practical Fiat Panda with the same mild hybrid tech. But then, you only live once and how often are you going to need five doors in a citycar anyway? If it helps you to justify things, Fiat claims that body rigidity is around 10 per cent better than the Panda's, so in theory, the 500 should be slightly more crash-proof.
As before, there's a choice of fixed-top and convertible 500 models. The open-topped 500C variants require a premium of around £2,500 over their standard counterparts. If you're happy with tin-top 500 motoring, then you'll find pricing that's a fraction higher than before, yet which still starts just shy of £12,600 for the baseline Pop version. Is that good value? Well, trendier town tots nearly all cost more. You'll need to find at least £2,000 more on top of Fiat 500 prices to buy an equivalent MINI. Fiat's Panda is one of the cheapest cars to own, so the '500' will prove little different. Expect well over 50mpg (53.3mpg [WLTP]) in regular use and an NEDC-rated CO2 emissions figure of 88g/km (down from 114g/km before). If you decide to go for the open-topped 500C variant with this engine, you'll see no penalty for either economy or emissions. Depreciation won't be anything like at MINI levels but will be much better than you'd expect on a Panda. Which is good news since insurance costs shouldn't be much more expensive.
I much prefer this approach to retro design to the kind of thing BMW have delivered us with the MINI. It seems more real somehow - and infinitely more exciting. The fact that it's more affordable too is just the icing on the cake. Right now, this remains one of the most fashionable things you can be seen in up and down the high street. How long it will remain that way is, of course, quite another question...
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