Never has so little bought so much

Fiat's new Cinquecento shows just how far the supermini has come in 35 years, says John Simister R O A D T E S T

A true bargain from a motor manufacturer is a rare thing. If one exists, it suggests the manufacturer has got its maths wrong. So it is pleasing to report that the parameters for Fiat's Cinquecento Sporting add up perfectly.

You could even describe it as a Mini Cooper reinterpreted for modern times. The Sporting is much smaller than most modern superminis (even the Citron AX, Peugeot 106 and Rover 100). At just £6,195 it is cheap (Rover's geriatric, laurel-recumbent Mini Cooper costs £7,495). And it is a hoot to drive.

Where else will you find squat Pirelli P700-Z tyres on a car costing less than £7,000? Such footwear is more usually found on Porsches and fast BMWs. And a leather-covered steering wheel and gear knob? Four-spoke alloy wheels? Central locking? Electric windows?

This is all very well, you might think, but it must still be a Polish- built, bottom-of-the-market car with an outdated engine and possibly the worst gearchange in production. It does not even have the right name, for at 899cc the engine of today's Cinquecento is considerably bigger then the 500cc of its ancestors. But wait. The Sporting's extra £536 on top of the price of the next Cinquecento down the hierarchy buys some fairly fundamental improvements beyond the obvious visual enhancements.

There is a bigger, more modern engine from the Fiat Punto, delivering 54bhp (a 13bhp gain) from its 1108cc. Appropriately, that power output is almost exactly the same as the original 1961 Mini Cooper. From the same Punto source comes a better gearbox with a more precise shift. Then, the better to match the fat wheels and tyres, the suspension sits lower and the dampers damp more firmly.

The result is a car far removed from an ordinary Cinquecento. Seldom does so little money buy such a huge transformation. The red seatbelts, ample instrumentation and stripey, sportily-bolstered seats hint that this is more than a mere shopping trolley.

Like a Mini, the Sporting weighs little and matches its modest power to a sturdy pull from low speeds. This makes the power easy to exploit, the better to squirt through traffic or devour a deserted back road. But the real charm is its combination of tiny size and taut, sharp handling. It makes the little Fiat fantastically agile.

In this, it is of course much like a Mini except that even the Sporting's steering, precise as it is, cannot quite rival the economy of movement of a Mini's helm. Alertness of steering is one of the few ways in which tiny cars have regressed. But there are three crucial things that do show what 35 years of further development in the history of the motor car have achieved. The Sporting is considerably quieter at speed than the Mini, although its engine still has plenty of the eager zing expected of an Italian-badged car. Its driving position is far more comfortable than a Mini's, because you can stretch your legs out further. And, most important of all, it soaks up bad bumps with near miraculous suppleness for a car so small and riding on such unyielding-looking tyres.

This sportified car is actually more comfortable than more mundane Cinquecenti, which is quite an achievement. It is also much less effort to drive than an ordinary Cinquecento, thanks to the more eager motor and the vastly better gearchange, and it can even cope with motorways. Defects, however, include minimal space for rear passengers, not much of a boot and inadequate wipers, both front and rear.

No such niggles over appearances: the Sporting looks great, with its chunky wheels, colour-matched bumpers, asymmetric air scoop and deep front spoiler. Polish labour costs ensure that motoring fun comes no cheaper, but the Cinquecento Sporting's appeal runs deeper than that. Here is a fun car that stimulates the senses at sensible speeds, occupies minimal road space and sips petrol instead of gulping it in gallons.

SPECIFICATIONS

Fiat Cinquecento Sporting, £6,195

Engine, 1108cc, four cylinders, 54bhp at 5500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 94mph, 0-60mph in 13.9 seconds, Fuel consumption 40-45mpg.

COMPARISONS

Citron AX 1.1 Forte, £7,465

If it was not for the Fiat, this would be the best-value small, sporty hatchback of all. The pace is similar and the space is superior, which might justify the extra cost. The AX is an old design now, but its lightness and efficiency still have a strong appeal.

Mini Cooper, £7,496

This is the car that started it all, still selling well after all these years (notwithstanding a gap between 1971 and 1990), but now recast as retro-look icon instead of rule-rewriting trendsetter. Today's Mini Cooper is more an expensive toy than practical entertainment, but the charm remains undimmed.

Peugeot 106 Rallye, £9,585

This stripped-out, high-revving, motor sport-directed 106 costs half as much again as the Fiat, but its 1.3-litre engine gives much more power, so consequently the Peugeot is considerably quicker. The idea is that you can use the Rallye as a basin for a proper rally car, which explains its hyperactive handling.

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