Could this little car overtake the Mini? The Fiat 500 has all the retro chic of BMW's superstar, at a more affordable price. David Wilkins is impressed
Saturday 08 March 2008
Model: Fiat 500 1.4 Lounge
Engine: 1.4-litre petrol
Power: 100bhp @ 6,000rpm
Torque: 97lb/ft @ 4,250rpm
Performance: 113 mph, 0-62mph in 10.5 seconds, 44.8 mpg;
Worth considering: BMW Mini, Smart Fortwo, Volkswagen New Beetle
It was Volkswagen that got the retro ball rolling when it reinvented the Beetle back in 1998. That caused a stir for a while, although the excitement had already subsided when the right-hand drive version became available a few years later.
But by then, other manufacturers had already caught the bug, if you'll excuse the pun – most notably BMW, which kept the rights to the second-generation Mini when it abandoned Rover.
The new Mini was a hit from the day of its launch in 2001, and, unlike Volkswagen, BMW was able to maintain interest in its old-new baby long after the initial splash. Great build quality and a terrific driving experience are some of the qualities that have kept the Mini at the top for years.
This week, our reader-testers give their verdict on the new Fiat 500, inspired by the 1957 model of the same name, and the first car to have a half-decent chance of knocking the Mini off its perch.
So how do the two cars compare? The 500's strongest suit is its styling. I'm a big fan of the way the Mini's design playfully echoes features found on the original car, but Fiat has applied the retro trowel with a wonderful lightness of touch that makes BMW's British car look just a bit clumsy and contrived. The 500 is a little roomier and a touch more practical than the Mini, too.
On the other hand, the agile Mini probably remains the driver's choice until the promised Abarth versions of the 500, due to be unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show, turn up to compete with the sporty Cooper-badged Minis.
The Mini offers slow depreciation and cheap service packages; the 500 hits back with keen pricing that starts at just £7,900; in fact, even the most expensive version of the Italian car costs less than the cheapest Mini.
The Fiat will do well to match its rival's staying power, but for this summer at least, I think the 500, rather than the now ubiquitous Mini, will be the small car in which to be seen.
Tom Sims, 55
Usual car: SAAB 95 Vector Estate
Fiat has taken the old and familiar cheeky styling and successfully updated it, giving motorists a viable alternative to other "city" cars. Inside, the finish is modern yet evocative of the original. The car feels solid and well put together, with chunky switches and knobs, excellent headroom and superb visibility. The doors are wide and the upholstery is good quality. The drive is smooth and direct, and the seats comfortable – at least around town and probably for shorter runs. On the downside, the boot space is minimal, although the split rear seats do go some way to redressing that drawback. The other thing you get with the 500 is noticed – just count the smiling pedestrians.
Richard Grey, 43
Usual cars: 2006 Ford Fusion 1.6 TDi, 1975 Triumph Stag
I thought the Fiat absolutely had the look and fun factor, inside and out. It's quite gorgeous, actually. I was pleasantly surprised at how roomy it is in the front – I'm 6ft 1in tall and weigh around 17 stone, and was completely comfortable. Space in the rear was quite another matter, although I was impressed that the tailgate opens as a conventional hatchback, so the car is quite versatile. Driving-wise, I'm afraid it didn't have the lovely character or sound that one would expect of a small Italian car. I found having a sixth gear rather an unnecessary chore, and would prefer the more usual five. In addition, locating fifth and sixth gear took some getting used to. But all in all, it's a lovely, stylish little package.
Malcolm Pells, 50
Customs officer, Felixstowe
Usual cars: Porsche Boxster, VW Touran Tdi
I was pleasantly surprised by my outing in the new "retro" Fiat 500. Luckily, it had a very nifty 1400cc petrol engine, which not surprisingly makes what is basically a little car fly. The car felt properly put together and not like any Fiat I had ever driven. The downside of its great handling was that the ride was pretty firm, especially on the patchwork quilt that is Britain's streets and roads. However, you wouldn't really buy this for its performance, but because of its unique, cool retro looks. They have apparently been carefully designed, down to the colour co-ordinated dashboard, which really sets off the slick interior. I think Fiat is on to a winner.
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