Well, it’s finally here. The new Fiat 500 officially went on sale at 8pm on Monday 21 January – precisely 500 hours into the new year. And whether you like it or not, it seems destined to be the car of 2008, picking up awards left, right, and centre – including CAR’s very own Car of the Year accolade. But how do you fancy a diesel version?
A diesel Fiat 500? Somehow that just doesn’t sound right…
Oh, get over it. Suggesting a small Italian car only makes sense with a petrol engine is just so passé. Fiat builds one of the best compact diesel engines in the business – the tiny but mighty 1.3 MultiJet. You’ll not only find it under the bonnet here – and in the 500’s Panda cousin – but Fiat flogs it to a number of other manufacturers as well. It’s built over two million of these engines so far, so resign yourself: it makes sense the 500 is joining in.
All right, all right. So what are the vital statistics?
Surprise, surprise, between it and the two petrol 500s available, the diesel is the greenest. Combined fuel economy is 67.3mpg, and the latest homologation puts CO2 emissions at just 110g/km. Jolly good stuff – won’t trouble a Polo BlueMotion or a Mini Cooper D, but one of those is deathly dull, and the other terribly noisy.
Since we seriously doubt anyone will be buying a 500 because their environmental conscious told them to, it’s probably a good thing for the diesel that it also produces more torque than the other cinquecentos. Okay, 107lb ft doesn’t sound much, but arriving at just 1500rpm it’s enough to give the 980kg diesel a bit of pep around town. Power output is 75bhp, 0-62mph takes 12.5 seconds – it feels faster – and top speed is 103mph.
But does it drive as well as the petrols?
We have to admit there is a certain amount of satisfaction in beating the petrol engined Fiat 500s to death with their own redline – especially the 1.4, with its snickety six-speed gearbox constantly inviting you to shift down a cog or two and floor it. The diesel isn’t quite so incorrigible, but the 500’s deft chassis retains almost all of its charm on winding B-roads – even with the engine’s added weight. And the high-set five-speed gearbox is just as good.
It's not quick – overtaking is tricky; even on the motorway you'll need a bit of a run up – but it steers well. And with a wheel very much at each corner the 500 feels nicely planted, a more convincing handling package than anything else in the Fiat line up, even the Panda 100HP. It's not as sharp as a Mini, nor as genuinely communicative, but the diesel remains a really fun little car. If you were expecting the 500 to be all looks and no substance, think again.
Blimey – there's got to be some kind of downside...
Obviously, its status as the next big thing is going to annoy some people, and the styling probably isn't for everyone. (The 500 is absolutely 'not retro pastiche', according to Fiat, but frankly that's fooling no-one.) More seriously, get this version up to motorway speeds and there is a hell of a lot of road noise – our ears were literally ringing by the end of the test route. On the plus side, you can barely hear the engine as a result. Not something you can say about the much pricier Mini diesel, or even the 1.4-litre petrol 500.
Something else you can't say about the 500 1.4 is that it has a relaxing ride. With a different set of springs to the rest of the line-up, it feels far edgier than the diesel over every road surface. This also helps make it feel more alive, of course. But given the 1.4 and the diesel are priced exactly the same – a snip starting at £9300 – it's details like this as much as the fuel economy that could decide which engine gets your chequebook all aflutter.
More generally, thick B-pillars restrict over-the-shoulder visibility, and compromise sight-lines at off-set junctions. And there are some nasty plastics lurking in the cabin. But since everything else inside is so gorgeous – from the round headrests to the dial-in-dial rev-counter and speedo – you probably won't care.
The Fiat 500: do believe the hype. It drives well, looks brilliant inside and out, and all the personalisation options (549,936 possible combinations, we're told – we wish them luck at the factory) mean you can make it very much your own. Of course, Fiat's notorious dealer network could still screw things up, but when the car is this good it really would have to be an absolute disaster.
Despite the price difference, the 500's only obvious rival is the Mini – and as far as the diesels go, save yourself four and a half grand. The 500 might not handle quite so well, but it's a more refined, better all-round character. And did we mention – it's the car of 2008...