So then, has the Fiat 500 been worth the wait?
Absolutely. Our first experience with the Fiat 500 has left us desperately wanting a few more miles behind the wheel. Fiat has always been at its best when channelling its creativity and engineering skills into the smallest of cars – think 1937 Topolino, the 600 of 1955, the 500 of 1957 and the Mk1 Panda – and the 500 proves that Turin has lost none of its small car magic. It’s quite brilliant, a car influenced by the nostalgic charm of the past but still perfectly judged for the 21st century’s high-profile premium supermini sector.
The Fiat 500 still looks just like the Trepiuno concept – thank goodness!
Yes, absolutely brilliant, isn’t it? Fiat knew just who to get in to ensure that the 500 stayed true to the star of the 2004 Geneva Motor Show. It called on former head of Ferrari design Frank Stephenson to hone the 500’s design for production. There’s no one better out there for the job – Stephenson designed the Mini for BMW, after all. If anyone knew how to replicate that car’s extraordinary success, it was the man who designed it. 'The Mini works because it looks great and is fun to drive but it also has real substance,' says Stephenson. 'The 500 will be the same,' he promises. 'A car you fall in love with straight away.'
But I’ve heard that it’s just a Panda underneath. True?
True, but what’s with the ‘just’? The Panda is a superb little car, probably the finest small car in the world right now, the best at mingling affordability, quality, spaciousness and owner appeal. Its donor architecture that underpins the 500 – and the next generation Ford Ka - is perfect for the job because as well as allowing Fiat to slash development time and costs, at 3540mm (159mm shorter than the Mini) it's perfectly proportioned to make the Mini look a bit lardy. Front overhang is reduced compared with the Panda and rear overhang is lengthened, the better to mimic the old rear-engined 500’s classic lines. Wheelbase is the same at 2299mm, while the front and rear tracks are slightly wider to give it a squatter foursquare stance. At 0.32Cd, the 500 is also exceptionally slippery for one so small. It’s also light - 865kg for the basic 1.2 model, complete with seven airbags, crumple zones and all manner of safety paraphernalia expected to achieve a top five-star crash rating. An entry-level Mini One weighs a hefty 1135kg.
What’s under the Fiat 500's tiny bonnet?
Because the 500 borrows the Panda’s architecture, it also shares its power and drivetrain line-up. That means a 75bhp 1.3-litre Multijet turbodiesel hooked up to a five-speed box for 67mpg economy, and a punchier 100bhp 1.4-litre petrol coupled to a six-cog transmission that’ll return 55mpg. Two-pedal fans will have to wait until the second half of next year later for the automatic, as will those wanting more power – the Cooper S-rivalling Abarth with its 135bhp 1.4-litre turbo-blown unit also arrives next year. Fiat also plans to launch an ultra-economical 900cc turbocharged twin-cylinder model that will return 65mpg on the combined cycle, and from October next year economy boosting start-stop technology will be offered. Very 21st century.
Please don’t tell me it all goes to pot when you open the door…
It doesn't – it gets even better. This is the most magically alluring interior of any small car on sale today, Mini included. Take in the body-colour painted dash, the dinner-plate sized speedo, the chunky white columns stalks – all wonderfully retro but balanced with the modernity of an MP3-compatible radio, adjustable power steering (light for motorway, lighter for urban work) and a multifunction steering wheel. The cabin feels solid and chunky, qualities not normally associated with small Fiats. The driving position is spot-on, the cabin feels roomy, airy and light. Spacious too. Rear headroom has been compromised by the gently rounded roof, but unlike the Mini and most other minis, four adults can travel in a 500 and boot space is sufficient for a big suitcase or plenty of smaller bags. The doors even shut with a reassuringly un-Fiat thunk. Touch every surface, flick every switch and twist every dial, and there’s no doubt that the 500’s cabin is more distinctive in style than a Mini’s and almost as well finished. Praise comes no higher.
So – here’s the big question: is the Fiat 500 as good to drive as it is to look at and sit in?
Yes, it’s good but it’s not a Mini. The little Fiat lacks the outright keenness of a Mini and the steering doesn’t have the Mini’s kart-like hyperactivity. This, Fiat says, is quite intentional because the new 500 has no sporting pretence (yet). So we get brisk performance from the 1.4-litre model we drove, brisk enough to make you smile on the go. There is an intuitiveness about the steering and brakes that makes whizzing through city traffic a grin-inducing event. Small cars that are as zesty and agile as the 500 are always such a pleasure because when you drive them you become part of the car rather than merely a passenger in it. Yes, it lacks the Mini’s terrier-like willingness, it rolls a bit more and the steering is less sharp, but it is still extraordinarily agile, feels solid and strong. The handling is beautifully neutral and controlled, even when pushing harder than necessary. And like the superb Panda it rides well, with a relaxed and easy-going gait perfectly matched to the car’s performance.
I’m not sure about this ultra-fashionable swing towards white. Any other more conservative colours?
Believe me, like the Mini, you’ll be able to customise the 500 to the nth degree with a raft of paint jobs and interior options. Naturally the accessories list is long, the better to allow you to personalise your car. The menu includes cabin perfume dispensers, chrome nudge bars (like the old 500), various roof decorations and a chrome tail rack for surf and snowboards. The colour palette - there are ‘50s pastel hues as well as modern metallic ones – is vast and so are trim options.
The Fiat 500 has real substance - a car that is fun and affordable if not cheap, an urban and ultra-Italian car that will also appeal internationally. Unlike the old 500, this one has no ambitions to be a national best seller, first transport for rural peasants, a step up from a Vespa. Rather, it’s more likely to play a part in mobilising Chelsea, the 16th arrondissement of Paris and the more fashion-conscious districts of Rome and Milan. Comparisons with the Mini are inevitable. That trend-setting little bundle of energy is the machine Fiat studied hardest. And to good effect. When UK sales begin in January, the base 500 will cost about £9000 before you start to tick the options boxes. That’s almost £3000 less than the cheapest Mini One. The Fiat is the closest rival the Mini has had to face – and given its pricing, it looks like it’s going to be some fight.