THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: Timeless styling, compact footprint, standard turbo power.
- What’s Bad: Not very practical, spongy brakes, flimsy feeling interior.
Nearly 20 centimeters shorter than a 3-door Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500—Cinquecento, in Italian—is one of the littlest new cars you can buy in Canada. Chevy’s Spark and the soon-to-be-discontinued Smart Car are the only ones that cast a smaller shadow.
But the Cinquecento was hardly new when it debuted here. It spearheaded Fiat’s return to North America after being absent for nearly three decades.
A retro revival of Italy’s micro 500 last produced in 1975, the new, new (or nuova, nuova) 500 was introduced to the world in 2007. Exactly 50 years after the original was launched.
With styling heavily influenced by the circle and the silhouette of a toddler’s shoe, the tiny Fiat is button-cute and forever trendy. A marriage of clever design and high-fashion. Italy on four wheels.
Like the old one, it was a huge success for Fiat selling well over a million copies by the time it landed on Canadian soil.
Inside, tech updates in 2015 and ’16 brought a 7-inch digital instrument cluster, improved centre console and a 5-inch centre display screen with Bluetooth connectivity and UConnect bringing the 500 more in line with rivals like the Mini and Beetle.
It does, however, still feel like yesterday’s dinner when seated inside. The navigation system is an archaic-looking Tom Tom unit built into a dash that’s covered in lots of hard, flimsy feeling plastic.
On the upside, the cabin remains uniquely styled and chic with chrome-ringed switchgear, and smart touches like the integrated door lock and handle. But one has to wonder how well everything will hold up over time. It’s an “A” for effort but unfortunately not for the execution.
Front-seat occupants will find plenty of headroom even if over 6-feet tall, though you’d better like each other because you’ll be rubbing shoulders. The rear bench is best reserved for young’ uns, but smaller adults might survive short drives.
Lift the rear hatch and there’s space for groceries or a quick weekend getaway but at just 269 litres of volume don’t expect to help friends move. The rear seats do fold, however, and it makes for more usable space.
Fortunately, the award-winning design has aged well, even after staying relatively the same for the last 12 years. People still notice it and can’t help but smile.
It’s a happy car and feels happy to drive, especially since turbo power is now standard. The anemic naturally aspirated 4-cylinder has been dropped from the lineup and replaced by a 1.4-L turbo 4 that makes 135 hp and a not-insignificant 150 lb-ft of torque at 2400 rpm.
That’s a full 50 percent more torques than the old base engine could muster. This extra puff in a car that weighs just 1136 kg was enough to put a big grin on my face.
The standard 5-speed manual gearbox sprouts from a pedestal on the centre console mere inches away from your right hand.
A run through the gears is a joyous affair with a light, forgiving clutch made more exciting with the standard sport exhaust that sounds like it’s filled with a thousand pissed-off bees.
The little MultiAir 1.4 loves to rip up to its 6500 rpm redline, happiest when driven with purpose. Getting comfortable in the surprisingly supportive front buckets is easy and the driving position is bang-on.
Light, talkative steering feels intimately connected to the front wheels and the diminutive wheelbase makes for an eminently tossable and darty runt of car that exhibits a modicum of body roll but never feels tippy like the taller roofline would suggest. Even the ride is agreeable on all but the roughest surfaces, a surprise, given that short wheelbase. Brake feel is a bit of a letdown, with a long travel and slightly spongy pedal that’s at a bit of an odds with rest of the setup.
Driving on congested downtown Toronto streets, the Cinquecento’s tidy and narrow footprint makes it feels like you’re riding a Vespa. You can squeeze through gaps in traffic and between parked cars on the street, much to the displeasure of the rest of the mammoth SUVs that try to follow suit but have no chance of making it. If lane splitting was legal for cars, the Fiat 500 would be a great choice.
The driving experience on the open highway was also good. And as small as this Fiat is, there’s still a premium feeling air about it. Maybe not on par with something like a Mini, but the 500 doesn’t take itself as seriously as its British-German adversary.
Maybe I was having too much fun, but I couldn’t get close to the claimed combined efficiency rating of 7.9 litres per 100 km. The best I could do was 9, which for a small car with a small engine seems a bit off the mark. An extra gear would certainly help, however, I picked up the tester with under 800 km showing on the odometer and that does play a factor.
My tester was the entry-level 500 Pop with the Urbana Edition package, a $495 option that includes those great sport seats, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a few other appearance items. It was also equipped with the $595 navigation/satellite radio bundle that I would personally skip.
As the cheapest car in the FCA lineup, starting at $22,495, the base Fiat 500 actually offers a good amount of content for the price but is quickly overshadowed when compared with other compacts like the Civic, or the Mazda3 that are much larger and better equipped for less. What neither of those cars have, though, is the Fiat’s sense of style and uniqueness in a sea of bland, milquetoast products.
The 500 gets noticed and it makes people smile. You choose it with your heart, not your head, and it doesn’t get more Italian than that. Viva Italia!