By Jonathan Crouch
Fiat's cheeky little new-era 500 is fun, fashionable and frugal - and the Italian brand has never stopped trying to develop it. After being first launched in 2008, it was updated with TwinAir 0.9-litre petrol turbo power in 2011, then revised again three years later to create the 2014 to 2015 version we're going to examine here as a used buy. The 2014 model year changes brought buyers the option of a pokier 105bhp variant of the petrol TwinAir engine and there was a smarter TFT instrument display on top models, along with a trendy 'Cult' trim level. If you can stretch to a later Fiat 500 model, then it could well be a car from this era that you end up inspecting.
If ever a car has built its brand, it's this one, Fiat's 500. In fact, it's done so twice. First at its original launch back in 1957. And more recently with this modern era version, first launched in 2008. Ever since, it's been a money-spinner for the Italian brand, who've continually developed it, notably in early 2014 when buyers of the more expensive versions got a smarter TFT digital instrument display and the option of a pokier 105bhp version of the clever two cylinder TwinAir petrol engine. These changes kept buyers interested in the range until more widespread changes could be introduced in the Summer of 2015 and it's these 2014 to 2015 era models that we're going to look at here.
The flagship 0.9-litre TwinAir 105bhp engine is key to this model's appeal in this period. First, it bridged the previously rather large gap between the standard '500' range and the sporty 1.4-litre turbo 'Abarth 500' models. Secondly, it at last gave Fiat a tool to directly compete with what was probably this car's closest competitor at the time, the MINI Hatch in its most affordable three-door 'MINI One' form. In truth, that rival was actually a slightly bigger car but potential buyers of this Fiat typically tended to consider trying to find the extra money for it. To keep them loyal, this improved post-2014 500 model's smarter cabin and slick TFT digital instrument display was key for the Italian brand's sales people.
As before, the 500 model from this period was also available in '500C' guise with an electrically-retracting fabric top. Either way, it offered all the cute, fashionable flair buyers could want - and across most of the range, super-low running costs that, thanks to the clever TwinAir and Multijet technology, easily beat not only those of a MINI but also any conventional little small runabout.
What You Get
Who couldn't love a face like this? In developing this car at the turn of the century, the Italian designers took on a big responsibility in seeking to update (and indeed re-size) arguably the cutest shape ever to clothe four wheels. Still, the sustained clamour for this Fiat, in both fixed-top and convertible 500C guises, suggests they got it spot on. This remains a head-turner that makes people smile, not least its driver when it's time to park up. At 1.65m wide, 1.49m high and 3.55m long, this Fiat can fit into spaces that even a MINI would have to avoid. If you choose the 500C variant rather than the fixed-top model we're focusing on here, you get what amounts to a full-length canvas sunroof which electrically retracts into a concertinaed bundle just above the boot.
Every 500 model invites a high degree of personalisation via a myriad of colour and trim permutation options but whatever you choose is sure to dovetail deliciously with the very well-judged blend of retro chic and clean contemporary design inside. Delicious details are everywhere, your eyes falling first on the Panda-sourced dashboard with iconic 500 badging that can be specified in the same colour as the body. Before taking in touches like the chrome-ringed vents and the circular head restraints. The steering wheel, adjustable for height but not reach, can feel a little large on first acquaintance and there's a lot to take in from the single circular instrument dial in front of you.
That brings us to one of the key improvements made to the updated post-2014 version that we're looking at here, the installation of the segment's first seven-inch TFT digital instrument display. Though with this set-up, the layout out and execution of speedometer, rev counter and trip computer functions will be familiar to anyone who's used to this model, the centre of the display is very different. This contains a neat digital image of the car and can be configured to show various trip computer read-outs, such as distance travelled, instant fuel consumption, range and so on.
The TFT display also allows for a more prominent Gear Shift Indicator, highly visible warning messages and a more detailed media player. Plus there are telephone and navigation read-outs including junction graphics and real-time traffic updates if the original new buyer chose to equip the car in question with the optional portable TomTom 2 Live satellite navigation system. As a final touch, the TFT screen reconfigures when the 'Sport' button is activated on models with the 105bhp TwinAir engine. With that, the 'eco' gauge (which measures how efficiently the driver is performing in real time) transforms into a turbo-boost gauge.
Once you adjust to the many and varied functions of this set-up, it all works well. And you'll be viewing it from what is generally a comfortable driving position - despite the fact that unfortunately, there's no reach-adjustment for the steering wheel: you can only move it up or down. Bear in mind also that if you go for the optional sunroof, that'll rob you of a bit of headroom. These things apart, only the seat height adjuster, positioned just where the handbrake should be, offers any kind of lasting ergonomic annoyance.
The car's certainly been well screwed together in its Polish factory and in-cabin stowage is also well up to par for a citycar. You'll find a usefully deep shelf ahead of the passenger, a small pop-out cubby on the driver's side of the centre console and the usual door bins and cupholders. Even the passenger seat cushion tips forward to reveal an oddments compartment. The only real downside is that the glovebox is simply an open shelf rather than a proper covered compartment.
In the back, larger adults will find their heads brushing the roof and will need to make full use of the elbow cut-outs indented into the side panels. Most though, will find the space provided just about sufficient for two people on short to medium journeys.
Out back, the boot remains one of the smaller offerings in the segment, though the 185-litre total is still around 15-litres more than you get in rival Toyota Aygo and Vauxhall ADAM models and almost on a par with other city runabouts like Citroen's C1 and Peugeot's 108. What's probably crucial is that the space you get is only 26-litres less than you'd get in a three-door MINI Hatch. It could be bigger though - and the reason we know that is that a Ford Ka (which rides on exactly the same underpinnings as this car) offers you 224-litres. If you need more space, then you can push forward the rear bench, which split-folds in all but the entry-trim level. This frees up 550-litres.
What to Look For
The 500 has earned a decent reliability record, helped in no small part by its reliable engines. The biggest reported issue to date has been premature ball joint wear and pressure plate issues - but these had mostly been sorted by the time of the 2014 model year models we're looking at here. Check for upholstery damage caused by child seats in the back, typical supermarket dints and scrapes, slipping clutches on the manual cars and ensure all the electrical functions - which can get surprisingly sophisticated on upspec models - work as advertised as these can be expensive to fix. The 500 isn't bad on consumables like brake pads and most people should be able to park it without nerfing the extremities.
[based on 500 1.2-litre petrol - 2014] Using the base 1.2-litre petrol model as an example, expect to pay around £50 for an exhaust silencer, around £140 for a carburettor, around £30 for a brake master cylinder and around £30 for either front or rear shock absorbers.
On the Road
Turn the key in a TwinAir-powered 500 and there's an engine note to suit the cheeky retro looks, a putter-putter sound that seems to be exactly the kind of thing you'd have heard from the 1957 original nipping through the back streets of Naples. There's even a pleasing note of historical symmetry in that the original Fiat 500 from the Fifties also had two cylinder power - though back then, the wheezy old unit in question generated just 17.5bhp. With an output that's five times greater, this car is of course a much pleasanter prospect and for us, this is the engine that today's version of this model should always have had.
Not that there isn't also still a place for the more conventional 69bhp four cylinder 1.2-litre petrol unit that props up the range. Or indeed for the 135bhp 1.4 T-Jet turbo petrol powerplant that serves in the hot hatch Abarth 500 model. You can also see why some 500 buyers might continue to prefer the 95bhp 1.3-litre diesel variant, which on paper matches the TwinAir's frugality but in day-to-day reality, probably betters it.
But for all that, we can't get beyond the cleverness of the TwinAir petrol version. A two cylinder engine just 0.9-litres in size, to our thinking, is the kind of thing likely to generate little more power than the average sit-on lawnmower - which was indeed pretty much what you got in the 1950s version of this car. Yet here, there are at least eighty five braked horses on tap, sufficient to see sixty two mph blow by in eleven seconds on the way to an academic maximum of 107mph. That's the same kind of performance you'd get from the diesel version - and a big improvement on the speed you get from the base petrol 1.2 which needs around 13s to reach 62mph and can't quite reach 100mph flat out.
We mentioned that the TwinAir variant can offer you 'at least' eighty five braked horses because with this improved post-2014 version, Fiat also allowed buyers to specify a pokier 105bhp version of this powerplant. This put this car right on a par with its arch-rival, the 102bhp MINI One - and the performance is comparable with that car too. In comparison to the TwinAir 85bhp unit, rest to sixty two improves to 10.0s dead, en route to 117mph. That's if you press the dash-mounted 'Sport' button which transforms the TFT dash display screen that plusher models get into a turbo-boost gauge, along with graphics that turn from white to red.
It's easy to get carried away with the sporty feel that all of this provides and forget that in reality, the 145Nm torque figure this 105bhp TwinAir engine generates is no greater than the pulling power you'd get from the 85bhp version of this unit. So you'll need to be quick with slick-shifting, high-mounted gearlever to keep in the meat of the powerband. On the subject of torque, we should point out that you don't automatically get the full quoted amount unless you disengage the 'eco' mode button on the dash. This restricts the engine's output to just 120Nm in the interests of efficiency - which can be a bit disconcerting if you forget it's on, then suddenly need to dive for a gap in the traffic.
It's true that if you work this two cylinder engine hard, it can get a bit vocal but even then, the gruff, slightly throbby note is characterful rather than unpleasant and around town, refinement is more than acceptable. If you are urban-bound and looking at the two lower-powered petrol '500' model derivatives, you might want to consider finding an example of this car that from new was fitted with the optional (but rather jerky) Dualogic gearbox, a kind of manual transmission without a clutch. Unless you like all that left-foot pumping of course. City dwellers will also appreciate the tight 9.3m turning circle.
As ever, most of the underpinnings are based on the running gear of the previous generation version of Fiat's other, more conventional citycar offering, the five-door Panda - which is no bad thing as that car remains a pretty fun steer. The 500 is a bit stiffer though, one reason why early versions of this car had a bit of a choppy ride, an issue solved by the time of this post-2014 model by tweaks to the rear axle. You can still throw the thing about on the country lanes, but in this guise it soaks up small urban bumps much better - so everyone's happy. The more feelsome electric power steering set-up is welcome too and as before, there's a 'City' mode option to increase the assistance it gives at parking speeds. Urban-friendly through and through you see.
To be honest, Fiat didn't need to do a whole lot with the 2014 model year changes to retain this 500 model's popularity. Like earlier examples of this car, this later version looks great, and was fun to drive. As for this updated version, well the interior improvements were welcome but of more importance was the addition to the range of the 105bhp TwinAir petrol engine. This bridged the gap between this car and the slightly more powerful small city runabouts that previously had often seen themselves as a class above this Fiat. Principally BMW's MINI.
In fact, both versions of the TwinAir two cylinder petrol unit are a key part of this Fiat's appeal. The sound and eager response suit the car and though the quoted running cost returns are difficult to achieve in real-world motoring, this powerplant certainly makes the 500 a very cheap thing to run. Yes, this model remains pretty small inside, but then smallness is all part of the appeal. You'll appreciate that when zipping around town in one.
In summary then, this car remains as likeable as ever. Choosing a 'fashionable' little used runabout can often be a risk. Here though, is one you can enjoy without a worry.