24 September 2016

Review: Fiat 500

I hadn't driven a Fiat 500, the small one, for some time until a couple of weeks ago, writes Brian Byrne. And I'd forgotten just what a sweet car it is.

It's much more than the cute retro design cues that hark back to the original launched in 1957 and produced for close to two decades in numbers that mean you can still see them happily puttering around all over Italy. Nope, the current one they launched back in 2007 is as modern as they come, and nine years on with very little tweaking, it is arguably the best car Fiat has ever built.

A big claim. But with 1.5m sold by last year, a big hit with buyers of small cars too. That the proportionate level of success hasn't been achieved by the model in Ireland is partly because the city car segment is relatively tiny here. And partly because ... well, I don't really know.

I'm back in the car because it got face-lifted for 2016, with a redesigned grille and headlights, LED lights for front daylight running and rear reds, and some minor fiddles to the inside including a new steering wheel.

Much, if not most of what that 1.5m buyers have come to love has been retained. And why not? It was another brand carmaker, Henry Ford, to whom is ascribed the speak 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Fiat gets sometimes a scornful press. There's even a slagging based on a rewording of the acronym of its name. Which I won't repeat, because I have owned three or four Fiats in my time and it simply wasn't deserved as compared to any contemporary competitors.

Today's Fiat 500 stands out in the city car sweepstakes as looking like itself, when most others are trying to establish a 'self'. The style is more than cute, it also makes a great deal of aerodynamic sense, even if all other than the Abarth sporty version aren't expected to be trashed along at speeds where that will make any difference.

The 500 doesn't pretend to be more than a 4-seater. And nobody would buy it probably even to regularly carry that number. But there's actually reasonable room in that back seat if you're supple enough to climb in (and you mig ht fit behind my 6'2"). What's really mentionable is aft of that, boot space where a pair of Ryanair carryons will live quite happily without needing to drop the back seats.

The build quality is ... well, excellent. Sometimes a lipstick colour choice might make the car look soft, but in the metal the 500 is as tough as anything else. It's the shortest car to have a Euro NCAP crash test rating of five stars. Inside, the current car offers some chirpy mixes of colours in the plastic trims, and instrumentation which is cheerful and practical in what it's supposed to do, provide information quickly enough to avoid distraction.

The engine options include a pair of Twin Air 900cc outputs and the 1.2 petrol which ran the latest review car. The TA is an award winner, and very efficient, but I actually prefer the 1.2 because it encourages smoother, easier driving. There’s a diesel, but I wouldn’t bother.

Available trims are Pop, Pop Star and Lounge (the review car was the last). There was a glass roof which maybe I wouldn't bother with, but probably comes with the package.

But it was the driving which reminded me why I could always have a dalliance with the current Fiat 500. Which made my time with it last week as enjoyable as I had misplaced the memory of what it could be.

Nippy? Well, it felt like it, maybe it isn't really so fast. But that's not the point, of any car. It's how you feel when piloting it. And it could feel fast.

Comfortable? Actually ... absolutely. I've been in bigger cars where I started to feel that I was halfway through a flight on a budget-priced airline that doesn't put passenger space or feelings at the top of their customer service.

And the imponderable? Hmm, yep, just liked it. Just felt happy in it. Figured that if I had to — and maybe that day will come that I stop doing what I always have so much fun with — it will definitely be considered as a personal car for myself.

Because, since I have owned Fiats that served me well, I see no reason to go with the conventional Irish non-wisdom that the brand isn't worth the cost of the candle. For me, the 500 continues to blaze bright.

Starting price €13,600, review car at €16,100.