Full disclosure: I love Fiats. In fact, in some ways you could say I’m a Fiat baby, since I grew up in Turin, the town that until recently the car manufacturer dominated. My father used to work for them, you see.
The old Fiat 500, along with its predecessor, the ‘topolino’ (meaning little mouse), made between 1937 and 1955, and its rear-engine cousin the 600, were features of my childhood. They were the ultimate utilitarian vehicles, buzzing around in various states of disrepair, parked at odd angles on pavements, rusting in cobbled courtyards.
They were pretty hopeless, of course. Boiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter and an absolute disaster in the rain. But none of this seemed to bother the Italians, who took them everywhere: I once saw one burst into flames having been driven halfway up a mountain.
So when Fiat launched its new 500, I was first in line for one. I bought a sky-blue ex-demo 2008 sport model with a 1,368cc engine for just over £9,000. It is a fantastic little car. It goes like the clappers when necessary, it’s easy to park and surprisingly capacious. I am incredibly fond of it — especially since, in true Fiat style, it has its quirks.
First, it really is rubbish in the rain. The second there’s any moisture in the air, it immediately begins to steam up. The de-mister is wholly unequipped to tackle the problem, meaning that the driver is forced to open the windows to have any chance of seeing the way ahead. And because of the tight cabin design, this results in everyone inside immediately becoming drenched.
Second, the turning circle is impossible. I’ve driven HGVs with better manoeuverability. A simple U-turn becomes a five-point drama. Third, it has the suspension of a tin can. This is not a car to buy if you suffer from piles. And fourth, the power steering is, to say the least, erratic.
So when Fiat — or should I say Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, that being the name of the new Italo-American conglomerate formed 18 months ago that now owns the brand — announced the launch of the ‘new’ new 500 towards the end of last year I was curious to see where they would go next.
At first glance, it all looks rather fancy. They’ve fiddled around with the shape of the headlights and added a ‘smile’ to the front bumper (although quite why you would bother I don’t know: the 500 already looks like a child’s drawing of a car, what with its fat bottom and bubble shape. Why gild the lily?).
There are the usual alloy-wheel options (pointless if you live anywhere with curbs, since you will inevitably scratch them), and there is a new colour range, plus a variety of sticker options, none of which are terribly attractive (but then, I’m probably not sticker material).
The interior, however, is very different. There are now seven airbags and a fancy onboard computer that will delight tech-heads. And the aircon finally works. The dashboard is, as with all modern cars, a case of TMI — too much information. I think I know when it’s time to change gear, thank you very much. I’m not a complete moron. And believe it or not I am also capable of backing into a space without the aid of frantic beeping noises.
As for the engine — well, apart from efficiency and eco-credentials, there wasn’t an awful lot of difference. The model I drove was the Lounge 0.9 TwinAir Turbo (from £13,505.94). Fun enough as these things go, but not that much faster than my own 1.3, provided you don’t mind a few rivets popping here and there. Suspension-wise, though, it’s much better, and the steering and general handling are much improved too.
So would I swap it for my trusty old 1.3 Sport? Probably not — unless they offered me a bright yellow one at a massive discount and threw in a soft-top for good measure.
Because when all is said and done, this isn’t really a Fiat 500. It’s just a rather overpriced small car dressed up as a lifestyle choice. It is to the original what a Wall’s Cornetto is to real Italian gelato: much too sugary and wholly lacking in authenticity. If it’s a 500 you’re after, by all means go for it. But save yourself a packet and get a pre-2015 one.