Fiat 500, dolce vita personified

Test driving the Fiat 500Every now and again a car is launched that simply puts a smile on your face. Stepping around it, you can’t seem to get enough of its round, bulbous form, and once seated behind the steering wheel you just want to start the engine and let the fun begin…

At Manifesto we like good design, and this fun little car-about-town proves the point that it doesn’t always revolve around the biggest or most expensive creations. Though measuring just 3,55 metres long by 1,63 wide and 1,49 high, the cinquecento is a well-proportioned bundle of good-natured fun.

Naturally, the comparison with the now iconic Mini begs to be made – not least because, like the Mini, this is a masterstroke of retro design that celebrates not just a much-loved car of the 50s/60s, but relives the style, simplicity and fun energy of that era too. But the two cars share something else; they are both the brainchild of Frank Stephenson, the American with the Málaga-born mother who has such a knack for reviving much-loved icons of motoring and turning them into modern classics.

Fiat 500The success of the Mini is well documented now, and it looks like Stephenson has recreated that success for Fiat. The Italian carmaker famed for its small cars must be pleased with the initial response to the launch, which produced a run on order books and the prestigious EuroCarBody 2007 Award. The latter is confirmation that this is not just an attractive but also an innovative design, for in spite of its size the Fiat 500 ranks among the safest cars on the road today.

Fun and flexibility
Like the Mini, the quirky Fiat 500 is the kind of car that shines a little light wherever it pulls up, putting a smile on people’s faces and drawing lots of attention. This was no different during the test drive, when the long expected bambino seemed to go down well and just looked the part dashing through palm-lined avenues. Like the Mini, it can be said to be a woman’s car, and there are certainly lots of features and packages to commend it as such, but such is its appeal that, as happened with the Mini, men won’t be able to keep their fingers off this one either.

The cycle seems to have come full-circle as I survey first the rounded exterior shape and then admire the well-finished interior, for the 500 feels at once retro and modern. Its materials are good to the touch, from the sporty steering wheel and bulbous dials to the high-perched gear lever and the dashboard panel in bodywork colouring. The rubber, plastic and indeed the upholstery all feel very solid, and though the design is fun this is a car with very good spec and surprising interior space.

Amid a multitude of packages that enable you to choose colour combinations inside and add personalised touches on the roof and body, the two main style ranges centre upon the nippy Sport and the elegant Lounge versions. Essentially equal in price, they vary between leather versus fabric, sporty finishes versus a good-looking glass roof, etc. Engine wise you can opt for a step-in 1.2 litre with 69hp, a revvy 100-hp 1.4 16-valve that certainly moves, or the excellent 1.3 litre multijet diesel, an economical 75hp engine purrs gently in traffic yet has a good deal of bite to it too. Those wishing to step on the beast’s tail will have to wait a few more months, till the powerful 150hp Abarth sports version becomes available. More likely to draw the young male driver, this car has received the ‘respect’ label from motoring journalists across Europe.

Test drive in MarbellaDriving experience
After having demonstratively stowed my briefcase in the surprisingly sizeable boot I set out about town, barely able to suppress a broad grin as I negotiated bends, turns, uphill stops and roundabouts. The Fiat 500 took all the city could throw at it and wanted more. When reversing into a tight parking space I hit the ‘easy steering’ button and the already responsive power steering became feather light. Like the Mini this is the kind of car that ducks and dives through city traffic with relish, looking fun and stylish in the process.

Next we took it on to the motorway to stretch its legs and see how it would perform on a larger stage. This is where the build quality and the excellent balance of this car come to the fore to produce a drive that is surprisingly solid and certainly comfortable. Dispel any ideas of a rickety, noisy drive buffeted by side winds, as this little car negotiates the long straight and winding bends with typical Italian road holding. In other words, it looks good enough to eat and has more than enough bite to it too. With cars like these around, the roads look a lot more fun!

Fiat 500
Strong points: Stylish, pretty and fun with a capital F; a great city car
Weak points: Though lots cheaper than the Mini it’s a little dearer than the Punto

Photography David Toms

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