If I were to ask you to list small car icons, I would bet my trousers that two names would be at or near the top of the list; the MINI and the Fiat 500.
As you may have guessed from the accompanying pictures, it’s not the bite-size Brit we’re looking at here (don’t worry, I’ll be covering that soon enough) but the eeny-meeny Italian. Specifically we’re looking at the sporty ‘S’ variant with in this instance a convertible roof. With the basic design now eight years old, is it still a competitor in the stylish supermini stakes?
There’s one good reason why the 500 has proved such a success for Fiat; its looks. Launched exactly 50 years after the original, it cleverly references the much smaller 50’s 500 without appearing to be a caricature of itself like the MINI. That the 500 is taller than much of the competition helps to keep the proportions right while also giving plenty of headroom.
While the 500 has always traded on cutesy looks and retro charm, those wanting a bit more aggression without the performance or price of the hot Abarth versions should definitely check out the ‘S’. Sitting near the top of the range, it gains much manlier bumpers packed full of vents, satin chrome trim as well as some racy side skirts and stylish 15” alloy wheels. Inside are sports seats, 7” TFT display for the driver, alloy gear knob, a chunky flat-bottomed leather steering wheel and lashings of red stitching.
S spec also gets an exclusive colour option – Electronica blue – which proved slightly controversial among friends. While it’s undoubtedly a great colour, some questioned its suitability on such a retro shape. They may have a point. What is undeniable is the effectiveness of the dinky 900cc TwinAir petrol engine. Although less than a litre in capacity and with only two cylinders, a turbocharger pushes power to 105 hp and 107 Ib ft of torque when Sports mode is engaged.
Without this button pressed, the 500 feels very different, power drops to 98 hp while torque plummets to 89 Ib ft. Throttle response feels quite lazy which coupled with very light steering makes the car feel almost asleep. The aim of the game is, of course, maximum economy, the digital display in front of you even shows an eco score along with your current mpg and range. It’s certainly effective but hides the car’s true character.
Sport mode on, the steering takes on a bit of extra heft while throttle response is transformed. There’s still a little delay as you’d expect with a turbocharged motor but after that the 500 surges forward. The high-mounted gearlever may seem odd at first but is fantastically placed for quick gearchanges and has a fantastic shift action. The TwinAir lump up front makes a rorty noise that seems to egg you on into driving it harder, something you’ll gladly do. There’s even a g-meter and boost gauge on the TFT screen to replace the eco stuff.
Eager is the best way I can describe the handling and indeed the overall driving experience. The 500 feels darty and agile with strong grip and little roll, enjoyable on a country road and perfection for city streets. You do pay for the handling in ride comfort though, it’s by no means uncomfortable but you do feel undulations while the rear end can get bouncy over bigger bumps.
Should you want to go topless, the electric sliding soft top moves rearwards at the touch of a button even on the move. Press it again and the whole hood folds above the boot lid giving, even more, exposure although it does remove almost all rearward visibility in the process. Unlike the Mini Cabrio, the whole roof doesn’t fold back, only the centre section. It may rob you of some of the openness a ‘proper’ cabriolet will give you but it does make for a stiffer structure. You do still feel the odd tremor from the chassis though.
The fabric roof also prevents the fitment of a hatchback. Instead, you get a small upwardly opening boot lid that leads to a boot barely any smaller than the regular 500’s. Move forward into the cabin and you’ll find two comfortable rear seats with acceptable levels of legroom for the class. Up front is well laid out but lacking the quality feel of a MINI or even a VW Up! At least the bits you interact with most, the leather wheel and metal gear knob feel good in your hands.
Unfortunately, the 500 TwinAir’s biggest weakness is highlighted by one of its strongest assets, how fun to drive it is. If you’re driving Miss Daisy and not working the turbo hard, then more than 50 mpg is possible. If however, you start having fun and lean on the throttle harder, economy tumbles significantly. Not only can it be expensive to run, it’s quite pricey to buy too.
You can pick up a basic 500 for just over £10,000 but you’ll need to add another £3,000 for the convertible top and over £1,600 for S trim. You can’t even get the 105 hp motor in lower trim levels and that’s over £1,600 more too. After a handful of options, the test car came in at £17,430, a figure you could easily push higher with some of the personalisation on offer.
Of course, you might look at it the other way, there are not many other open-topped cars out there that can be picked up for comfortably less than £20,000. There’s also no denying the charm of the 500 and enjoyment you get out of driving it. You can’t say that about certain cars costing more than twice as much. Objectivity isn’t something that will necessarily come into play in the purchase of a 500 though. For some the looks will be more than enough, thankfully beauty, in this case, is more than skin deep.
Fun to drive
Can be thirsty
Cheap interior plastics
Car – Fiat 500S Convertible
Price – £16,740 (£17,520 as tested)
Power – 105 hp
0-60 – 10 seconds
Top Speed – 117 mph
Co2 – 99g/km