What is it?
It’s such a cliche, but the Fiat 500 is a car that needs little introduction. As recognisable and as loved as a Mini or Land Rover Defender, the 500 was Fiat’s icon throughout a big part of the 20th century. But in 1975 the curtains were drawn, and wouldn’t be opened again until 2007 when the Fiat 500 was revived.
And what a hit the reincarnation would become over the last decade. Even today, Fiat still sells 400,000 of these city cars every year, despite a multitude of rivals being on offer.
Next year will see the introduction of a new electric 500. It looks similar to the petrol car seen here, but is rather different underneath, and should be yet another hit as it’ll be one of the cheapest EVs around thanks to a sub-£20,000 starting price.
But ahead of that, here’s Fiat’s new 500 Hybrid. Use the latter word lightly, as it’s not a full hybrid, but rather a petrol engine with a small electric motor, battery and belt-integrated starter-generator that improves efficiency and aims to allow for a smoother drive. So does it succeed?
What’s under the bonnet?
If you want a manual 500, the only option is this new mild-hybrid petrol, with models with an automatic transmission plodding on with the old 1.2-litre unit that Fiat has been using for years.
You won’t be buying it for performance, as it produces a measly 69bhp, which means 0-60mph takes 13.6 seconds, but used around town it’s more than up to the task. A six-speed manual gearbox is also a pleasant surprise for a car of this size.
The mild-hybrid system is also noticeable with the regenerative braking when you take your foot off the accelerator, though the engine can ‘switch off’ while coasting in order to improve its fuel-sipping abilities.
What’s it like to drive?
It’s no surprise the 500 is such a hit in Italy, where the streets are uncomfortably narrow, as it’s in urban areas where the Fiat excels. It bucks the trend of city cars growing in size, as at 3.5m-long it remains tiny and an absolute doddle to park, helped by great visibility. The steering is also brilliantly light, and even gets a ‘City’ mode to make it even lighter.
But elsewhere the 500 shows both its age and its flaws. The ride quality is poor, bobbling around on uneven roads while the driving position leaves a lot to be desired – you feel like you sit on the car, rather than in it. Refinement is also poor, even by city car standards. Next to rivals like the Volkswagen Up!, it’s well behind the pace.
How does it look?
If you asked anyone driving a Fiat 500 why they bought it, it would likely be because of the way it looks. And with its scope for personalisation, bubble-like shape and cool retro-inspired design, it offers bags of charm and appeal in this respect. A range of trim and liveries only add to the appeal.
It’s more impressive just how fresh the 500 looks considering it’s been around since 2007 in its current guise – the only real design changes in that time being some new lights at the front and rear, fresh alloy wheel designs and updated bumpers. Some subtle ‘Hybrid’ badging is also fitted as part of this update, however.
What’s it like inside?
That charm of the exterior is also carried over to the interior – not least with the cool colour-matched dashboard, which is a particular highlight. You also get a clear instrument cluster, with an optional seven-inch TFT display in the middle. A seven-inch touchscreen is also fitted, and while not the best system you can get today, it’s simple to use and gains Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A panoramic glass roof is also a nice touch.
But the colourful dash and technology can only go so far with the Fiat 500, as other areas feel especially cheap, with hard and scratchy plastics littering the cabin. It’s also small even by city car standards, with a dinky 185-litre boot and compromised rear space.
What’s the spec like?
Prices for the Fiat 500 start from £13,020 and for that you get a Pop-spec car. It’s not especially well-equipped but gains air conditioning, a DAB radio and a speed limiter. But our money would go on the £14,750 Lounge model (tested here). It adds a touchscreen, leather steering wheel, rear parking sensors and a glass roof, and feels a much better option.
Prices rise through to £17,150 for the top-spec Launch Edition, which gets you satellite navigation, 16-inch alloy wheels and special seats made from recycled materials. But at that price, you can buy a far more accomplished supermini.
It’s a testament to the 500’s cool retro design, easy-to-drive nature and quirky interior that this Fiat continues to be as popular as it is. Used around the city and it’s really quite appealing, and the Hybrid system has added greater efficiency to the package – meaning it will be very cheap to run.
But none of these traits can hide some glaring weaknesses of the 500, which are really just down to its ageing design. Its poor driving experience away from town and cheap cabin make it fall off the pace of rivals, and given it’s not especially cheap, it means this Fiat – as charming as it is – is tough to recommend. Roll on the arrival of the new electric model…
Model as tested: Fiat 500 Hybrid Lounge
Engine: 1.0-litre mild-hybrid petrol
Max speed: 104mph
0-60mph: 13.6 seconds