1957 was a watershed year; it saw the launch of Sputnik and thereby frightening the pants off the Americans, the unleashing of the raw talent of “The King” with Jailhouse Rock and Italy proved beyond doubt that small things DO come in small packages with the release of Fiat’s Nuova 500 (the new 500) but lovingly known as the Bambino. Rereleased in 2007, the Fiat 500 has a heartfelt following, primarily because of its endearing looks. A Wheel Thing has spent time with the entry level, $14K driveaway, Fiat 500 Pop and found that none of the fun factor has gone away.
Normally I’d start with the engine however the sheetmetal is part of the attraction the 500 has. It’s a rarity in that it is almost identical to the original; with the quad light front and driving lights pushed out to the bottom corners through to the rear window line and hatchback, it’s an eyecatcher. For some “odd” reason the most common comment is “Oh wow it’s so cute” and, unsurprisingly, it’s from members of the fairer sex and those of an vintage to remember the original. It’s smooth, rounded, with a similarly upright nose as the original running into a more angled front line for the window. At the rear the main noticeable change is the deletion of the airvents….otherwise, apart from growing in every dimension the design is a faithful homage to the original. Cute, that is.
The Driven Heart
Under that tiny bonnet beats a tiny heart. It’s just 1200cc, a touch small than the bottle of aerated flavoured drink in your fridge. There’s a tiny 51 kilowatts (5500rpm) and a commensurately small amount of torques, just 102 of them from 3000 revs. Matched up to a five speed manual (gasp, horror from the gallery) shifted by a short throw lever mounted high up on the dash, on paper the numbers state boredom. However, with a body weighing less than three soggy feathers, give a take a bird or two (865kg really….), the numbers metamorphose into a three letter word: FUN. Sure, it needs to be revved to extract the best but it’s FUN watching the tacho zing around the dial. The clutch has a natural and smooth movement, allowing just enough slippage to get away without a bunnyhop or stall. The engine note is coarse but clears its throat and becomes rorty as the revs climb over 3000. Once under way it’ll ratchet through the five gears, but the revs die away quickly as does what torque there is. The ride is choppy, thanks to an overall length of just 3.5 metres and a wheelbase of 2.3, which has the 500 tucking the nose in for a touch of understeer whilst the rear steps out in oversteer when thrown into a series of tight, slalom like curves. Sadly, the fun factor is diminished by an overbearing road roar from the 14 inch diameter steel wheels and rubber. Over the rubber speedhumps that infest certain roads the suspension doesn’t deal nicely with them, crashing harshly and being thrown off line. The narrow track and short wheelbase also combine to make the 500 somewhat unstable with a cross breeze, however, on a dry road, with no wind, it’s easy to throw around and have fun with it.
It’s the interior that brings the circles of life to the Fiat 500 Pop; naturally there’s the tiller however there’s the speaker frames, the dash design and the rubber foam headrests. It’s a smart mix of classic retro and modern, a colour scheme that looks straight out of the late sixties (black and cream) highlighted by the subtle integration of LCD and technology. The radio controls on the dash have their own circles, flanking the CD slot and rise over the circles of dials for the aircon controls. It’s a cohesive, enjoyable look and ergonomically well laid out. Unfortunately down below it’s not quite as easy to deal with as the clutch and brake pedal are just that little too close, leading to a clutch foot overlaying the stop pedal on too many occasions. The steering has two settings, Normal and City, which takes away just about any weight the wheel would normally have, replacing it with a lightness of spin, swirlable with just a finger. The wheel itself is in the same shade of cream as the rest of the trim and is backlit with a soft red at night, as is the main dash display. Bluetooth, under the quirky name of Blue&Me, paired easily although the radio had an odd habit of going to a different station than the one that was on when the ignition (an old fashioned and still worthwhile key) was turned off. Roomwise, it’s ostensibly a four seater…..nup. Even with my 178cm frame in a comfy enough position the rear leg room…. wasn’t. The seats themselves were sat on, not in, with slabs of foam rubber being used and there’s barely any give in that stuff anyway. Seat adjustment too is akin to pulling the teeth of a goldfish with pliers, it’s just too tight to have any real flexibility.
When, in a former life, I sold cars, I was fortunate enough to be at a place that sold these. Cute yes, but cute is nothing without spirit, without soul. The 500 has that in bucketloads. Although understandably lacking in torque, giving the 1.2 a rev and matching it with the manual ‘box lends itself to fun driving. Tossing it through corners, with its sub-tonne weight and feeling the tail slide out, listening to the rorty engine note, looking at the simple circle design theme and the surprisingly well integrated colour scheme and once in the right driving position, the 500 exudes an old fashioned and increasingly rare part of driving and for $14K it’s a cost efficient form of that missing element in life and on the road: fun.