Fiat 500 Review
In car terms, the Fiat 500 has been on sale largely unchanged for an absolute age, but its continued popularity shows that Fiat has been wise not to mess with a winning formula. It’s a small, impossibly cute city car with retro styling that’s won the hearts of millions, and it’s available with tons of personalisation to make it your own. It might not be objectively the best car of its type, but in many ways it’s the supermini that all its rivals have to beat.
Select's rating score* - 3.2 / 5
The Fiat 500 traces its roots way, way back to the 1950s, when it was a dinky little city car that proved very popular in Europe. And when Fiat relaunched it in 2007, with retro looks that paid tribute to the original, the public fell in love with it all over again. It might not be the most cutting edge small car on the market but its quirky character means you can overlook a lot of flaws, and revamps for the new decade have helped keep it competitive, as have very reasonable leasing rates.
In 2020 Fiat brought out an electric version of the 500, which we’ll cover in a separate review. But the ‘regular’ version has also been updated with new engine technology to reduce your fuel bills. As well as the regular hatchback model, you can also get a convertible, called the 500C, which has a retractable fabric roof. There are plenty of trim levels to choose between, and two petrol engines.
Make no mistake, the looks are the 500’s number one selling point. The retro styling hasn’t got old in the dozen-plus years since it first went on sale, but while that’s not changed a huge amount since 2007, Fiat hasn’t just sat on its laurels. There have been changes, most recently in the addition of a mild hybrid system for the latest engine.
Don’t get confused by the Hybrid name that Fiat’s attached to it; it’s not a hybrid like a Toyota Prius, which can run on electric power only. The mild hybrid system essentially uses a battery to store kinetic energy, harvested when the car is cruising or braking. It then redeploys that energy to help run the 500’s auxiliary functions, meaning less of that power comes from the engine. It’ll also give you a very small amount of extra oomph when you accelerate. It’ll save you fuel, but not drastically so. Other selling points are a wide selection of trims and plenty of extras that you can tweak to personalise your 500 both inside and out.
The 500 is firmly in the city car category, and that means it’s been designed to zip in and out of busy traffic, park in small spaces and generally be a nippy runabout, rather than a motorway cruiser. As such it has light steering to help with manoeuvring and a relatively soft, comfortable ride. Don’t expect it to be agile in comparison to a Mini, and it’s not as comfortable as VW Up as it can bobble about a bit on the road, but it strikes a reasonable balance. Once again though (and we’ll keep coming back to this), you don’t get a 500 because you want an enthusiast’s driving experience. You buy it because you love its charm and character.
There are two engines to choose from. The first is a 1.2-litre petrol engine that, if we’re honest, is getting on a bit and feels rather long in the tooth. However, it does come with an automatic gearbox, which lots of people are looking for in a city car, to avoid the clutch-shift-brake-clutch-shift-accelerate monotony of slow urban driving. To be fair to it, if you’re exclusively in town then it’ll do the job, but it’s not very powerful, with 68bhp, and it feels rather weedy at higher speeds.
The other option is a 1.0-litre engine, with the mild-hybrid system we mentioned earlier. It’s got a bit more pep at lower speeds than the 1.2 – more than the tiny power increase to 69bhp would suggest – and comes with a lightweight six-speed manual gearbox. Once again, it’s not the last word in performance, and it’s still not the best at motorway speeds, but it does what’s needed of it and is better than the 1.2, with improved fuel economy too.
While we’ll keep going on about how looks are the main driver of customers for the 500, its costs are also rather appealing. Monthly leasing costs are very appealing against the main opposition, and at the time of writing you could drive a Fiat 500 for less than £140 a month, which is quite a bit less than an equivalent Mini or Volkswagen Up. There are cars that are similarly affordable, such as the Kia Picanto and the Toyota Aygo, but they can’t match the style and kerb appeal of the Fiat.
When it comes to fuel costs, the 1.0-litre engine promises an official fuel economy of 53.3mpg in the hatchback, which isn’t bad but not as good as some rivals, while the 1.2 has a relatively disappointing 47.1mpg (and has less power). Insurance premiums should be low, with most models sitting between insurance groups 7 and 10 of 50.
When it comes to style, the Fiat 500 echoes the exterior funkiness on the inside, with a quirky, retro-modern design. It’s charming, but the material quality isn’t the best, and it doesn’t feel as good as it looks. You’ll find much better quality interiors in rival cars, although they’ll struggle to match the 500’s personality.
Most Fiat 500s get a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and top-spec cars get sat-nav too. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included as well. It’s not the slickest system in the world, but it’s straightforward to find your way around it.
The entry-level Pop models make do with a DAB radio and USB connector but miss out on Bluetooth, which is a bit of a shame in this day and age. There are no rear speakers either.
Top-spec Star and Rockstar models – and the Launch Edition that was released for a limited time from 2020 – get a 7.0-inch display in the instrument panel too, which gives you various bits of driving information, such as fuel economy.
The 500 hasn’t been designed as a particularly practical car, and the fact that it’s only available as a three-door hatchback, rather than a five-door, underlines that fact. There’s space for two in the back but it’ll be cramped for anyone other than young children. Even up front, taller adults may find headroom is at a premium. The boot is small too, and the boot opening is a bit of an awkward shape, which makes loading larger items in rather tricky. You can fold the rear seats down, but only Lounge models and above have a split rear seat. In short, this is no family car. If that’s what you're after, then Fiat does offer two larger incarnations of the 500, called the 500L and the 500X.
The Fiat 500 did boast a maximum five-star score from safety organisation Euro NCAP, but that was back in 2007. Standards have moved on since then, and when the 500 was retested in 2017 its score dropped to three. It does have seven airbags, which is impressive in something at this price point, but it lacks a lot of the more modern, active safety technologies that you’ll find in rival cars. As such, it got a pretty disappointing score in the Safety Assist area. Still, it does have Isofix child seat mounting points on the outer rear seats and an airbag cut off switch if you need to put a rear-facing child seat in the front.
The entry-level 500 is the Pop, which is pretty sparsely equipped and often not as affordable to lease as slightly higher-spec models (due to various factors including resale value). So while it does feature 14-inch steel wheels, air-conditioning and a DAB radio, we’d recommend starting your search for the dream 500 with the Lounge model. This features the infotainment system, 15-inch alloy wheels and the split rear seats for extra practicality.
Next up is the Sport model, which is almost identical to the Lounge in features but has a slightly sportier look on the outside by way of a spoiler and side skirts, while the Star model has 16-inch alloys, upgraded climate control air-con and cruise control, as well as a sunroof. The Rockstar has the same body kit as the Sport, and tinted rear windows. The Launch Edition model adds some unique paint colours and alloy wheel design.
Options include a range of paint colours and alloy wheel designs, plus extras like tinted windows, electric sunroof, parking sensors, sat-nav and so on. You can even splash out on a leather interior if you like, although that will send prices high very quickly.
If you’re looking for a quirky city car, then you have to consider the Mini Hatch, which is more fun to drive but more expensive. There’s also the Volkswagen Up, which is excellent and again better to drive, but lacks the retro charm of the Fiat.
Other cars worthy of consideration include the worthy and practical Kia Picanto and Toyota Aygo, the well-equipped MG3 and the tech-filled Peugeot 108. While these and several other rivals can all do things that the Fiat can’t do as well, none of them have that heart-over-head appeal that the 500 can bring.
If you’re sold on the Fiat style, you might also be interested in the pure electric Fiat 500, which we’re covering in another review. It will give you zero-emission driving and low day-to-day running costs, but will be quite a bit more expensive to lease.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter what we say here, because people go for a Fiat 500 because they love it. It isn’t really a rational decision, because there are plenty of rivals that do things better. But the 500 has been a smash hit for so long for good reason; it’s good enough at the important things that customers can overlook its flaws and foibles. They go for it because they can smile every time they look at it. And for something you’re using everyday, that’s often more than enough reason to go for it.
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*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top five leading independent car website reviews of the Fiat 500
**Correct as of 22/12/2020. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £1,209.49 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.