Fiat now and then

It’s time to come clean.  In my list for the automotive confessional are a love for thirsty (slightly smoky and definitely leaky) old motors, bigger new cars and greedy turbo-charged petrol engines.  So it is time to bite the bullet and investigate the antithesis of everything I have traditionally chosen to drive – a Fiat 500 Multijet Sport with the recently upgraded 95 bhp 1.3 diesel engine.  It is hard not to love the old 500 but should Fiat have copied this perennial favourite?

The last time I rode in a Fiat 500 was in the late 1970s.  A parent drove us home from school in a noisy, mustard-coloured rust box.  Being eight at the time, I knew pretty much everything about cars, so was entirely justified in delivering my verdict: “It’s rubbish”.

I hadn’t then appreciated these little Fiats in context, hurtling around the streets of Rome or Florence.  Their size allowed them to squeeze through the tightest gaps, battling for space with Vespas, engines screaming to deliver every ounce of power.  The first Cinquecento put out a meagre 13 bhp from its 479 cc engine but still managed to feel spritely due to weighing only 499 kg.

It is obvious, of course, that there isn’t a single component in common between the old and new but viewed side-by-side, Fiat has been careful to pull out some gentle styling cues from one of its best loved models.  And sit them side-by-side I did.  The opportunity arose recently on meeting the custodian of a stunning 1971 500F at a local show.  We met up for a few comparisons.

Driving the 39 year old Fiat is certainly an experience.  Its steering wheel is large and thin and the pedals are barely bigger than tea spoons; positioning one’s feet accurately takes care.  It has no synchromesh, so double declutching is necessary on down changes and the gear lever is long and slender which makes selection more of an art than a science.  It is easy to drive though and the sound from the diminutive rear engine is truly delightful.  The new 500 attracts attention on its own but the pair in convoy really stopped people in their tracks.

After a quick drive and some hasty photos in Lyme Park under darkening skies, the young, chequer-roofed upstart was pointed to the hills in my favourite part of the Peak District, the Dark Peak – in the rain.

A little while ago, James May wrote that he didn’t see the point in putting a diesel in the nuova 500; in the spirit of the original, it should have a fizzing petrol motor.  This misses the point though, because the current 500 is almost exactly twice as heavy as the original, plus technology has moved on considerably.  Diesel engines only existed in farm machinery and trucks when Italy’s favourite small car was born; now, the diesel makes absolute sense for the modern interpretation.

Initially, the seating position feels a little odd – more sitting on rather than in the seat.  The speedo and rev counter too take a small amount of getting used to; they both share the same dial, with the speedo on the outside and the rev counter within it.  They’re not the clearest but it is a good use of space.  These are minor distractions though, which do not detract from the 500’s main role: fun.  It looks pretty funky when at a standstill but on the twisting Derbyshire roads, I couldn’t stop smiling.

This model isn’t Earth-shatteringly quick with a quoted 10.7 seconds to 60mph (there’s the Abarth for that) but its manners are impeccable.  Turn-in is crisp, the little diesel revs freely and despite the Sport specification, the ride remained supple and controlled over the poor road surfaces prevalent in the Peak District.  The gear lever has an easy, short throw, brakes are powerful without being harsh and the little Fiat provides great feedback through the steering.

If I were to be picky, I’d suggest the gear ratios between second and third were ever-so-slightly too far apart for the windy B roads – the engine needs to be kept on the boil.  It’s also not the gentlest motorway cruiser, but then this is to be expected with a car of this size.

What really delights is the exhaust note – Fiat has actually bothered to make this diesel sound good.  In fact, Fiat has actually bothered to do many things to make the 500 good from both visual and tactile perspectives; its inside is a very pleasant place to be.  This baby Fiat has also managed an mpg figure in the mid-40s, despite the grizzly stop-start commute it has been subjected to.

So have evolution and legislation taken the fun away or has the Italian flair won me over?  Taking the new technology aside, part of me didn’t want to like this pastiche of the old 500.  The pretty, original car had a very clear place in history; it had been done once, it was loved and what was needed now was something completely new-looking.  However, when you consider the photographs of the two generations, it’s clear that is exactly what has happened – they are remarkably different; it’s Fiat’s clever styling which fools our memories.  Surprisingly, this car has been on the market for three years now yet people still stare.  What the evolution and legislation have brought are synchromesh gears and 104g/km of CO2 instead of a slightly brown cloud.

While there is insufficient space here for all the comments received on the new car, the essence is that Fiat has got something very right, supported by its current sales figure of over half a million – and the fact I’d rather not have to hand it back.





3 comments

  1. Azhar Alvi says:

    Great read..

    In the 1970s, I presume there was ample space on roads for cars to have a nice squat(Well, I’m a late 80s boy hence the presumption.. ).
    No wonder Mr. Expert here called the missy “rubbish”… What the heck were small cars doing at that time??

    But of course, in the present context, the new 500 makes perfect sense, what with the reduced emissions and other “environment friendly” parameters
    Moreover, being a Fiat (read Italian), it is a fashion statement..

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