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Fiat 500 1.2 Lounge

Click to view picture galleryFiats sparkling 500 ‘city car comes
  with 500 thousand personalisation
  permutations to tempt you into the
  driving seat. And, as if that
s not
  enough, it
s environmentally friendly
  and has standout kerb appeal —
  all at a price to buy for!

FIAT'S CHEEKY-LOOKING 'BABY', the 500, puts other city cars in the shade. Not only it is more practical than its rivals, it's also the smartest small car around there's not another city car that can touch it for kerb appeal.

What's especially endearing about this petite Italian beauty is that while the 500 is a thoroughly modern creation with a hint of timeless retro, it has been done so well, and fits so appropriately into 21st century automotive life, that you can only admire Fiat for getting it so right.

Equally appealing is that the Fiat 500's artlessly simple lines clothe a truly practical city car that doesn't require you to make compromises when it comes to everyday usage and driveability. If you plan to carry four people, then the Fiat is by far the most sensible option. And, unlike many of the breed, the 500 is as much at home on quick out-of-town roads as it is on slow urban rat-runs.

Pull open a door and you'll find a great cabin with real panache. Fiat has pulled off the trick of making retro-inspired touches look stylish and thoroughly la mode while being simply great to look at. The dash is a delight to behold — successfully blending a body-coloured metal front panel with well-considered control clusters and an integrated single multi-function dial that ingeniously houses all the standard instruments into one circular display unit directly ahead of the driver.

The analogue rev-counter and speedometer are concentric, with the speedometer on the outermost ring and the revs on the inner ring. The innermost ring is given over to a circular digital screen for the driver's information computer, along with smartly-executed digital fuel level and engine coolant temperature indicators.

Our test car's audio and AirCon controls were finished in an attractive retro-ish shade of cream — as was the steering wheel and the speedometer hood. Art Deco-ish round headrests, classy switches for the dual-mode steering, hazard lights and the fog lights, flashes of chrome detailing and big, bold chromed door handles, a glossy 'pool ball' gear-knob (a perfect fit with your palm) and the stylish Fiat-badged steering wheel boss all provide more well-considered touches. The cabin ambience, enhanced by the diffused sunlight flooding through the full-width glass roof panel, made sitting in the 500 seem as delightfully refreshing as an unexpected day at the beach — light, airy and a feeling of space.

As you'd expect, there's MP3-compatibility for the CD player, voice-control for the phone and a USB port for media integration. And a vast number of customisation choices. Multiply the Fiat's name by one thousand and that's how many personalisation combinations there are — a mind-boggling 500,000 of them. Customers can mix 'n' match from 15 interior trim sets, 9 wheel finishes, 100 accessories and even three different air-freshener fragrances. And there are even 9 different key covers to match the body colours or the sticker kits!

“Blue&Me can even
interpret abbreviated
text such as
R U UP 4 2nite
And the cabin doesn't stop at just looking good — it's amazingly accommodating given that at 139 inches long it's actually 6 inches shorter than a MINI (it's also two inches narrower but 3 inches taller). Most importantly, the four-seat cabin has a pair of decidedly comfortable front seats upholstered in a smart patterned fabric. Those travelling in the front enjoy good head, shoulder, elbow and legroom and drivers will be grateful for the left knee-room, seat height adjustment and a foot rest.

Although the steering wheel only adjusts for height, it's not a problem. Front windows have a one-shot auto down facility; the driver gets one-shot closing as well. Visibility out to the front and side is excellent and reversing is easy-peasy, even looking back over your left shoulder.

You'll find a useful number of cubbies and bins spread around the cabin, as well as a large open glovebox and a storage box under the passenger seat. Both front seats tilt and slide for easy access to the two rear seats. Adults of around 5' 8" can travel in comfort. Behind them there's a useful 185-litre boot; the 50:50 split rear seatbacks also tip forward for some extra carrying ability. The tailgate opens high and loading is easy. Should you ever need it, a space saver spare wheel lives under the boot floor.

The top-trim Lounge spec includes: air conditioning, alloy wheels, trip computer, power door mirrors, electric front windows, Fiat's Blue&Me hands-free system with text message reader, USB port and voice commands, radio/CD (MP3-compatible), height-adjustable driver's seat, leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, Dualdrive electric power steering, large fixed glass sunroof with mesh sunblind, remote locking, seven airbags, Isofix child seat attachments and ABS.

Blue&Me is an in-car entertainment system that enables you to flick between the music tracks on your MP3 player, make and receive calls and have incoming text messages read out loud — all by simple voice control and without taking your hands off the wheel.

To manage incoming calls, just press the button on the steering wheel; to make a call simply say "Call Jill" or "Call Jack" and Bluetooth connects you within seconds. Incoming texts are just as easy: as soon as one arrives Blue&Me tells you. Ask, and it will read it out over the car's speakers. And it can even interpret abbreviated text such as "R U UP 4 2nite".

For those trying times
when you’re city-bound,
the 500 has a little ace
up its sleeve.
Yet another area where the Fiat trumps many of its rivals is economy. A lot has been made about low emissions and the accompanying savings on road tax, but in monetary terms the ability to save around 70p a week in road tax is a bit of red herring — especially when many of the cars that trade on this have been emasculated in the interests of eco-correctness. Not only are they hard going to drive out of their city environment, but their real-world fuel consumption often falls short of the figures in their brochures. If you can afford to buy, insure and run a car then 35 a year saved on road tax isn't going to make any real difference.

What will make a difference is the miles per gallon. Which is another of the 500's strong points: it's big on economy. The 1.2-litre has an official combined fuel consumption of 55.4mpg (119g/km CO2 with 35 road tax). However, a week's hard driving, including a day spent in central London, saw a test average of 43.9mpg. Less spirited driving soon saw that climb to 55.3mpg. Urban and extra-urban official figures are 44.1 and 65.7mpg respectively.

And while the 500's fuel consumption is impressive, so too, for its size, is the performance. The four-cylinder 1.2-litre engine is the smallest capacity engine you can specify for the 500 (other options are a 100bhp 1.4 petrol and a 75bhp 1.3 Multijet diesel). But even with a modest 69bhp, the 1.2 petrol is delightfully zippy. A word of warning: watch your speed because what feels like 30mph often turns out to be 40-45mph.

It's a sweet little nut of an engine, too: smooth and willing; and it makes no fuss about spinning cleanly to the red-line. So don't be put-off by its paper acceleration figure of 0-62mph in 12.9 seconds. On motorways, it's a quiet cruiser — thanks to maximum torque of 75lb ft being served up at 3,000rpm. It will lope along at 70mph (3,000rpm in top gear) all day long, and is seemingly even happier — and reassuringly stable — at 85+mph on the Continent.

Driven two-up at the legal limit, the 1.2 managed the very long, steep climb up the M2 after crossing the Medway bridge without any signs of running out of steam or any need to drop down from 5th gear. Its top speed of 99mph is more than most people ever need, let alone use — how many 149mph cars do you see actually travelling at 149mph? The important thing is that at motorway speeds the Fiat 500 feels safe and steady.

For those trying times when you're city-bound, the 500 has a little ace up its sleeve — the 'City' button. Press this and the steering gets more assistance, making parking in even the tightest of spaces as easy as cutting through the froth on a double latte. The standard setting for the steering is actually fine for both the city and open roads.

The 500 makes a joyful
driving companion
both in and out
of the metropolis
Gear-changing — another unavoidable chore in the ebb and flow of busy traffic — is as good as it gets in the 500. The five-speed 'box's change action is light, clean and precise and the high-mounted gear lever, perfectly sited just inches away from the steering wheel, makes quick-shifting riffs up and down the ratios a satisfying affair.

Bombing around in the 500 put me in mind of Michael Schumacher's comments about the original Fiat 500, in which he says he learnt the art of carrying speed with you through the bends — an essential technique for quick, fluent progress whether you have 600 or just 60bhp at your disposal. This latest 500 might appear small, but its dynamics and handling are more than man enough for the driver to have some home-grown entertainment.

If you do decide to hustle, the 500's more than game to play along. But best do it alone as, in the top-spec Lounge version at least, the front seats — while perfectly fine for normal driving — need more side bolstering (as is provided by the Sport version's seats) for press-on driving on testing roads. The driver is fine, of course, with the chunky, three-spoke, leather-rimmed steering wheel to hold on to.

Aided by light but direct steering, the Fiat 500 also feels agile. And the brakes really are first-rate; with good bite and strong retardation. Generally the ride is settled and you simply don't notice the road quality unless encountering large potholes and sharp speed humps — which really do make themselves known. However, motor over rippled secondary roads at speed and the ride can feel bouncy — although it's not unpleasant and doesn't seem to degrade the predictable roadholding. Overall, the 500 makes a joyful driving companion both in and out of the metropolis.

It might be compact but the five NCAP-starred 500 is more than well protected. While stability control (ESP) is not standard on the 1.2, it is a 200 option. For the record, ESP is standard on the 1.4 model and comes bundled with ASR/MSR, HBA and a Hill Holder function. However, all 500's come with ABS plus Electronic Brake Distribution and seven airbags (driver's and passenger's front, sidebags, window bags and driver's kneebag).

Who said there are no more bargains? For the money — and particularly for the money — the 500 is a chic city car that's not only a cut above the rest when it comes to pizzazz but one that feels special as well. Go and test drive one at your nearest Fiat dealer today and you'll see what we mean. And what a compliment — one friend liked our test car so much she bought one of her own! —

Fiat 500 1.2 Lounge
| 9,500
Maximum speed: 99mph | 0-62mph: 12.9 seconds | Overall test MPG: 43.9mpg
Power: 69bhp | Torque: 75lb ft | CO2 119g/km | Insurance group 4