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Click to view road test review picture gallery“The all-new Fiat 500.
  It’s cute, it’s chic,
  it’s funky, it’s smart,
  it’s compact, it’s
  affordable, it’s safe,
  it’s practical — and
  it’s the latest ‘must-
  have’ motoring
  status symbol...”

EVEN BEFORE REACHING THE UK, Fiat's retro styled, all-new Fiat 500 city car racked up 130,000 sales in Europe Fiat UK expect to sell about 18,000 of them in a full year, making it their second best-selling model range behind the Punto 'super-mini'. In fact, UK advance orders for Fiat 500 three-door hatchbacks totalled 4,500.

'See one, drive one and you will want one' was the quite reasonable claim made by senior executives of Fiat UK at the media test drive event for the new Fiat 500 range.

It is true to say small cars are now big business: MINI has — rather decisively — proved that and all manufacturers with 'city' type cars aspire to achieve the same cult status. In Fiat's case, the original 500 model launched over 50 years ago in 1957 was a 'cult' car and did battle with the original Mini.

The original Fiat 500 was small and cute, with a small capacity rear mounted 500cc engine and two 'suicide' opening side doors. The Fiat 500 and its later evolutionary models stayed in production until 1975, during which time exactly 3,893,294 examples were sold worldwide. In the UK, the Fiat 500 averaged 2,000 annual sales in its lifetime and after its demise became a collectable 'cult' car. Michael Schumacher's fondness for the original 500 models is well-known.

Today, the UK car market is the same… but different. Customers are more affluent, but they still have the desire for 'cult' status cars. Although the demand for such small vehicles which can be equipped
to a bespoke level with loads of manufacturer-designed extra-cost options is increasing, it is also being driven by congested roads, in-adequate parking, punitive taxation and high fuel prices. These days it pays most car owners to 'think small'.

So step — or drive — forward the all-new, front-engined Fiat 500 three-door city car. It's cute, it's chic, it's funky, it's smart, it's com-pact, it's affordable, it's safe, it's practical and it's the latest must-have motoring status symbol.

Although designed by Fiat in Italy, the multiple-award-winning Fiat 500 is actually built in Poland. It is The European Car of the Year and has already been awarded a maximum Euro NCAP five-star safety rating — models have seven airbags as standard across the range — and it cur-rently offers a choice of three engines (two petrol and one diesel), which meet the proposed Euro 5 emissions standards more than two years before they are implemented.

With three, four-cylinder engine options (1.2 and 1.4-litre petrol and 1.3-litre MultiJet turbodiesel) and three specification levels — Pop, Lounge and Sport — there is a current total of nine derivatives at prices ranging from £7,900 to £10,700. Sporty 135 and 150bhp Abarth models with 1.4 turbocharged petrol engines will be added to the
range at the end of this year.

In addition to the current nine core models, Fiat's bespoke accessory Personalisation Programme provides 100 accessories. There are also
twelve bodywork colours, a choice of eight sticker/stripe kits, ten different badges and 14 upholstery solutions generating a staggering 549,936 possible combinations of colour, trim and options!

Anti-lock braking with EBD, remote control central locking, seven air-bags, electric front windows and door mirrors, height-adjustable driver's seat, folding rear seat, MP3-compatible CD player/radio with
six speakers, Dualdrive electric power steering (two operating modes including a 'light' setting for urban driving and low speed manoeuvring), trip computer and 'Follow Me Home' headlights are all fitted as stan-dard even at the entry-level Pop specification.

Lounge models gain a leather-bound steering wheel with Blue&Me con-trols, Blue&Me (a sophisticated hands-free system with state-of-the-art voice recognition that can store up to five mobile phones simul-taneously), air conditioning, leather trim, 15-inch alloy wheels, body-coloured mirrors, exterior chrome trim, a fixed glass sunroof and a 50:
50 split/folding rear seat.

Sport versions, in addition to the standard Pop specification, add a sports leather-clad steering wheel with Blue&Me controls, Blue&Me, AirCon, dark tinted rear windows, sports interior trim, 15-inch sports design alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and foglights.

The current view is that Sport specification will, initially, be the most popular because that is what advance orders reveal. Certainly the younger generation will like what they see. The Fiat 500 will appeal to all ages, especially ladies. Older or more mature customers will, I think, opt for the Lounge models — if for no other reason than the comfort of ride is better because the suspension is more compliant. Sport variants do suffer from a harsh ride. The Pop models are ideally suited to buyers on a budget — such as first-time owners or the car parents buy for their offspring.

As for engine choice, advance orders show the 1.4-litre, 100bhp petrol engine to be the most popular choice. But my view is that the 1.2-litre 69bhp is the most practical in its role as a city car.

The 1.4 engine has an official fuel consumption figure of 44.8mpg (36.9mpg on test) and CO2 emissions of 149g/km which puts it in VED Band C costing £115 a year. Top speed is 113mph and 0-62mph is covered in 10.5 seconds. This unit is pretty responsive for acceler-ation, and very flexible for in-town driving and it is fine for relaxed motorway driving. Electronic stability control is standard on 1.4-litre models but a £200 option for 1.2 petrol and 1.3 diesel versions.

As a city, commuter or runabout car the 1.2-litre petrol engine makes more sense. With only 69bhp it is a bit sluggish. But if worked hard
the car will achieve 99mph, cover the benchmark 0-62mph in 12.9 seconds and return 55.4mpg (41.4mpg on test this week). The CO2 emissions are much lower — at 119g/km — giving it a VED Band B rating and that means just £35 a year in road tax. It might also end
up being London Congestion Charge free if the sub 120g/km limit is implemented.

Diesel lovers can choose Fiat's highly acclaimed 1.3-litre MultiJet turbo-charged unit with 75bhp and a combined fuel economy of 67.3mpg. This unit produces just 111g/km of CO2 emissions, which also gives a £35 annual road tax bill. Top speed is 103mph and 0-62mph takes 12.5 seconds. With the 1.3-litre diesel power models costing the same as the 1.4-litre petrol versions, higher-mileage drivers might just choose this engine option. An automatic transmission option will be available for both petrol engines.

The retro and rounded curvy look of the new Fiat 500 is certainly the main reason customers will be attracted to this car instead of a MINI or even a Renault Twingo. The looks alone are unique and distinctive; it can be no other car. Then add the bespoke styling accessories and the car lots of people want becomes 'your' car. The compact three-door body with its very short bonnet and minimal front and rear overhangs is just 3,546mm long, 1,627mm wide and 1,488mm high. The top-hinged tailgate gives access to a small boot (which is larger than that on the MINI hatchback) with 185 litres of space; with the rear seatback folded this increases to 550 litres.

There is plenty of room for two adults in the front; in the rear leg space is minimal. Headroom in the front is not overly generous but in the rear it is limited. The high driving position and limited seat-height adjustment means it takes a while to get the driver's seat and steering adjusted for driving harmony, but a rake-adjustable steering wheel helps.

The interior design continues the retro theme with a chic dashboard, easy-to-see and easy-to-use controls, a close-to-hand gearlever (it's a six-speed 'box) and a cowled, large round speedometer/rev-counter combination dial right in front of the driver.

The Fiat 500 is small to park yet remains agile and nimble in traffic but the suspension — more or less the same as the Fiat Panda — gives a controlled and secure drive on open roads. Yes, the ride comfort is harsh for Sport models, but younger drivers in particular will not mind that. All models have a fidgety ride over poorer surfaces as well, but it's no worse than other small cars. The front-wheel drive system offers pretty good grip and the steering, with its excellent large steer-ing wheel, makes for pleasurable driving — just what real owners want.

Overall the new Fiat 500 has a lot going for it: great retro looks and styling inside and out, 'must-have' image, compact size, reasonable purchase cost and a high safety rating. It also offers an excellent range of style options, serves up good city driving and it is easy to park the car. All-in-all, it's a welcome and very worthy addition to the new car market. What Fiat UK and their dealers now need to do is to give their customers a pleasurable buying experience and to back it up with a good aftersales service. The Fiat 500 deserves it, and so do Fiat's customers. — David Miles

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Fiat 500 1.4 Sport | £10,700
Maximum speed: 113mph | 0-62mph: 10.5 seconds
Overall test MPG: 36.9mpg | Power: 100bhp | Torque: 97lb ft

CO2 149g/km | VED Band C £115 | Insurance group 6

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