If you’re in the business of manufacturing automobiles, you better be thinking small these days. The roads are getting more and more crowded, the price of fuel is climbing (the current oil surplus and price stabilization is only temporary), and many of today’s consumers just aren’t as interested in luxury-laden, over-optioned land yachts as their parents. Can’t afford them either.
Actually, this is nothing new. Small cars have been around – well, since they were invented, and the Austin Mini, when it debuted, in 1959, has proven to be one of the most popular cars ever made, even today in its current iteration.
Ditto with the Fiat 500 “Topolino”, which, during its heyday, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was a European icon, beloved by Italians, and sold around the world in a variety of configurations. Even then, it was cheap, good on gas, easy to drive in the city, practical, and easily manhandled. Notice the word “reliable” isn’t in there, because the original 500 wasn’t. One of my chums in high school had one and, sitting in the parking lot, surrounded by Camaros and Mustangs, it was pretty much the school laughing stock; it broke down regularly, refused to start when it rained and he probably spent as much time repairing it as he did driving it. The acronym “Fix It Again, Tony” was spawned in large part by the 500.
None of which applies to the current model. When Fiat brought out a new version, in 2007, it was almost as if they set out to correct the sins of the past and rectify all the failings of the original. The engine is now in the front, it actually has some decent power, it’s comfortable, well-appointed, and, best of all, faithful to the original design, while looking thoroughly contemporary. BMW did a masterful job re-designing the Mini…. Fiat no less so with the new 500.
It also comes in a range of models, including a long wheelbase wagon, an ultra-cool Abarth performance version, and a Cabrio, which is what I drove this time around.
A few specs. Power is provided by a 1.4 litre “MultiAir” four cylinder mated to either a six-speed automatic or five-speed manual. My tester had the latter, and this would by my choice were I in the market for this car. With an engine this small, an autobox - no matter how sophisticated - robs it of power and diminishes the fun factor. This engine delivers some 101 horsepower, which is plenty for a car of this size. Performance-cravers can move up to the Abarth version, which brings some 135 hp to the party.
More important than horsepower numbers – at least in this market – is fuel economy, and the 500c delivers: 6.7 L /100 km in town and 5.2 on the highway, according to Natural Resources Canada. This is inferior to fuel-sippers such as, oh, the Honda CR-Z, Scion iQ, or Smart, but still reasonable.
Equally relevant, the 500 has presence. It doesn’t look hum-drum or ordinary, and somehow, when you’re driving one, you feel like you’re piloting something unique. It’s also a pleasure to drive…comfortable, good (if kind of weird) ergonomics and switchgear , and a nice sense of balance and proportion. It also has a little feature in the form of a hill-holder, which definitely comes in handy. Not to mention a back seat, but it’s hard to get at and is suitable really only for pets and small children. Nonetheless, compared to other econoboxes, the 500 definitely stands out in a crowd.
My test Cabrio model also has a huge sunroof that basically folds back to open up the entire roof. This is a nice feature…..fuss-free and accomplished at the press of a button. Before extras and goodies, this version starts at around $16,500.
Add a few bits and pieces, such as leather interior, heated front seats, fog lamps, steering wheel-mounted controls, fancy wheels and such and you’re up to the $24,000 mark. My car was the “Lounge” version, and by the time the dust settles, this one is up around the $28,000 mark. I really like this little car, but twenty-eight large? I don’t like it that much.
No; where the 500 shines is in the entry level sector of the market. You can get a bare-bones, non-Cabrio version for around $14,000 before extras and that’s the way to go here. One note: my car was a 2014 model, but aside from a minor price adjustment, the 2015 are pretty much exactly the same.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 1.4 litre “MultiAir” four cylinder
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 101 @6500 rpm
Torque: 98 ft. lb. @ 4000 rpm
Base Price: $23,995; as tested $27,375
Fuel Economy: 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres, city / 5.2 highway. Regular fuel.
Alternatives: Scion iQ, Honda CR-Z, Smart ForTwo, Chev Spark, Mazda2, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Nissan Micra, Mini 3-door.