Fiat’s splendid little two-cylinder 875cc TwinAir turbo petrol engine was originally available only with a power output of 84bhp, but we were promised that other variants would become available in time.
Sure enough, a more robust 104bhp version has since been introduced, and it can be found under the bonnet of the 500 Lounge tested here. 104bhp is quite lot for a teeny-tiny unit like this, and it puts the 500 into what might nowadays be called the “junior warm hatch” category, with a respectable 0-62mph time of 10 seconds.
That said, it’s hardly a screamer. It has done its best work by 5500rpm, though you’d want to squeeze 6000 out of it to maximise the performance after the next gearchange, and it performs well enough at low revs to give the impression that it has a larger capacity than is in fact the case.
The rest of the car isn’t all that sporty either, so while the extra performance the engine provides makes it quicker than other 500s (apart from the substantially more powerful Abarth derivatives) it isn’t necessarily any more fun.
Oddly, the test car became more interesting the harder I drove it. This is probably because it was fitted with optional 16″ wheels and lower-profile tyres which maintain sharpness at a point when the standard rubber is starting to all smudgy. But it strikes me that a car like this should be at its best when it’s being driven moderately, as it probably will be by most owners. For that reason – and because the smaller tyre sidewalls make the ride unpleasantly fidgety – I’d probably save myself £180 and stick with the 15s, no matter how much more visual appeal the 16s may provide.
In any case, the 500 already has visual appeal to spare, and this is arguably the cornerstone of its success. The first time I was given one to test, I stood for a few moments with the chap who delivered it after he’d taken it off the trailer. He has since denied that this ever happened, probably in an attempt to preserve an air of manliness, but I clearly remember him saying, “You just want to hug it, don’t you?” and me agreeing with him.
Of course we wanted to hug it. Who wouldn’t? Show me a cuter car currently on sale in this country. Bet you can’t. It’s the motoring equivalent of a kitten, and in TwinAir form it even sounds like one at tickover (though at high revs it more closely resembles a tremendously angry Citroen 2CV).
Because of its looks, much may be forgiven: the lack of rear passenger space, for example, or the fact that its luggage capacity, a mere 185 litres, is a travesty in an era when several city cars offer 250 and more. Or the way you can adjust the steering wheel for height but not for reach, a practice every car manufacturer should have abandoned by the turn of the century.
The fuel economy is open to question too. Officially, it stands at 67.3mpg, but good luck trying to match that. I’ve never got close. There is always a temptation to hang on to gears too long in TwinAir cars because, if you’re used to four-cylinder engines, they sound as if they’re revving half as high as they actually are, but even if you ignore the false impression that the car is shaking itself to a standstill it remains very difficult to get near the EU test figure.
Be that as it may, I suspect most buyers will swallow that, and many will devote money they haven’t saved on petrol to such visual niceties as the special pastel paint and £460 Second Skin body graphics. There would certainly be a case for spending £350 on the DAB digital radio and TomTom satellite navigation package, and £250 on the digital instruments display, which is no more effective than a set of analogue dials but unquestionably looks very pretty.
These and a few other options take the price from £14,420 to over £16,000. That’s quite a bit for what really isn’t the best small car on the market, but maybe not excessive for what is surely the most charming.
Engine size 875cc
Top speed 117mph
0-62mph 10.0 seconds
Fuel economy 67.3mpg combined
CO2 emissions 99g/km
Towing capacity 800kg (braked trailer)
Euro NCAP (2007) Adult occupant 5 stars Child occupant 3 stars Pedestrian 2 stars
Information correct at publication date