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FIAT 500

Creating a product that has a cult-like following must be a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, the product enjoys a solid market base, while on the other, it poses a product longevity conundrum. Over time, there is a need to upgrade the product, but how do you change something enough to keep it fresh and not so much as to annoy its existing fanbase? It is a tricky formula to master, one which has seen the endurance of the likes of the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon, the Porsche 911, the Jeep Wrangler, and for today’s focus, the Fiat 500. 

First launched in Italy in 1964, the Fiat 500 embodied the essence of mobility and freedom. When the 500 was relaunched for a new generation in 2007, it became popular with urban millennials as a fashion and lifestyle icon. Now in its third generation since its original introduction, the 500 has been updated for 2021. With this update comes four new trim levels, each receiving a high standard of specification that accentuates the characteristics of the particular model. 

CULT

This entry-level trim comes with 14” steel wheels with hubcaps, black exterior mirrors, and LED daytime running lamps and halogen headlights as standard.

The interior is highlighted by blue fabric seats with Fiat Monogram and a body colour dashboard. The Cult can also be optioned with a Techno Blue Matt dashboard, with the standard list of comfort features remaining high. These include a Uconnect 5” radio with DAB, USB ports, manual air-conditioning and a speed limiter.

CONNECT

A tier above the Cult, the Connect models come with 15’ alloy wheels, specific side skirts, a rear spoiler, and bumpers complete with fog lights. The trim also boasts dual paint schemes that bring out the car’s fun character.

The interior improves on the Cult, adding height-adjustable “flashy” seats. The tech is also better, with a multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, Uconnect 7” infotainment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and two additional rear speakers.

SPORT

This trim level raises the bar significantly, adding 16” alloy wheels, Sport badging, specific side skirts, and rear spoiler. In the cabin, new “arrow electro” seats and a Titanium dashboard with a red 500 logo enhance the experience. A 7” TFT digital cluster and automatic air conditioning underlines the car’s value proposition.

DOLCEVITA

For the more avant-garde Dolcevita models, Fiat has added layers of Italian style and flair with bespoke badging and chrome accents on the optional two-tone paintwork. With bespoke 16” alloy wheels, the Dolcevita also gets a Techno-leather multi-function steering wheel, glass roof, Matelassé fabric seats with techno leather details, and a 50/50 split rear seat. 

Besides its interior upgrades, the Dolcevita receives a “manual transmission automated” (MTA), where the other models have a six-speed manual gearbox.

ATTRACTIVE EXTERIOR

First impressions when walking up to the 500 are just how attractive the entire package is, regardless of trim. The looks alone are testament to the ageless retro design that has endured the best part of half a century. Cute, quirky, and tiny, the 500 draws you in for a closer look and a drive. Except for an updated lower grille and DRLs that match the 0 in the 500 logo, there are no significant changes to the exterior for the 2021 model. 

In addition to a whole range of new colour options, you can now get the 500 in hatchback guise across the model range, or if you opt for the Sport and Dolcevita trims, you could have the 500C cabriolet with a soft folding top.

FEEL AT HOME INSIDE

Just like the exterior, the interior is a mixture of simplicity and quirkiness. With a myriad of round and odd shapes that connote a playful character, each trim has its own stylistic cues in an interior that reflects tasteful execution.

As you may well guess from the car’s compact dimensions, rear seating may be a bit of a challenge for most. The 500 is a comfortable two-seater at best, and a four-seater in a pinch.

IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT

Underneath the 500’s bonnet is Fiat’s 875 cc TwinAir two-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine. This two-cylinder concept harkens back to the original engine from the 1960s, except that it now boasts state of the art technology and efficiency. Given the engine’s size, bold power figures were never on the cards. However, through the magic of forced induction, Fiat was able to squeeze out 62.5kW 145 Nm. The engine comes with either a five-speed manual transmission or an automated manual transmission (exclusive to the Dolcevita models). Fiat claims a zero to 100km/h sprint time of 11 seconds, and a combined fuel consumption figure of 4 l/100 km. Frugal, yet spirited.

On launch day, we had the opportunity to drive both the Cult and Dolcevita models, allowing us to get a feel for both ends of the 500 model spectrum. Given that all models are mechanically identical, the driving experience is quite similar across the range, and both cars were pleasantly entertaining to drive. The 500 is not a quick thing, that is certain, but the power output is perfect for the urban roads on which most of these cars will spend their time. The automated manual option in the Dolcevita needs some time to get used to, which makes the traditional manual transmission in the Cult a more sensible option.

The 500 also comes with some safety features that outshine the competition in the A-segment, including seven airbags as standard, cruise control, electronic stability control, and hill start assist.

LAST WORD

The Fiat 500 is a timeless car that packs a lot of style and charm. With its small dimensions, light steering and zesty little engine, the 500 is a great urban car with the four trim levels expertly designed to target different tastes and needs. Starting at R219,900, the 500 is a solid purchase for anyone in search of a practical urban runabout that makes a bold statement with its unique appearance, tried and tested through the decades.

Report by BRYAN KAYAVHU | Images © STELLANTIS 

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