Unless you’re registered blind or housebound, you cannot have failed to have noticed the steady influx of the cuddly new Fiat 500 onto the nation’s roads.
This unashamedly-nostalgic reworking of Fiat’s classic from the 50s has stolen the hearts of thousands of style-savvy motorists not just here in the UK but throughout Europe and even further afield.
Even BSM have chopped in their fleet of staid Vauxhall Corsas as they rush to embrace the cheap running costs and undoubted stylistic attaction of the little Italian bambino.
Everyone it seems is anxious to get into one of these fun-filled retromobiles, and contributor Alexander Henry is no exception..
Unlike many people, I was never a fan of the original Mini. Perhaps it was memories of being driven to school in musty smelling British Leyland era versions in awful colours with plastic seats, bouncing along on rusted out subframes, or perhaps something else. But I didn’t like them. The reinvented BMW version when it came along in 2001 didn’t stand a chance then. Although I wasn’t keen on Issignosis’ original I was at least able to recognise its place in motoring history, an important brick in the wall of car development – clever use of space, suspension, drivetrain and value for money making it accessible to most. The new one to me missed the mark totally. It was none of these things. It had room for the driver and front passenger and nobody else. Or their stuff. It was bloody expensive. It wasn’t really British even. And worst of all, it rapidly became adopted by legions of estate agents. The MINI (as it is now known) could do nothing more to make me hate it, despite reports of it being good to drive.
This whole retro thing, started with the Beetle, taken over by the MINI didn’t float my boat. Both of these attempts to recapture the youthful, swinging spirit of the original cars seemed to be excessively cynical. The Beetle, built for pennies on an outdated Golf platform in Mexico, and powered by a VW Transporter engine in the wrong place was never going to last surely? And then came the reports of Citroen reinventing the 2CV and FIAT the 500. Citroen’s claims arrived in the form of the lumpen C3, but FIAT came good on their word, previewing the Trepiuno concept which was clearly on the verge of crawling down a production line. This new 500 confused me. I wanted one.
The fuss died down, I still hated the MINI and its estate agent clients, the Beetle continued to look more and more ridiculous, and occasional reports of nuova 500 progress appeared in the motoring press. I rediscovered my love for small Italian cars at about the same time FIAT was doing this themselves, purchasing one of the first of the excellent Grande Punto models – the first decent small Fiat since the Panda a few years beforehand, itself the first decent small Fiat since the original Punto was launched. FIAT had discovered their mojo again. Finally, the nuova 500 was a reality. The press had their cars, James May test drove one on Top Gear and pronounced it a joy, and not being able to wait, I set to work on the Italian language car configurator, forming my ideal car. All of a sudden this made sense. I was transported back to my childhood – seemingly infinite variations of colour, trim, specification, stickers, brightwork, engines. No limits. Every engine could be had in every trim, every colour, every option. I ordered the teaser brochure. This in itself was a marvel – a glossy A5 sized ring bound funpad, with stickers to move about and reposition, overlays and colour swatches.
When they announced it was only going to cost £7,900 in the UK, it was clear that my relationship with the Punto was coming to an end. Not so my outstanding finance on that car however, so it had to wait. A trip to the dealer managed to assuage any fears of it being too small to consider but a test drive had to be put off until February 2009. With my girlfriend in tow (actually, she was just as keen as I and drove it first) we set off in a posh Lounge specification car, powered by the 1.3 diesel engine. The ability of the car was remarkable. It felt solid, grown up, well made and put an enormous grin on my face as it was thrashed out of creepy Crawley on a test route. I always say that the worth of a car is always clear once you’ve had it up on two wheels and this demonstrator did not escape. It showed it was a proper FIAT, responding to every demand in the way I would expect.
With a motoring history averaging one car a year over 13 years, surprisingly only two of them were brand new. Choosing a new Clio in 1998 and even the Grande Punto in 2006, was fairly easy if underwhelming. Set the budget, choose the colour and that’s about it. When sat opposite the dealer having completed the test drive and committing to purchase, actually choosing a 500 is really rather difficult. Much was made of the MINI’s umpteen million spec combination and the 500 is much the same. Start with a blank canvas and make your own choice. To be honest, this could have been very difficult for me. As most around me will attest, I suffer from a form of selection anxiety. I find it distressing choosing breakfast cereal in Sainsbury’s and often linger here for several hours. Choosing a multipack of crisps has much the same effect on me. It’s one of the reasons my local supermarkets recently started opening 24 hours. And to the best of my knowledge there are only 83 kinds of cereal and 52 types of crisps. I had 500,000 Fiat 500 specifications to choose from.
Fortunately I had been practising for nearly two years already, since the car was launched in Italy. Many an evening definitely NOT wasted, spent configuring, saving, naming and recolouring – all in the name of research and an eventual aim. So where best to start? Number one consideration was budget. I’m not wealthy. I work in Insurance. I have a company car already which is quite posh. It was always going to be the Pop version, the entry level car. Not only this but the Lounge model which is the next one up has horrid seats and a glass roof which robs headroom. I didn’t like the wheels on the Sport version. These concerns and a firm belief that a small Fiat is always at its best in basic, solid paint and wheel trim form started me off. When it comes to cars, I believe in a law of diminishing returns – the basic car is always worth paying for if it’s good. You drive the chassis, the engine, the brakes, not the trinkets. Trinkets break and fall off, get tarnished and don’t pay you back what you forked out for them in the first place. With a basic version you get most of what the car means, for the least outlay.
You also get nicer seats.
The 1.2 petrol engine was chosen. This was the same motor as in my Punto, which was quite a lot bigger. It did the small FIAT petrol thing perfectly – loved to rev, sounded great, provided pace that belied its miniscule power rating and rewarded being driven HARD. In the 500 it’s a revelation. This engine is actually really old, but here it is clean, refined yet fizzy and economical. It’s the only motor to emit under 120 grams of CO2 and thus place it into £35 a year tax country, unless you include the diesel. A diesel in cars this size is always a false economy so this was rejected. It was always going to have the black ambience – steering wheel, seat belts, dash trim and inserts and seat tops and despite worries about stains, the red seats.
What colour outside? White. The only free colour. And the colour that works best. Everyone else seems to agree, literally every other one I see is finished in this colour. The car was ordered 14th February and duly Christened Valentino. I’ve never named a car before. I don’t think I have ever admitted in public that I have now done so either.
Valentino was delivered the day after my 30th birthday and we celebrated together with a tour of the South coast – Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Everywhere we went, the road ahead was scanned for other 500’s. Every one we spotted was flashed and (nearly) everyone waved back. This is a game I play over 6 months later and I never tire of it. It seems the 500 makes people smile. A Spring outing to the AutoItalia festival at Brooklands brought an enormous amount of pleasure with Valentino being parked with dozens of other cars, driving through the crowd thronged event on a beautiful sunny day sandwiched between Ferraris and Lamborghinis is something I will never forget.
The funny thing was that this modern interpretation of the original 500, a car which has a passionate following, was never questioned. Many an Issignonis Mini can be spotted wearing a ‘100% BMW FREE’ sticker. I’ve never heard nor seen any unpleasant comment from the original 500 brigade, despite the new one’s engine being in the wrong place, Beetle style. In fact, at Brooklands, new and old were parked up together like boys and girls at a primary school barn dance, only voluntarily.
The new 500 is a marvel. It’s £3000 less than the cheapest MINI. It’s smaller, yet has more space inside. It’s cleaner, more accessible and isn’t identified with hateful estate agents. OK, it’s not perfect – the ride is a little bouncy, the steering has no feel to speak of and some of the components feel a bit cheap but the return on the investment is staggering. And confidence must be high – BSM recently agreed to replace their entire Vauxhall fleet with the little FIAT and this can only be a good thing for residuals, with demand for used examples surely being pushed up by new drivers with wealthy parents looking to buy their offspring something they feel comfortable in. I’ve only seen girls learning in them though, which makes me wonder – how come I never feel at all…. metrosexual driving this car? How come I see so many blokes driving them and how come so many blokes seem to be driving powder blue examples? This is something I can never explain, although I did note that every original 500 I see is being piloted by a man, generally with a large beard.