Go, baby, go

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 September, 2008, 12:00am

When it first appeared in 1957, the Fiat 500 was hailed as the antidote to Italy's post-war transport problems. Fiat's diminutive two-door mobilised the masses in an affordable and attractive package two years ahead of Britain's iconic Austin Mini.

Like the Mini, both Italian-designed cars are regarded as classics, yet designer Dante Giacosa had to defend the dinky 500's meagre performance by saying, 'It will always be more comfortable than a scooter.'

Fifty years on, and there's almost as much fuss about the Italian carmaker's reinterpretation of its budget post-war runabout. It may have taken a full year to reach our shores, but the new Fiat 500 has been generating lots of headlines for its snappy blend of style and practicality - and the fact that Fiat is banking on sales of its latest city car to see it through a difficult period.

It may sound risky, but the 500's appeal is obvious from the outset. As a design number, it's a deft reinterpretation of Fiat's original everyman's car. Beautifully styled on the outside, and with unprecedented attention to detail on the inside, the little Fiat is a retro reworking of the Italian classic in the same vein as BMW's modern Mini, launched in 2002.

Even though the new 500 manages to retain almost all of the cute charisma of the original, it immediately dispenses with its ancestor's reputation as a wheezy rattlebox and the egg-shaped runabout is a joy to drive.

Based on the Panda - European Car of the Year in 2004 - the 500 has been given a wider track to improve its cornering and maximise internal space.

It's almost a relief when you peer inside the 500, as the interior not only manages to match the expectations raised by the 'gotta-have-one' exterior styling (it's a faithfully proportioned, scaled-up remodelling of the original); it's also been designed as a true four-seater, with a sculpted single seat and circular headrest for each passenger.

Yet even though it's refreshing that Fiat stopped short of sticking a bench in the back and calling the 500 a five-seater (like the original), it has to be said that space is at a premium in the rear, as it is in the reinvented Mini and VW's Golf-based Beetle redesign, launched in 1998. Firmly pitched at the first-time buyer market, the 500 is a stylish and engaging package inside and out - and one that Fiat hopes its customers will feel happy to personalise from their extensive (and notably not too expensive) options list.

The car comes in a range of eight modern pastel colours (no champagne beige on offer here), three metallic choices and an exclusive 'Funk' white with pearl effect. There are also no less than 19 stickers to help you customise your 500, mostly pretty tasteful affairs ranging from chequered flag motifs for the roof to a red-white-and-green Italian-flag side stripe.

As if all that weren't enough, 10 different car badges bearing the new 500's logo and nine different key covers help you match your car's body colour with the stickers - leaving you in no doubt as to the age group this car is aimed at.

Behind the wheel of the 500, however, design aficionados of any age will appreciate the attention to detail that has gone into recreating the feel of the 50s original. There are two interior choices - a light and a dark two-tone combination - that both feature body-coloured painted metal above waist-height for that authentic classic-car feel, leather-trimmed upholstery and a funky choice of fabrics.

You may still be tempted to customise your Italian egg further to ensure that your steering wheel, seat-trim and gearbox cover all match, even if it's just to impress your friends.

As retro-styled as it is, the Fiat 500 has all the modern-day kit you'd expect, from frippery such as an i-Pod and mobile phone-compatible six-speaker sound system, trip computer and remote locking, to what Fiat says are best-in-class preventive active and passive safety features. For a small car, the 500 is well-endowed with the fundamentals of modern safety systems to Euro NCAP 4 standards, boasting seven airbags, power steering, a reinforced body shell, as well as ABS with electronic brake-force distribution and an electronic stability program.

On the road, the 500 is marvellous fun to drive thanks to its wider track, its lightness and some assured tweaks to the chassis. Independent McPherson struts up front lend the Fiat a crisp touch and, coupled with its light, power-assisted point-and-go adjustable steering, the car retains its utilitarian charm as being a breeze to drive.

Performance is as vibrant as the 500's looks suggest, and although it's no Mini Cooper S, there's more than enough power from the 100 brake horsepower engine to call on no matter what road conditions are like.

What's more, the 16-valve engine conforms to the emission limits envisaged by future Euro 5 standards, so it should prove as efficient as any other petrol-burning city car for some time - and most of the mechanicals are proven entities from Fiat's award-winning Panda.

Yet there is one caveat you should be aware of if you're already sold on the 500. In Hong Kong it comes in two variants - a basic model with a six-speed manual transmission and a more expensive five-speed semi-automatic. The gearbox is all that sets the two cars apart, as both versions share the perky 1.4-litre engine.

However much you might prefer an auto box, the five-speed Dualogic semi-automatic is a fidgety affair that becomes easily confused if you press it too hard. And performance is tepid with the automatic unless you keep the sports button - which tightens up the gear ratios - on permanently.

Aside from that glitch, which really isn't in keeping with the 500's ethos of simplicity, the little Fiat is otherwise a wonderfully engaging car. So when it comes to buying one, it's a clear case of less is more. Plump for the more charming, more frugal and more authentic manual 500 and pocket the change for future fuel bills.

AT A GLANCE: Fiat 500

What drives it? A 100bhp, 1,368cc four-cylinder DOHC 16-valve engine linked to a six-speed manual gearbox.

How fast is it? The Fiat 500 reaches 100kmh in 10.5 seconds and has a top speed of 160km/h, the marque says.

How safe is it? It's well-equipped for Hong Kong, with anti-lock braking, electronic brake-force distribution, ABS, vehicle dynamic control, seven airbags and a rear parking sensor.

How thirsty is it? The Fiat 500 uses 6.3 litres of fuel per 100km on a combined cycle, the dealer says.

Hong Kong friendly? It blows 149 grams of CO2 per kilometre, the equivalent of 1.2 Smart ForTwos

Availability: HK$199,800 for the manual; HK$213,802 for the automatic with a two-year warranty from Autosportiva (tel: 2877 8788).