Fancying a Fiat

In the past 35 years, I’ve encountered three Fiat 500s that stirred my interest.

The first one, already 20 years old in the 1970s, belonged to a fellow a few years ahead of me at school, and was very unusual in that the owner had tossed out the original half-litre, 10kW twin-cylinder engine to make room for a VW Beetle flat-four that delivered about three times more power than the car and its brakes were ever intended to accommodate.

I never knew Fred Munna well enough to scrounge a ride in his contraption, which, with hindsight, was maybe a good thing.

Ronnie Collatz of Durban owned the second Fiat 500 to tickle my fancy. His heavily breathed-upon little delinquent ran the quarter-mile from a standing start in 13 seconds dead, reaching 100km/h in somewhere around five seconds. Ronnie used the tiny car, which boasted a highly modified Renault Gordini engine fitted with Nissan pistons to take it to 1400cc, on the road, and thoroughly humiliated many upcountry yuppies in BMW M3s and Porsche 911s between Durban’s traffic lights.

One aggrieved Porsche owner even offered to buy the Fiat—“So I can burn it!” I drove that car once, and even though its brakes and suspension had been considerably upgraded, its short wheelbase and direct steering coupled with brutal acceleration off the line made handling very—umm—interesting.

The Fiat 500 I drove recently, at its launch in Cape Town, wasn’t hand-crafted by an enthusiast as the drag-racer I lusted after was, nor was it rough around the edges like the first. It was a 1,4-litre version of the long-awaited Italian retromobile launched to so much fanfare in Italy a year ago.

The latest Fiat shares little with its predecessor of 50 years ago except, to some extent, its styling. It’s nowhere near as cutesy-wutesy because it’s physically much bigger, and its engines are now four-cylinder jobbies mounted up front to drive the front wheels rather than puny little twins hanging out of the back to impel the rear wheels. And, well ... it’s expensive.

On the plane on the way down to Cape Town I read a specialist car magazine’s pre-launch test of the 1,4-litre Fiat 500, and the opinion given there was that the R179 000 vehicle, although good, was about R50 000 too expensive.

That got me thinking: How do you define value? Is a Rolex wristwatch a hundred times better than a Timex? Is the world’s most expensive burger, sold at London’s Burger King for R2 000, that much better than what we’re used to getting from the local Spur, even with its wagyu beef, white truffles, Iranian saffron, and pink Himalayan rock salt? Is Kinclaith 36-year-old Scotch worth more than R2 000 per tot, or R60 000 per bottle, when you can get a bottle of pretty good Scotch for under R200? 

The answers, of course, are no, no and no—but if you have the money and want to flaunt it, why not? The Fiat 500 isn’t intended to be a car for the masses. It’s meant to be a safe, comfortable and reliable fashion statement, rather like the new Mini, the less successful Chrysler PT Cruiser and the reborn Volkswagen Beetle. None of these is cheap, but sales still trickle along steadily because there’s always somebody out there who is willing to pay the price to make a statement of sorts. 

The funky little car—built in Poland—shares much of its DNA, including engines, with the Fiat Panda and the soon-to-be-released replacement Ford Ka. Both these cars are positioned near the bottom end of the market in terms of pricing, which means that comparisons are sure to be drawn between them and the 500. But ignoring all of that, the Fiat is still a lovely little vehicle and the other two are not as stylish or well equipped.

The charm of the Fiat lies more in its interior styling than the exterior, though, so don’t expect to draw a fan club of excited spectators whenever you stop. The interior, with loads of cream and ivory trim surrounding simplistic retro instrumentation and chunky buttons, doesn’t seem, like that in so many other cars that try to be different and young at heart, as if it would be more at home in a Tonka-Toy. It all feels extremely classy and this middle-aged honky likes it—very much.

One thing that Fiat really stresses about the 500 is the fact that buyers can “individualise” their cars just about infinitely, as long as the wallet that’s paying for it all is thick enough. There are, they say, no less than 500 000 combinations of colours, stickers, chrome stick-on bits, stripes, wheels, upholstery, key covers and other accessories to keep even the most spoilt of brats happy. Most of that is bling, though, and I reckon those who want the cars will take what’s available rather than wait weeks or months for a personalised version to arrive. 

The 1,4-litre six-speed Fiat I drove—the little two-door car comes in 1,2 Pop, 1,4 Lounge and 1,4 Sport guises—isn’t the quickest in its class, but then, it was never intended to be. It puts out 73,5kW as opposed to the 51kW of the smaller five-speed version, and is good for a very respectable 180km/h and a 0-100km/h time of 10,5 seconds. That’s not too shabby, and the 1,2 Pop’s figures of 160km/h and 12,9 seconds will probably be adequate, especially at sea level, for those people who’d rather pay R149 000 than R179 000. 

Both 1,4 versions come with seven air bags, ABS and EBD, HBA (hydraulic brake assistance, which steps in to help apply the clamps in emergency stops). There’s also—unusual in such a small car—ESP (electronic stability programme) and traction control. The 1,2 version does without the HBA and ESP, but retains the ABS, EBD and all the air bags, as well as all the other features we’d expect for the price.

What many of the 18-year-old spoilt young things who are likely to find this car in their Christmas stockings will appreciate is the Hill Holder system that helps the driver take off seamlessly during hill starts, which should make the driver’s licence test much easier. That, of course, is if they’re lucky enough to get one of the 1,4-litre versions. The steering-wheel audio controls and hands-free Bluetooth voice-recognition system that supplement the standard four-speaker, two-tweeter CD/MP3 player in the 1,4-litre derivatives are also available as an option in the 1,2-litre Fiat.

The 1,4 feels reasonably lively, and the car is a real little gem to drive, just because it feels so ... likeable may be the word to use here. Handling and braking are good, with a firm ride that caused some journalists at the launch to complain of harshness, but I felt quite happy with it. There’s also a surprising amount of room for passengers front and rear—it’s not a minibus, but it should get the job done for most of the people most of the time.

I think the Fiat 500 is a lovely little car. While I agree that it’s too expensive for me and most other South Africans, it was obviously never meant for the masses. If you want it and you can afford it, go for it, because it has that one ingredient that’s missing from so many motorcars today—soul.

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