JOHANNESBURG - In Afrikaans there’s a word “ougat” which translated loosely means cute but it’s really a bit more than that, which is probably a good way to describe the Fiat 500.
The first ones hit the streets in 1957, making it almost at retirement age but it has stood the test of time and since then 6 million have been sold.
In the 1960s, with its endearing look and counter culture appeal, the Fiat 500 became a phenomenon and since then it has continued to be the darling of young and old alike.
Now only in its third generation, the second generation launched in 2007 and with three million sold, Fiat (as part of the Stellantis Group) has given it a significant update to keep the little city runabout relevant.
Four new flavours
The Fiat 500 now comes in four derivatives: Cult, Connect, Dolcevita and Sport.
The entry-level Cult comes with 14-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, black side mirrors, LED day-time running lights with halogen headlights.
Inside you get blue fabric seats and a Fiat Monogram and body colour dashboard with a techno blue matt option for the dash, Uconnect five-inch radio with DAB, USB ports and manual air conditioning as well as a speed limiter.
In the Connect you further get 15-inch alloys, side skirts, rear spoiler and bumpers with fog lights and a new silver bi-colour treatment with gloss black roof.
Fiat describes the height adjustable seats as “flashy” to go with the multi-functional steering wheel. The dash can also be ordered in matt silver while there is also cruise control, there’s a Uconnect seven-inch infotainment system with two additional rear speakers and it’s CarPlay and AndroidAuto compatible.
In the Dolcevita (don’t you just love the name?) there's bespoke badging and chrome accents, two-tone paintwork, 16-inch alloys and inside techno-leather steering wheel, glass roof, Matelassé fabric seats with techno-leather details and a 50/50 split rear seat. Fiat says that this is likely to be the biggest seller in the range and there’s also the option of getting it with a drop top.
The Sport with its titanium dashboard and red 500 logo is certainly the most eye-catching in the range.
It gets 16-inch alloy wheels sport badging, side skirts, bumpers and rear spoiler and to go with the dash “arrow electro” seats as well as the TFT seven-inch digital cluster and automatic air conditioning. The Sport also has a cabriolet option.
Twin-air engine across the range
All models are powered by Fiat’s TwinAir two-cylinder (yes, really) 875cc turbo-charged petrol engine that pays homage to the original Fiat 500.
Obviously technology has improved significantly since then so you get 62.5kW and 145Nm of torque. Keep in mind this is a small city car and the majority of its time will be spent, well, in the city and surroundings and it certainly didn’t lack power driving around at the launch.
That’s good for fuel economy and emissions too with a claimed 4L/100km and a 0-100km/h time of 11 seconds, should you want to go there.
The Cult, Connect and Sport are fitted with a good old fashioned five speed manual gearbox while the Dolcevita has an MTA transmission, which is automatic but is actually better described as a five-speed auto-manual.
The launch route included mostly city driving from the Italian Club in Bedfordview to Muldersdrift via Sandton and surrounds an area particularly suited for the 500.
It was the first day we had sun and heat in a while in Gauteng so we closed the automatic roof and initially it felt a bit claustrophobic especially with two tall guys. Once we got used to it the seating position felt comfortable and even for our bigger frames the seats hugged us in all the right places.
The two pod engine gives the Fiat 500 a unique sound not dissimilar to a BMW GS motorcycle. Finding the automatic selection with the lever took a while to master, so too trying to figure out the easiest and smoothest way of making it work. Essentially you accelerate as you would do normally and when you want to change gears lift the accelerator and depress it again to allow it to change. It takes some time to change between the cogs and to be honest, it’s a bit cumbersome and if you drive it like a normal auto it feels like it revs too high before changing. Gearing down is fortunately much easier done.
Steering through traffic as you can imagine proved no issue at all, although it can be a bit intimidating surrounded by taxis on all sides.
The suspension proved to be top-notch, handling the many road imperfections with ease and although it’s not designed to go around bends at full speed, the short wheel base and direct steering allows for very little body roll making sharp turns a lot of fun.
On the section of highway, the 500 easily kept with the national speed limit and managed to pass some of the slower traffic without too much trouble.
Once we had driven the Sport consensus was easily reached that the manual box was the one to go for.
It’s a lot less fussy with a light clutch and easy changes adding to the overall driving experience.
We thought that the inside cover to the glass roof could be a bit lightweight especially on a brutally hot South African day which is likely to keep the air conditioning running hard for long stretches.
Safety in the Fiat 500 is very well taken care of with seven airbags, ABS, Electronic Stability Control and hill descent control as well as a speed limiter.
The Fiat 500 is one of those cars that really sets itself apart in a sea of design “sameness”. In the same way it stood out from the crowd all those years ago it still does so and in the process has lost none of its cool factor while staying on price point..
FIAT 500 PRICING
Cult FWD 5MT: R219 900
Connect FWD 5MT: R260 900
Sport FWD 5MT R269 900
Dolcevita FWD 5AT R274 900
Sport Cabriolet FWD 5MT R319 900
Dolcevita Cabriolet FWD 5AT R324 900