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Mild hybrid power gives Fiat's core model a chance to outlive its famous 1950s forebear

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Can there be many milestones left for the now-seventeen-year old Fiat 500? Most modern car model generations are long dead and buried by this age. The BMW Group’s ‘new Mini’ has been through three full model generations in the space of 25 years.

But, historically speaking, really special small cars have tended to live for longer. Both the original Mini and Citroen 2CV managed more than four decades of continual production, getting fairly minor incremental updates only; the original Volkswagen Beetle more than six.

First shown in 2007, 50 years after the launch of the Cinquecento that inspired it, the 500 has proved a hit for Fiat

With things as they are, it may be hard to imagine the rebooted baby Fiat sticking around for quite that long - but, if it survives for another twelve months or so, it will have had a longer life than Dante Giacosa’s 1957 ‘nuova 500’ original.

The original Nova 500 was so basic that it was conceived partly as an alternative to a scooter. There was one engine option and it had just two seats (at launch), plus suicide doors. By comparison, the modern 500 is much larger and more powerful.

First shown in 2007, 50 years after the launch of the Cinquecento that inspired it, the 500 has proved a hit for Fiat, pulling in sales and hugely improving the brand’s image. It has also fathered a whole family of sister models: the 500X500L, and now the all-electric Fiat 500.

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DESIGN & STYLING

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fiat 500c hybrid review 2024 02 panning side

It’s been a while since Autocar last tested this car; for our last UK test, you have to look back beyond the introduction of the 1.0-litre mild hybrid engine that powers this test car, which was added to it in 2020.

At that stage, the Fiat’s old two- and four-cylinder petrol engines were taken out, and this three-cylinder unit slotted in, which uses a belt-driven 12-volt starter-generator and a small lithium-ion battery, though it's still only rated for 68bhp and 68lb ft of torque. Fiat also took the opportunity to swap the car’s old five-speed manual gearbox out for a six-speeder at the same time, and hasn’t replaced the car’s lumpy old ‘Dualogic’ five-speed automated manual.

Further back In 2015, meanwhile, the car was given a much needed facelift which apparently saw 1900 changes made to Fiat's winning formula - most noticeably tweaks to the headlights, tail lights and bumpers.

Initially, design is what sells the car. The proportions of the original have been replicated here, which is an achievement in itself, given that the original was a two-seater with an air-cooled engine in the back, and this is a four-seater with a water-cooled engine, mounted more conventionally in the front.

The 500 is obviously a successor to the 1957 car, but not slavishly so. The original didn’t, for instance, have secondary lights below the round headlights like the modern car. It didn’t have to contend with Euro NCAP crash tests, either (the Fiat 500 is a three-star NCAP-rated car by the current standards).

Lines down the car's bonnet are reminiscent of the original Cinquecento, although back in the day it was just a chrome rubbing strip down the lid’s middle. Manufacturing techniques back then wouldn’t have allowed such crisp folds as this. The 2015 facelift gave the 500 more prominient headlights and rear lights, but didn't ultimately alter the small Fiat's cheeky allure.

INTERIOR

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fiat 500c hybrid review 2024 08 dash

Apart from the gear lever, and a few updates of the multimedia system, the 500’s interior hasn’t really been touched since its major facelift in 2015.

In some ways, it still strikes you as quite a neat bit of packaging. For outright space, you do feel quite tightly squeezed in at the wheel by the big, rudder-like driver’s door as it closes, in front of a tight pedal box and a steering column with no reach adjustment at all. But headroom isn’t so tight; the front seats adjust to let you trade off cushion inclination against base height quite cleverly; and visibility is good in most directions.

I love the idea of a cabriolet supermini, but suspect I couldn't live with one for long. The 500's boot is small enough as it is; and yet the 500C makes you wait a few seconds to open it if the roof is all the way back, and then gives you a letterbox-like loading aperture.

The exception to that rule, in the case of the 500C cabriolet version at least, comes when you motor the cloth hood all the way back, when it gathers up in a slightly ugly bunch behind the rear seats (usable for smaller kids only), and obscures a big chunk of the view in your rearview mirror. You also get a less accessible and generally useful boot in the case of the 500C - so it really is worth questioning how much you want that tousled fringe.

The 500’s design gave engineers a bigger challenge in making room for rear passengers than those up front. The 1957 car's roof curved towards the rear to intentionally reduce space behind the front seats, to help differentiate it from the four-seat 600. Even later 500s had rear seats that were only fit for children.

Yet today's car, which is only 3.5 metres long, was designed as a full four-seater from the off; so you sit low in the 500's back pair of chairs, on thin but dense padding, and both headroom and legroom are tight. Further rear, beneath a very small parcel shelf there is a 185-litre boot.

The cabin's material quality, which passed muster for a small car with premium intentions a decade or more ago, stands up less well to scrutiny in 2024. This is partly because Fiat discontinued the car's old richer trim levels. Our test car had dark dashboard plastics that looked hard and shiny in places, though its switchgear mostly avoided feeling cheap to the touch.

The Abarth models are a slightly different breed and, as you might expect, come with all the sporting pretensions expected from a hot-hatch-cum-track-day-special. They all come with the same 1.4-litre T-Jet turbo petrol engine, but each produce a different output - 143bhp, 163bhp and 178bhp for the 595, Turismo and Competizione respectively.

With the Abarth it’s clear that Fiat wants you to be in no doubt that you’re inside an Abarth than a regular Fiat. The general cabin layout is very similar to the normal 500, of course, but in the detailing it’s pure Abarth. At least, what Fiat perceives a modern Abarth to be, and that means bucket seats, alloy pedals, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, a turbo boost gauge/shift indicator and a Sport button on the dash.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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fiat 500c hybrid review 2024 18 engine

How much performance does a city car like the Fiat 500 need? In our view, there should be enough low-down eagerness to nip assertively through traffic, and sufficient reserves to keep up with the flow on the occasional trip further afield.

In those respects, Fiat’s mild hybrid engine has certainly made the 500 a better car to drive than it ever was with two cylinders. Much as the old TwinAir motor was easy to like in principle, it was also quite rough-running and laggy, and hard to coax really good efficiency from; whereas this three-pot is smoother, more flexible - and quite a bit more frugal.

Fiat claims 30 per cent fuel consumption savings for it in mixed running; and in practice, it makes for mid-50s miles–per-gallon without any particular effort.

Keep an eye on energy flow in and out of that pint-sized hybrid system and you’ll notice that it only really seems to assist the engine as it pulls between about 2000- and 3000 revs; and in doing so, while you don’t really feel it working, it does seem to boost drivability a bit. 

So it doesn’t make the motor any keener to get to peak power, nor make this car feel anything other than quite short-geared and very modestly powerful when you find yourself in a hurry. Which, we should remember, is how cars this size typically feel. Keeping the car moving in quicker flows of traffic keeps both feet, and your left arm, occupied; you do plenty of downshifting to make progress on the motorway; and the hybrid system can do little to make easy work of steeper gradients.

Mechanical refinement is quite tremulous at times. While the car's 1.0-litre engine isn't as rough as the old TwinAir, you can certainly feel it vibrating through the car when it's revving hard - while rougher surfaces can make both the chassis and steering column vibrate a little. In terms of refinement at the very least, there are now much plusher, smoother prospects than a Fiat 500.

RIDE & HANDLING

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fiat 500c hybrid review 2024 19 action

Fiat has done much to incrementally improve the 500's ride and handling over the years. Now, judged by modern supermini class standards, it still handles moderately well, making hay with its short wheelbase and keeping decent control of its body when cornering; though it doesn't ride as well as the most polished small cars in the class.

You tend to feel the 500’s short wheelbase as it pitches and bounces a little over crests and into troughs. The ride has that small-wheeled feel so typical of city cars of decades ago, so it tends to pick up on ridges and bumps that other cars would glide over: a little as if it were on castor wheels.

There's nothing complicated about the 500's take on driver appeal. It's just a small, light car with a decent grip level, that you can take by the scruff for a few corners really simply. And, if you can see a hill up ahead, that's invariably what you need to do.

The suspension is typically quiet, but can get noisy and a little hollow-sounding over rougher roads, when the impacts and vibrations are often felt through the car's body structure and steering column. Newer superminis generally feel as if they have superiors integrity to them.

Fiat's electric power steering is still not much of a communicator, but at least its artificial resistance feels more real than it used to, and without too much of the straight-ahead deadness that EPAS systems used to suffer with. Switch to City mode and the steering feels only semi-connected, but the effort required is certainly low.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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fiat 500c hybrid review 2024 01 cornering front

Fuel consumption never used to be a strong suit of the Fiat 500: the old 1.2-litre engine might nudge close to 50mpg, but the smaller TwinAir seldom edged past 45- in real-world use.

So Fiat's new 1.0-litre hybridised engine might finally be the solution that longtime owners have hoped for. It'll return economy in the low-50s without any particular effort, and can be persuaded beyond 60mpg in certain circumstances.

Unlike many convertibles where extra weight is an issue, Fiat claims near-identical economy and emissions figures for the 500C as the hard-top car. Insurance groups are competitive, and although a three-year warranty is average now, the 500 has a good reliability record.

VERDICT

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It’d be fair to observe that the Fiat 500 now really does feel its age: in the way it drives, the space it affords, and the way its cabin is finished - although perhaps less so in the impressive economy of its new hybrid engine.

And yet it retains plenty of charm and fun factor still; a bit like an impromptu ride in a shopping trolley beyond the supermarket aisles. And the style it exudes on the outside is still carried through to its cabin in some ways - even if most small cars now offer considerably better practicality, and in the 500C cabriolet there are even larger practicality compromises with which to contend than in the hatchback.

Age takes a toll on any supermini cabin. Get out of a mid-spec Dacia Sandero and into this, and I don’t think you’d feel like you were sitting in the more upmarket car. But there are still things to like: not least Fiat’s clever inset analogue instruments, which save space. 

In a market increasingly hostile to small cars, though, this one remains a singular, likeable thing - and worth rooting for.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Fiat 500 First drives