Friday, 7 March 2008

Test Drive - Fiat 500 Sport

The pursuit of nostalgia can create a complicated and unsettling balancing act – an attempt to emulate an icon can lead to celebration or derision depending on quality of execution and public receptiveness. Look at the new Mini, for example – there’s no questioning the colossal respect and esteem in which the original Mini is held, yet BMW’s gamble in building a lardier 21st century iteration was generally met with applause. Variations on the brand remain a minefield, however. The remake of The Italian Job? Shocking how they pissed over the memory of the original. The new Mini Clubman? Well, it’s just shite isn’t it? (On that note, they gave it the wrong name too. The Clubman was the snub-nosed Mini, you berks; the estate was called Traveller or Countryman. But I digress.) So, if you get it right, you get it right. If you get it wrong, you shall be pilloried henceforth until the sun boils away to dust… and even then the cockroaches won’t touch the Clubman with a shitty stick.

With this in mind, launching a new Fiat 500 had the potential to be rather a risky venture. As beloved as the old Mini, the original Cinquecento was the cheeky, affordable baby that mobilised a nation and now has an enormously fanatical following across the globe. Any insult to its heritage from a chunky modern hatch would go down very badly indeed.

Fiat aren’t stupid, of course, and knew that they couldn’t merely copy the old format verbatim and place it in a next-century context. Very few people would buy a new city runabout with a rear-mounted vertical twin, for a start. What they did do was along the same lines as BMW’s tactics; they made a smallish (but, comparatively speaking, actually pretty large) city car, then formed a classic-looking shape to wrap it in, incorporating the primary styling cues of the forefather. And it’s actually come out rather well.

SuckSqueezeBangBlow drove the 1.4 16v Sport model, sharing its 100hp engine with the celebrated hot Panda. Whilst many argue that the Panda is the more capable car to make full use of this engine – as well as also being slightly cheaper – that isn’t really capturing the spirit of the enterprise. Until Fiat decide to put a proper engine in the 500 (the 150bhp 1.9 from the Bravo springs to mind), it’s best not to view it in any sort of particularly sporting context. This isn’t to say it’s not a giggle to drive. The engine is more than pokey enough to allow you to hustle it convincingly around town – that is, once you’ve got over the initial feeling of helplessness when you put your foot down and nothing happens for a second or two (rather like driving a turbo-diesel for the first time), although the ‘Sport’ button does slightly improve throttle response – and the handling is impressively competent; body-roll is minimal and the damping is pleasingly firm without being crashy.

Spec-wise, the 500 Sport is reasonably well equipped, the pièce de resistance being the sublime 16in multispoke alloys that nicely fill the arches and set the wheel-on-each-corner stance off superbly. You also get a six-speed manual ‘box, aircon, a decent stereo and a panoramic glass roof. It’s quite a pleasant place to sit, despite the peculiar driving position giving you the faintly unerring sensation that you’re actually sitting on the car rather than in it and - for the time being at least - it’s a car to satisfy your inner extrovert. It could just be that the 500 is still a rare sight on the roads in early 2008, but every second pedestrian from Fulham to Tooting was either stopping in their tracks to observe its passing or elbowing an accomplice in the ribs to point it out. All nourishment for the ego.

Unfortunately, you can tell that it’s been built to a price. The body-coloured plastic moulding of the dash has a wonderfully retro feel to it and echoes that of the original Cinq’, but it doesn’t bode well for the longevity of the materials that a car with a mere 800-odd miles on the clock is already collecting noticeable dust and dirt around the bezels and switchgear, and the lettering to the right of the instrument binnacle could have been stencilled on by a child with a Crayola. There was a noticeable rattle coming from somewhere in the offside rear – Christ knows where – and the brakes, although strong and progressive, feel ridiculously over-servo’ed. Still, what do you expect for ten grand?

The 500’s trump card is its overarching charm. The combination of cutesiness and cheapness will undoubtedly ensure strong sales, whilst the Italian heritage should ensure that it’ll have enough cachet not to be pigeon-holed as a girl’s car. It looks cool, it’s fun to drive, and it’s not overly expensive. What more could you want?

Well, some decent performance would be nice. But hey, the Abarth SS is just around the corner…

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