Livin' la Dolcevita: Fiat's refreshed 500 tested

Andrew Sluys
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Photos / David Linklater


Base price
Maximum power kW
Maximum torque Nm
  • Fantastic retro styling
  • A lot of room in the front row
  • Fun transmission
  • Lacking advanced safety tech
  • Not much room in back row
  • No adaptive cruise control option

While it is one of the most iconic and recognisable cars on international roads, the history of the Fiat 500 isn’t as straightforward as some might think.

To get the full picture of the Fiat 500 we have to go back further than when the iconic ‘Bambina’ was introduced, and take a look at 1936, where the Fiat 500 was one of the smallest cars on earth when it was introduced. Also known as the ‘Topolino’, this two-door cutie was powered by a 569cc engine, and looked more akin to a squashed up American coupe than anything. 

We then jump forward to 1957, when the iconic Fiat 500 ‘Bambina’ was unveiled. Powered by a rear-mounted, air-cooled two-cylinder engine, this little cutie weighed only 500kg, and was one of the first purpose-designed city cars. Almost four million of these 500s were sold between 1957 and 1975, which certainly left a mark on the motoring world.

It wouldn’t be for another 32 years until the world would see another Fiat 500, this time a little bigger in size, and powered by a front-mounted water-cooled engine. Despite the modernisation of the 500, Fiat did an impressive job of retaining the classic styling cues of the city carver. 2016 saw this model undergo a facelift, and just recently, the Italian icon returned to New Zealand shores.

Locally, Fiat offers the 500 in two trim levels, both of which coming with great names. Starting at $22,990, the Lounge is the entry-level in the 500 range, and is powered by a 1.2-litre petrol engine. It gets a very unique five-speed ‘Dualogic Transmission’, which sends power to the front wheels exclusively. Combined fuel economy sits at 4.8L/100km, and with just 111g/km of emissions, which should mean that it qualifies for a rebate once the Clean Car Standard kicks into gear later this year. Stepping up to $25,990 will get you into the Dolcevita, which gets all the same underpinnings as the Lounge, but ups the tech and nostalgia factor with a few niceties.

Once a world-leading city car, it’s clear that this new Fiat 500 is more of a novelty on the road, and oozes personality in doing so. Unlike the Abarth models, performance is not a priority here, and the 500’s 1.2-litre engine will propel it to 100km/h in 12.9-seconds, before hitting a top speed (if you dare) of 160km/h.

While these figure don’t sound overly interesting, like life, it’s all about the journey in this little car. It uses a very unique five-speed robotised manual transmission. In other words, it’s a manual transmission without the clutch, and it’s hard to miss the manual-like shifts that it executes. Most of the time, it is best left to do its own thing, but rowing gears yourself and getting the most out of every shift offers hours of entertainment to enthusiastic drivers. If you need more convincing, it’s a similar ISR setup to its bitter Italian rival – the Lamborghini Aventador.

Despite the small dimensions of the 500, it actually offers a lot of space up front. Leg and head room is generous in the front row, but the same can’t really be said for the rear row, probably best leaving those seats to the little ones.

Like the exterior, things are quite retro-themed on the inside of the 500, with a prominent body colour dashboard on the Dolcevita model. The optional vertical piped seats also seem to be another throwback to yesteryear. Blending retro styling with modern tech is something that Fiat does well, and the 7-inch touchscreen infotainment display is evidence of this. It gets Android Auto and Apple Carplay connectivity, but is flanked by a pair of rotary dials for maximum nostalgia.

One aspect where the look matches the tech seems to be in the safety department. Cruise control is only offered on the Dolcevita, and even then, it isn’t an adaptive system. It misses out on a lot of advanced safety systems that other small city cars do have, and while this new model hasn’t been tested by ANCAP since 2008, it received a three-star rating in European NCAP testing.

As a whole, Fiat’s new 500 is a fun little car that doesn’t take itself too seriously. At $22,990, it’s one of the cheaper cars on sale in New Zealand, and if we’re looking at the cost-to-personality ratio, it can’t be beat. But with the Abarth 595 starting at $29,990, it could be argued that this is a better 500-based proposition, as it more than doubles the power and torque outputs.

If you’re looking for something more eco-friendly, Fiat has confirmed that the pure electric 500e will be landing within the year. This little electric number is rated up to 321km of range per charge, and is a very different car to the standard 500, with bespoke styling.


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