Fiat 500 review
"The Fiat 500 has been reborn with electric power. It's an even better city car but the price has gone up considerably"
- Cheap to run
- 199-mile range
- Small boot
- Expensive to buy
- Very light steering
The third-generation Fiat 500 city car has arrived, more than half-a-century and six million sales after Italy's favourite small car first launched. It marks a historic turning point too - this 500 is all-electric, which should be no surprise given the Fiat's trendsetting past.
For the time being, Fiat will also continue to sell the mild-hybrid petrol 'old' 500 for customers who want a cheaper small car, but the 'new' 500 will come with two zero-emissions powertrains. Trim levels include a La Prima launch edition, costing a rather significant £26,995 including the government Plug-in Car Grant (PiCG) and a home wallbox charger. That's a lot for a Fiat 500, and puts the car close on price to the upmarket MINI Electric and Honda e.
However, a cheaper, entry-level Action version will get a more enticing £19,995 starting price, making it one of the most affordable electric cars on sale. For more kit, buyers can step up to Passion or Icon trims and more powerful electric motor with a bigger battery for more range. Available as a hatchback or with a retractable fabric roof, the 500 is also the first UK's first electric convertible with four seats.
Like other electric cars, if you can stomach the relatively high price for a city car - or more likely find an affordable finance deal - the running costs start to pay dividends immediately. Car tax is free, company-car drivers have much smaller bills and recharging the battery costs under £10. The range-topping 500's large 42kWh battery also gives it an edge over the MINI and Honda, with a range of 199 miles - just over 50 more than those two. The Renault ZOE can go even further, however, with a range of almost 250 miles, but most versions of the ZOE are also more expensive.
With 117bhp and instant pulling power, the 500 feels effortlessly quick around town, getting up to speed in next to no time. It also boasts a sharp turning circle and its ride can even soak up potholes, making it an ideal urban runaround. Its range and up to 85kW fast charging should also make longer trips relatively straightforward.
The less expensive electric powertrain gets a smaller 23.9kWh battery and a 92bhp motor. Its range is said to be 115 miles, increasing to around 150 miles if you stay at city speeds. Acceleration from 0-62mph takes 9.5 seconds - half-a-second slower than the more expensive version.
Fiat has been careful to preserve the 500's unmistakable design, despite the car growing in every direction. Perhaps most impressively, the addition of a large battery pack hasn't made the cute Fiat look too tall - it's only gained 26mm in height. Meanwhile, features like split LED headlights lend a modern look. The car no longer needs a front grille due to the electric powertrain but the lack of one is also reminiscent of early 500s, which didn’t need one because the engine was mounted in the back.
Clean lines extend to the interior, where there's now less clutter and a wider fascia. The infotainment system is far more powerful, thanks to the arrival of U Connect 5, with a digital instrument display and high-definition 10.25-inch touchscreen. Occupants will enjoy more space and there's a better driving position, but the boot remains compact at 185 litres.
Safety also takes a leap forward, thanks to new sensors that will offer the latest autonomous emergency braking, lane keeping and blind-spot monitoring to help avoid collisions.
MPG, running costs & CO2
Fiat has taken a fresh approach with its third 500, switching production entirely to electric power. To help smooth the transition, buyers can still opt for the 'old' 500 with a mild-hybrid petrol engine but it's not yet known how long it will remain on sale.
The new one has been designed from the ground-up to be an EV, and boasts an impressive 42kWh battery pack in the range-topper - that's more capacity than the Honda e or MINI Electric. Fiat says its official WLTP range figure is 199 miles but that drivers can manage up to 250 miles in the city, where speeds are lower and frequent deceleration puts more energy back into the batteries.
From our test, these figures seem achievable, and we beat the 137-mile range of the Honda-e. The Renault ZOE still does better, with a range of 245 miles from its 52kWh battery. The Fiat 500 with the larger battery supports fast charging at up to 85kW, providing an 80% charge in just 35 minutes or a 30 mile range bump (enough to cover most commutes) in just five minutes. A full charge using a 7.4kW home wallbox will take just over six hours, and Fiat is also planning a 3kW charger which can be plugged into a standard socket without requiring professional installation.
For buyers who aren't likely to take their 500 on longer trips, the more affordable powertrain option could well suffice. It has an official range of 115 miles but Fiat says this can increase to 150 miles in city driving, where the electric motor uses less energy and frequent stops help put charge back into the 23.9kWh battery.
Engines, drive & performance
The electric motor fitted in the launch version of the new 500 generates 117bhp and an instant 220Nm dose of pulling power, so it springs forwards when you press the accelerator pedal. In fact, you'll soon need to reach for the brake pedal in city traffic, and happily the brakes feel smooth and easy to modulate, so petrol city car drivers won't need to spend time getting used to them. Zero to 62mph takes nine seconds but like most small EVs, the 500 feels quicker than its official figures suggest around town. A lower-powered 92bhp version is also offered, extending the 0-62mph time by 0.5 seconds, which won't be too noticeable.
Several driving modes are available and they make a big difference to how the 500 behaves. Normal is intended to feel most like a petrol car, while Range dramatically increases the braking effect of the electric motor as you come off the throttle. It should help improve range by harvesting more energy, and the process can bring the car to a halt without the driver touching the brake pedal. There's also a Sherpa mode, for eking out those final few miles of range. As well as making the engine less powerful, it limits top speed to 50mph and turns off the climate control to preserve as much battery power as possible.
The steering is light and direct but the electric 500 also feels at home at motorway speeds, where there's virtual silence. Predominantly, though, this is an ideal city car; the tight 9.7-metre turning circle, nippy acceleration and small size make it perfect for negotiating congested roads and tight spaces.
Interior & comfort
The 500's ride is pretty good but the weight of the battery means the suspension has to be relatively stiff, making poor surfaces more noticeable. Smaller wheels should help it feel more settled. Refinement has also taken a leap thanks to the inherent quietness of the electric motor, which is far smoother than the rorty two-cylinder Fiat 500 petrol engines.
It's a more comfortable place to sit too, with a good driving position. A common criticism of the second-generation 500 was that it felt like you were sitting 'on it' rather than 'in it', but there's no such sensation here. The interior is entirely new, feels less cluttered than before, and features vastly improved technology.
A new UConnect 5 infotainment system for the Fiat Chrysler group makes its debut, with a sharp 10.25-inch display, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It now has far better graphics than previous versions but some functions, such as turning on a heated seat, take too many steps to accomplish. The instruments are also digital, thanks to a seven-inch TFT display. There are some cheap plastic materials dotted around the interior, pointing to the fact Fiat has still had to make compromises to undercut rivals.
Smartphone-style apps, and the ability to check on the car remotely and warm up or cool the interior before a journey, should freshen up the ownership experience. Other new tech includes on-board wi-fi, tracking software that can help find the car if it's stolen, and a number of forward-facing sensors. These can be used to improve safety and to enable convenience features like adaptive cruise control and speed limit assist.
The first version to arrive is the Fiat 500 La Prima special edition. This is available in three colours, with LED headlights, 17-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels and chrome-plated trim. Three core trim levels are called Action, Passion and Icon. Action includes 15-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors and lane-keeping assist, keyless go and a smartphone mount. Passion adds LED daytime running lights and a seven-inch infotainment display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Icon brings 16-inch alloy wheels and a 10.25-inch screen, along with improved interior upholstery.
Practicality & boot space
The latest 500 is bigger than before, with a 60mm increase in length and width, along with a 20mm longer gap between the front and rear wheels. This has created more shoulder and headroom in the front but space in the back seats is still fairly tight, particularly in the opening-roof version. The lack of a transmission tunnel brings an improvement in foot room but getting in the back is difficult.
One big advantage of the new car is an improved driving position. It's now more adjustable, so while some could find the seating position of the old Fiat 500 unnatural, they're more likely to feel comfy in the new model.
Boot space remains the same at 185 litres, so the 500 is unlikely to be suitable for luggage for more than a few nights away or trips to the local flatpack furniture store. It beats the 171-litre boot of the Honda e, but even the MINI Electric manages 211 litres, while the Skoda Citigo e iV has around 250 litres of space. Access to the boot is more restricted for the convertible version, and with less space for luggage, owners will need to travel light.
Reliability & safety
Fiat doesn't have the best reputation for reliability but it has shown signs of improvement, coming 23rd out of 30 manufacturers in our 2020 Driver Power survey - in 2016, Fiat came dead last. The 500 has also been one of its most trustworthy models, coming 45th out of the 75 top cars in the satisfaction table. Impressively, just 5% of owners reported a fault within the first year.
The third-generation Fiat 500 is all-new, and theoretically its electric-only powertrain should make it very reliable. Electric cars have far fewer moving parts than petrol and diesel models, while there are also fewer varieties on offer, so any teething problems should be easier to iron out.
Designed to last for at least the next decade, the new platform has also been equipped with the latest safety technology. Sensors at the front of the car mean it can detect pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles and brake autonomously if the driver fails to respond, as well as providing lane keeping assistance. Blind spot detection will also be available, attention assist will warn the driver to take a break, and there'll be a 'drone-like' display view to help avoid obstacles when parking.