Saturday 22 July 2017

Why this Fiat had me recounting 500

Diesel Sport lacks bit of magic

Fiat 500 Sport
Fiat 500 Sport
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

Second thoughts can be instructive. I get into a car and take a bit of a dislike to what they have done with it. And then a few days later a reasonable human being brings a different perspective and I have to go back and completely re-think my appraisal. It's all part of the process, I suppose.

Anyway, I hope you find my account of that process instructive. And maybe my first instincts were correct after all? Let me explain what happened.

I could not understand how Fiat managed to get the Sport version of their wonderful little 500 so out of synch with my expectations.

The 500 is, after all, the car they have got so right as the modern incarnation of an icon. And thanks to its several guises - from cutesy town fashion attraction to people carrier to off-roader - it has kept sales ticking over and interest alive in the marque over what have been some lean years.

So why would they put a DIESEL engine in this special Sport 3dr version? And why would they put the noisiest set of tyres I've come across for a long time on the 16ins alloys?

And how could they expect people to pay €19,000 for it?

As if to cap it all, the one I had on test came in deep, dull metallic black (extra €525) with the upper half adorned with leaf-like shapes/add-ons. They call it Camouflage second-skin wrap (€750 extra). They assured me it had survived car washes. I didn't think it added anything whatsoever to the car.

Now let me be absolutely clear here. I've loved any drive I've previously had in a Fiat 500. I think it's a sparkling little car, aided and abetted by tiny-tot petrol engines that miraculously conjure power from their miniature depths.

It was always great fun, a joy to drive and bubbling with something so many cars lack these days: 'character'. So why mess with the formula?

I endured a couple of days driving when I said to myself (an increasingly common occurrence) that if ever there was a way to undo a 500 this was it. I was surprised how strongly I felt.

The turning circle was poor for such a small car (not just the Sport by the way) and generally it was a matter of feeling disappointed.

So, in as quiet a way as possible I put my reservations to the nice Fiat man. He nodded sagely as he began explaining the whys and wherefores, I felt like an overgrown schoolboy in short trousers who had just asked a silly question (another increasingly common occurrence) in class.

The argument for it goes something like this. They want to shift the perception of the 500 a little from being an exclusive lady's motor into more, shall we say, testosteronic territory. Hence that dark, almost sombre look - and the feel of the Camouflage, I suppose.

As well as that, they want people to see it as a car you could commute in from reasonable distances (in fairness, for its size, it has a lot of cabin room). Hence the diesel engine, which some off-the-planet test results claim - and I find it hard to believe - can stretch to 3.4litres/100km or 83.1mpg. I do believe it is an engine that will return 4.5/100km or around 60mph - remarkable.

As you can imagine, all that put me on the back foot, I can tell you. So I re-examined my notes and reviewed my drives and opinions. In the course of doing so I thought not just about the car on test, but small cars in general.

Is it realistic to expect people to pay a premium for a diesel just to get better fuel consumption from a tiny tot motor? This is a question that comes up time and again. I'm convinced diesel in such a car is a waste. A petrol will cost you less to buy and unless you are on the road day and night you will struggle to make up the price difference by saving at the pumps.

So while I accept Fiat's strategy specifically, I think in general terms we would all do much better to opt for what is a brilliant new generation of tiny petrols capable of really decent consumption as well.

Importantly, they give small, especially city, cars a much better feel and drive. I know there is a magic about diesel. But in the case of the 500 Sport, it shouldn't intrude on the magic of the car itself. Even with my doubts about the Sport set-up surviving the re-think, I'd still drive an 'ordinary' 500 any time.

Being forced to re-think was a good exercise, though; it re-tuned and re-toned my assessment on a number of fronts and I can see some merit in what they have done. But I still think I got it mostly right. Petrol should be king in a car like this. By all means buy a Sport; but buy a petrol. No second thoughts on that.

Facts & figures

Fiat 500 Sport; 3dr city car, 1.3 diesel (1,248cc, 4cyl, 95bhp), 5spd, 3.4litres/100km (83.1mpg claimed); 89g/km (€180 road tax).

Equipment included 16ins alloys, tinted rear windows, 7ins touchscreen radio with Bluetooth, DAB, sport rear spoiler, sport seats/side skirts, air con, chrome exhaust, sport bumper, rear parking sensors, front fogs, Camouflage second skin wrap (€750).

Price: €17,800. Version tested (with extras): €19,375.

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