First Drive: 2021 Fiat 500 Review
The modern Fiat 500 was launched in 2007, and there are now so many on the road that it would be somewhat strange to go for a drive and not see one. As successful as the 500 has been in the past, though, if you don’t move forward then you’re really not doing anything at all, which is why there’s this, the all-new Fiat 500.
It really is all-new. The wheelbase is longer, the track is wider, the bodywork ever so slightly larger in every direction, there’s a new platform and there’s a very different powertrain, because this Fiat 500 is electric. That’s right, pop the bonnet and you’ll find an electric motor where the engine used to be. But it’s worth pointing out that the current Fiat 500 isn’t going away just yet. This new 500 will be called the ‘Fiat 500’ – not the 500e or the Fiat 500 Electric, just the Fiat 500. The other, old-platform 500s will be called 500 Classics, and aren’t going anywhere just yet.
There are three regular trim levels to the 500, namely Action, Passion and Icon (how very Italian), as well as a launch-spec La Prima at the top of the range, and the difference between the entry level Action and next-highest Passion are significant.
- Still has the charm of a Fiat 500
- Very quiet city car
- Low-speed punch from the electric motor
We don't like
- Steering communicates nothing
- Largest central screen only available on top model
- Heavier than a regular 500
It’s impossible to say anything other than Fiat has done a very good job. It is still unquestionably a Fiat 500, and yet it’s far enough away from the 500 Classic that you’ll notice it’s something new. Look closely and you’ll spot an entirely different Fiat badge at the rear (the new 500 is the first Fiat to receive it), a few 500 badges dotted around where an ‘e’ is incorporated into the final zero of ‘500’, delightfully detailed side indicators as well as new front and rear lights. Pretty much everything has been tweaked, and to my eyes nothing is less interesting to look at than before.
Performance and Handling
The big departure for the new 500 from the 500 Classic is the powertrain, as out have gone the tiny petrol engines and in has come a t-shaped battery under the floor of the car and an electric motor to drive the wheels, as well as some other very complicated electronics you won’t find on any other Fiat at the moment.
The significance of the Action trim level compared to the others is that as well as being the most basic surface spec you also get a smaller battery and electric motor. The Action uses a 23.7kWh battery, which offers a range of 115 miles and can be charged with a 50kW fast charger, and the total power output is 95PS, or 70kW. The other models however get a 42kWh battery, which is 108kg heavier, offers a range of 199 miles and can be charged with an 85kW fast charger, and produces 118PS, or 87kW. Zero to 62mph takes 9.5 and 9.0 seconds respectively, and the top speeds are 84mph and 93mph in turn. We were driving a 42kWh Icon.
So, how does the new 500 drive? Well in some ways just like a regular Fiat 500. There’s certainly no impression from behind the wheel that this is a larger car and the view out of the window is exactly the same. In other respects the 500 is notably different. Electric power makes you realise just how loud conventional petrol engines can be, and nipping through towns and even out on more open and faster roads this is a very quiet car. You can feel that more of the car’s mass is lower down, too, and that there is more mass.
The ride is good, with suspension that’s fairly firm and controlled with a healthy dose of small car lean thrown in, but if you ask the car to brake over a series of bumps things start to get a little choppy. The poke from the powertrain gives the 500 that nippy electric car feel, and accelerating in a straight line on slightly damp roads there’s the occasional chirp from the tyres in protest. It’s the steering that lets the 500 down dynamically. There’s just no sense of what the tyres are doing at all. You can feel the movement in the tyre through your backside, for want of a better explanation, and you can feel when the tyres run out of clinging power, but through the steering? Nada. Is it the end of the world? No, not really, but a greater feeling of connection wouldn’t go amiss. Maybe there will be a new, electric 500 Abarth one day that’ll help with that.
It’s worth touching on the car’s drive modes, of which there are three, namely Normal, Range and Sherpa. Normal is, well, normal; Range ups the level of regenerative braking so you can drive more or less with the throttle pedal only (just make sure you leave enough space to brake); Sherpa is the ‘I really should have planned a stop’ mode, and limits the car’s top speed to 50mph and turns off unnecessary systems like the air conditioning (this can be overridden).
As a place to sit the new 500 does feel different. Because there’s a single gear there’s no transmission tunnel, which means there’s more space on the floor, with buttons on the dash to engage park, reverse, neutral and drive. Conventional door handles have been banished, too, with buttons to open the doors instead (there are handles in the door pocket for emergencies). The seats across every car in the range are covered in a material that’s made from 20 per cent recycled ocean plastic as well, standard across the whole range, and there’s a new instrument cluster, new infotainment system, a new dashboard and a switch for the drive modes. Easter egg hunters will be delighted as there’s an original 500 sketch in the door pulls, as well as an image of the Turin skyline on the rubber of the wireless charging pad, a nod to the fact that this is the first 500 to be built in Turin since the original 500 itself.
All in all it’s a pleasant place to be. The plastic on the doors doesn’t exactly feel premium, but everything else is nice enough, and the recycled seats are very comfortable.
Technology and Features
From trim to trim there’s the usual additions of adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, blind spot warning, a reversing camera, 360-degree parking sensors, autonomous emergency braking and so on, as well as the aforementioned wireless phone charging and a funky material across the dashboard. Every 500 gets a neat little digital display for the instruments, which reads like a very clear phone screen, but the big difference between the models is the size of the central screen on the dashboard. On the entry Action you get just a mobile phone cradle, whereas on the Passion model you get a 7-inch touchscreen and on the Icon model you get a 10.25-inch screen. Having tested a car with the biggest screen, and enjoyed the new widget-based infotainment and navigation that it offers, I can imagine using the smaller system but can’t help but feel this car would feel very odd without that level of tech and engagement.
The new, electric Fiat 500 feels like a Fiat 500, and for anyone who’s a fan of the current car that will be very good news indeed. The steering isn’t great, that’s true, but nothing about this new version has made the 500 any less interesting or appealing. An electric Fiat 500 really works. Having a range of 199 miles isn't fantastic, but for a car like the 500 it isn't a deal-breaker either. Now, let's all keep our fingers crossed for an Abarth.
Single electric motor, 42kWh lithium-ion battery
220Nm (163lb ft)
Single-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
|Charging||0-100 per cent, 4h 15m, 11kW charger; 0-80 per cent, 35m, 85kW fast charge|
£24,995 (500 range starts at £19,995 for 23.7kWh battery model)
Reviewed by Seán Ward