Timeless design is something that can often be subjective, but there are a few things that the majority of designers can agree on that are not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion. The few things that come to mind for me are dominated by Italian creations, from the more mundane like the intrinsic shape of a piece of pasta to the colossal 2000 year old Colosseum. Italians know a thing or two about style, longevity and tradition and the Fiat 500 is a modern day epitome of exactly that. We dropped the top on the new Fiat 500C Dolcevita for a few days to see if it’s fresh and funky attitude was a step forward for stylishness.
It’s small but deceptively big. While this is the definition of an oxymoron, if you haven’t had the opportunity to sit inside one, the first thing that you think to yourself is how spacious the interior is. It might not be palatially sized like the inside of a Rolls Royce but there is a wealth of head, arm and leg room despite its compact dimensions. Even height gifted people can commodiously sit in the rear without having to contort themselves into their most compact form, and this is all with the canvas roof closed shut.
This is something that the 500 has stayed true to when other pioneers of the supermini segment over a half century ago have opted to produce not-so-mini cars in the modern era. The imperative of the post-war era saw automotive manufacturers in European countries scrambling to create accessible mobility. The original Fiat 500 predating 1957 was the solution of Italy. It was a car that was affordable for the masses, could fit a family of 4 and was compact enough to navigate the traditionally narrow streets of cities like Rome and Naples. It was the packaging miracle of the time.
The modern derivative dwarfs its original counterpart with all the additional safety requirements and the general upsizing to appeal to international markets but it still maintains its cute proportions from before. While the size definition is a contradiction in itself, so is the automated manual transmission.
From the driving perspective, this is the biggest let down. The 2-cylinder engine is punchy and has sufficient torque throughout the rev range, the suspension is plush over urban Johannesburg road surfaces and the compact dimensions make it nimble in corners while the short wheelbase allows for rapid direction changes.
The automated manual transmission struggles to cooperate with all of the other moving parts of the drivetrain and dulls the sweet experience somewhat. The engine revs hang before the transmission up or downshifts, the actual gear changes have been modelled on the slowest change in history and it struggles to engage on steep inclines. This is simply the nature of AMT gearboxes as a whole, regardless of what car they are implemented in. Either automatic transmissions or manual gearboxes would be my preference but unfortunately the 500C Dolcevita is only equipped with the 5-speed AMT.
That being said, when driven in a sedate manner (as this car typically would) these gripes are far less noticeable. The experience is smoother and the gear changes are less obvious. It comes into its own trundling around stylish city centers at low speeds, almost as if it wanted pedestrians to take notice. Nevertheless it can still cope on highways. While the ratios of the 5 speed gearbox were initially a concern, the gearing is capable of national speed limit cruising too with plenty of grunt from the 2-cylinder 875cc turbocharged petrol engine to go beyond.
It’s hard to grasp the performance figures for this car. The power plant only produces a maximum of 62.5kW and 145Nm but it also only tips the scales at just under a ton too. While you won’t be winning any drag races, it’s off the line acceleration and sprightly traffic spirit make the numbers seem inaccurate and irrelevant. Where you will be winning is with its frugal economy and compact ability to park anywhere. An optimistic 4.0l/100km is claimed from the manufacturer but our combined driving conditions without implementing the power-sapping eco mode yielded just above 5l/100km.
When it comes to the interior, it is difficult to believe that the only significant update to the fascia has been its HD 7” touchscreen bluetooth radio. It still looks timeless by today’s standards!
The retro styled tachometer and driver displays are vastly different from anything else but engaging and usable. The central bluetooth infotainment system includes hands-free operation, voice recognition and most importantly; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility which means you can easily play your favorite tunes while having your hair blow in the wind with the top down.
The cabrio version of the 500 range comes with far less boot space and a highly restrictive boot opening which still manages to be sufficient for groceries and limited luggage. While the original Fiat 500 came out with a canvas cabriolet top to reduce production costs on metalwork, this Cabriolet Dolcevita is the opposite.
A base Fiat 500 Cult can be had from as little as R219 900 while the range topping 500C Dolcevita comes in at R324 900. All models in the range include a 3-year/100 000 km warranty.
The visually enhanced aesthetic of the Dolcevita does add subtle hints of bling and tech to the overall package but it just seems slightly too out of budget for the small, city car that it is. It does however make a stylish statement, unlike any other A-to-B runabout and that is where the 500 range reigns supreme. Despite its faults, it induces a grin from start to finish especially with the top down and sunny skies above. Its longevity in production means that it has been at the forefront of the Fiat lineup for over a decade, with each minor update containing as much character and charisma from the country of its origin. This is la dolce vita (the sweet life), just in time for summer.