A little more than a year ago, I had the chance to test drive the little Fiat 500 mini hatchback around the streets of Abu Dhabi. It was a car I was looking forward to, a car I thought was the epitome of Italian style on the cheap, and it was set to make me pine for a new life of driving from cafe to cafe in Rome or Milan with a blond-haired female companion whispering "ciao" or "bellissimo" or other beautiful Italian words in my ear.
And then I drove it, and I hated it.
It's a beautiful little car, yes, but it has no low-end torque and the automatic transmission is possibly the worst I have ever experienced in any car. Its shifts were so slow that the car was lurching back and forth like a poorly driven lorry. I had such high expectations for the 500, but they went as flat as a string of fettuccine.
And then recently a friend and occasional contributor to Motoring mentioned he was driving a 500 for a while. "Oh, it's a brilliant car," exclaimed Richard Whitehead, when I mentioned my feelings on the Fiat. "You just have to know how to drive it."
Hmmm, I wasn't sure how to take that comment. I also couldn't understand what he was talking about. But he was so bent on showing me that the 500 was a fun car to drive that he persuaded me to join him in the 500, tooling around the motorways and streets of central Dubai one sunny Saturday.
This one is cream in colour; it's still one of the most handsome little cars I've seen in a while. It's stylishly minimal on the outside and very retro on the inside, with one large dial behind the steering wheel that houses all the instruments you need, Bakelite-looking plastic vent inserts and other nods to the original Cinquecento, which was built from 1957 to 1977.
Since we had to drop someone off first, I opted for the back seat. I had first felt that the rear passenger area was just too small for realistic use, but as I finally squeezed into the seat and sat for a while, I began to appreciate how such a small car could have such a surprising amount of room. I mean, this is no limo by any means, but I had ample head and leg room - when the front passenger moved his seat way up - so I wasn't complaining; at least, on this short trip. But it was still good to get out after a few minutes.
The trunk behind the rear seats is surprisingly large, too. Just like the first 500, Fiat has pushed the four wheels all the way to the corners to give as much room inside the car as possible. The cargo area is big enough for a small run of groceries, and if you need more room then, of course, the rear seats fold down.
So then it was my turn behind the wheel for a run around Media City and beyond. I adjusted the seat to a decent position and prepared to put it in gear. "Keep it in sport mode, otherwise it's a dog," said Whitehead. "But the key is to keep the revs above 3,000rpm. If you can do that, it's a great little car."
He had one more tip for me that was perhaps the most surprising. "Just use the manual shift mode," Whitehead pointed out, "and drive it like it's a manual gearbox."
That didn't mean just shifting when you wanted to change gear; he was also talking about using the throttle pedal to time the engine to the shift, like you might when downshifting a real manual gearbox. It's something you'd never think about with an automatic, but I was game to give it a try.
Taking off, I remarked that it's still got no go at lower speeds. But keeping the gearbox in manual meant that I could control the revs more, and I kept the tachometer above 3,000rpm when possible. And if you can do that, depending on the traffic, then yes, it's a fun little car.
The engine screams as you let it go, but the car gets more sprightly with the higher revs, and darting in and out of traffic is a breeze and a blast, especially considering the size of the little 500. To make things even better, the handling and steering are crisp and taut, and it seems you could turn the Fiat on a dirham with no screeching or understeer.
And when you need to downshift, blipping the throttle just after nudging the gear selector helps take up the slack of the long time between shifts, smoothing out the transition. Gone is the lurching as the engine speed is forced to catch up with the lower gear; now the 500 feels like a proper sports - make that sporty - car.
All this shifting and pedal pushing doesn't just make things smoother, either; it makes a driver much more involved with the 500. It's almost like having a manual gearbox, though there is no clutch to think about. The little hatchback still isn't so good from a stoplight, but once you get up to speed, the zippy handling and the focused method of driving had me smiling as our ride came to an end, and I shook my passenger's hand.
Richard, I thank you. My dreams of Italian cappuccinos and long-legged beauties are once again renewed. And you've given me a new-found respect for the little Fiat 500.
Though, I'd still prefer a proper manual gearbox.