x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

2010 Fiat 500

It may be beautiful and stylish, but Neil Vorano finds some disappointment in this tiny car.

The Fiat 500 is targeted as an upscale city car, offering options such as Bluetooth and iPod plug-ins.
The Fiat 500 is targeted as an upscale city car, offering options such as Bluetooth and iPod plug-ins.

The Italians really have style downpat, don't they? Shoes, suits, even luggage; it all just has a certain flair for design that goes well beyond the norm. It makes me want to be Italian; ciao, bella. And you can certainly count their cars in this equation. Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfa Romeos - they are all some of the most beautiful vehicles to grace roads around the world. Really, the Italians are as renowned for their beautiful cars as much as Germans are for their cold, calculating car technology.

And even their small cars get the beauty treatment. For example, take a look at this Fiat 500: first of all, yes, it's tiny. It's a remake of the classic Fiat Cinquecento, the little car that was produced between 1957 and 1975 and loved by just about all of Italy. The new one, while larger than the original, still measures in smaller than a new Mini. But small doesn't mean it lacks style. I think it's a great looking car on the outside. It's a retro design with more than just a nod to the original, but still very modern. Yes, it's one of those cute cars, but it's so stylish I didn't mind being seen in it.

But even better is the interior: again, it's an homage to the original, with a single, large round dial in front of the steering wheel that contains the speedo, the rev counter and all other pertinent information. The model I tested had cloth seats with a fine checkered pattern that was reflected in the door trim, and contrasting red and cream on the dash and steering wheel made the interior really bright and cheerful. This kind of imagination should be used with every car's interior design, considering people spend so much time in them. It was so stylish that I couldn't even fault the use of hard, cheap plastics throughout.

But then I got behind the wheel, and that's when my problems started. No matter how I adjusted the seat - up, down, forward, back - I just couldn't find a comfortable driving position. The seats are positioned very high, so you're sitting as you would in a chair instead of a cockpit with legs outstretched. The steering wheel, which tilts but doesn't telescope, is too far away, and to get a decent grip I had to pull up close and cramp up my legs. Unlike the Mini, this 500 really feels like a small car inside.

But I finally found a position that I could at least control the car from, and with that I turned the key and put it in gear. This is one of the only cars I've ever driven that has turbo lag without having a turbocharger. With a stab of the throttle from a stop, the car begins to roll forward languidly, as if it wasn't the engine at all powering it but a couple of men pushing from behind. When the revs get to around 3,000, the car shoots forward with a start and only then begins to act like a normal vehicle.

And then the gearbox shifts early to second, and with a lurch you're back in the slow lane again. And what a lurch. It's got one of the worst lags between shifts I've experienced, as if it was a manual gearbox driven by someone learning to drive a school bus. But it's an automatic! I eventually just put it into manual shifting mode, which at least helped with keeping the revs up - its 100hp peaks at a rather lofty 6,000rpm. But even shifting sequentially, it was rough, shoving passengers forward and back with each gear change. In the higher gears, as the car's speed increased, it got a bit smoother - marginally so. But it was a real bother ever time I drove it. If I could, I'd just take a manual gearbox.

There is a sport mode, which sharpens the accelerator response and delays shifts and, honestly, I couldn't imagine driving with it off. Only because I did try it off, and the performance was woeful; deactivating sport while driving actually had the car slowing down. I say, press the sport button and never touch it again. But, happily, once it got up to a bit of speed, the car was rather spritely, especially considering the sewing machine-like engine under the bonnet. It could easily keep up with most cars on the road, even at sensible highway speeds (if you can stand its incessant and brain-piercing speed warning beep). And the suspension matches this performance - taking roundabouts is a hoot in this tiny car. And, though the incredibly short wheelbase means it's never going to ride like a luxury car, the ride is surprisingly smooth.

Fiat has targeted this one as an upscale city car, and you get a fairly decent list of options. Bluetooth, a sunroof, MP3 compatibility, an iPod plug-in - the kind of things that would appeal to the young, hip kids that would be buying this car. It's got a good price and, of course, superb fuel economy. There's even a decent-sized boot, but you'd be torturing anyone by putting them in the back seats.

But I know I could never buy one, and you can stop right there before pointing out my lack of "cool kid" credentials. I really, really wanted to like this car, believe me. But my tall person-sized frame is just too much for it. In fact, I even had other people of all shapes - including some with, shall I say, more diminutive statures - try to get comfortable, but none of them could. And the gearbox would just be too much for me to live with daily.

I'll have to settle for those Italian boots instead. nvorano@thenational.ae