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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Two million units later, is the new Fiat 500 still a quintessential city car?

We test drives Fiat’s latest darling of the runarounds, the small car that’s big on spirit

The two-millionth new-look Fiat 500 rolled off the production line last month. To put that into context, that is enough examples for everybody in Abu Dhabi to own one of the teeny-tiny city cars, with a few hundred thousand to spare. It’s not an inconsiderable achievement.

In Europe, it has just enjoyed its best quarter results, with 60,000 shifted in the first three months of this year. Eighty per cent of its sales are outside its native Italy. Numbers define the 61-year-old Fiat 500 in every sense, then, so what continues to make it such a dependable seller?

To find out, I am test driving a 2018 version of the model that first saw the light of day in 1957, albeit in a somewhat different form – the modern-day 500 took over the mantle in 2007.

Old or new, though, the car’s styling is legendary. Such was the popularity of the 500 F series, made between 1965 and 1972, that one of the cars made it into the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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Much like fellow micro-made-big car the Mini, the Fiat has gained bulk compared to its early versions, and the 500 is rounder and larger than its predecessors from decades ago. Yet everything still seems to be designed with the Italian love of eye-arresting style in mind, while maintaining the functionality that you’d expect from a city car. It is adorable in the same way that fluffy baby monkeys make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, from the hopeful please-love-me “eyes” that are the headlights, all the way to the dinky boot, including the loveable little “500”-branded hub cabs on its fun-sized 16-inch wheels in between.

As if there wasn’t already enough cute character on display, my test car is a 500C – that’s C for cabriolet, and its roof, while not looking like the most hard-wearing ragtop, is typically idiosyncratic in the way it crumples itself back in the manner of opening your curtains. In a thoughtful design touch, when fully retracted, the roof fabric will automatically move slightly to allow access to the boot when you touch the latter’s handle.

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There is a potential deal-breaker, sadly, that rather spoils the joy of pootling around town, let alone perking up the little fella to highway speeds: the automatic gearbox. It isn’t just a bit frustrating – it’s a genuine stinker. Changing up at anything approaching alacrity feels like the brakes are being applied, as the car lurches through its shifts with all the smoothness of a punch-drunk boxer. When you put your foot down in a manual car, you lift off the accelerator while engaging the clutch on up-changes to avoid jerkiness. With this awful auto ’box, you have to second guess the shift points to ease off and even attempt to look like you have driven a car before. There is a sequential-shift option or paddle shifters, to wrestle back some control, but it doesn’t sufficiently fix the problem, unfortunately. The gearstick gate isn’t entirely intuitive, either – drive, in the centre, feels like it should be neutral, and at start-up, it is sometimes fiddly to engage drive instead of the sequential “manual” mode. Full manual is what you need, but that isn’t an option in the GCC, and that’s a real pity.

Inside, things are mostly fuss-free, with that eye for style extending across a shiny dash that mimics the car’s exterior colour scheme and is endowed with a tablet-esque touchscreen. The overall effect will bring a smile to your face on every occasion you climb inside. The electric-window controls take a leaf out of supercar styling, positioned as they are on the centre of the dash – something that might have you scrambling for the first few weeks of owning a 500, eliciting more smiles, but this time wry ones.

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There are a few annoying auto resets each time you start the car – entirely at random, the air-conditioning fan sometimes goes back to minimum level and the stereo often reverts to radio input, which can mean being greeted by headache-inducing static via the tinny speakers after turning the key. As you might expect, storage space is at a premium in the cabin, with only the glovebox, a pair of cup holders, skinny door pockets and a little webbing indent by the front passenger seat to stash your stuff. And in the back, well ... let’s just say before squeezing in, you better go on a diet, preferably involving making your legs really, really minuscule.

The 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine isn’t going to snap any necks, with 100hp and 131Nm of torque adding up to a 0-to-100kph time of 10.5 seconds, although it will propel the 500 on to 220kph. But this is, after all, a city car – meant for runarounds more than road trips, a fact backed by a relatively small fuel tank.

In that context, it’s crystal clear to see why love for the Fiat 500 seems everlasting. With prices starting at Dh58,000, you won’t get anywhere near as much spirit and verve for that kind of money anywhere else.