WHAT does it take to be an icon, Fiat asks? You need heritage for one, instant recognition as another and finally, it must be aspirational.
Boxes all ticked then for the ever-popular Fiat 500. But even its cutesy style needs a good dose of substance in today's cutthroat car market, hence a refresh bringing exterior updates, better infotainment and even greater customisation.
The cheeky 500 face remains (why mess with a good thing?) but the circular headlights are more powerful, and the front end a tad stronger, with the trapezoidal nose now with more pronounced "ribbing" and a bit more chrome. Coolest are the 'empty' rear light clusters with body-coloured centres - inspired by tattoos apparently - which do look fantastic, especially when lit.
The new range has been simplified by cutting the unloved (by the market) 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir variant, leaving us with a choice of 1.2-litre or 1.4-litre petrol engines, in Hatch or Cabrio guise, and in basic Pop or more luxurious Lounge trims.
Manuals are standard (five-speed for the 1.2 and six-speed for the 1.4), with autos adding $1500. Prices are up, with the cheapest now the 500 Hatch Pop at $18,000 ($19k drive away) - a not insignificant jump from the really tempting $14,000 drive away price of just a couple of years ago.
But you do get more. Fiat's integrated Uconnect system arrives and was certainly needed - although no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto will disappoint a big chunk of the 500's target market - while the refresh brings improved handling, comfort and sound insulation.
Aesthetics and tech may be new, but the 500 is still as ickle as ever; as Fiat said it "hasn't grown in size, but instead has grown in maturity."
Front seats are large enough and you sit high for such a small car, but the chairs are on the firm side in both cloth and leather trim. The touchscreen is appreciated but at a titchy five-inches isn't the most user friendly unless you've got dainty fingers, but the Uconnect is very easy to use and connectivity was excellent during our test.
The leather steering wheel is another winner, but sadly doesn't adjust for reach, while switchgear is nicely unfussy.
Hard plastics abound, but are forgiven if you focus on the simple layout and wonderful quirkiness of the colour-coded dash and high-mounted gear shifter.
The large manual knob in black with white numerals looks stunning and feels a delight in the hand, but would be even better if metal and not plastic, even though you'd inevitably brand yourself in our sun-blessed climate. But hey, that's the price of style.
On the road
Micro cars are typically at their best in the city, and the 500 is no different. Light and nimble it squirts through traffic with ease, the 51kW Pop model proving swift enough.
Skinny tyres and the car's size means you do still get a harsh ride over less than perfect roads, but improvements have been made to lessen the blows.
Both the 1.2-litre Pop and 1.4-litre Lounge 500s are fine for highway use, sitting at 110kmh in reasonable comfort.
Country roads bring pleasure and pain. Smooth tracks through lower speed corners are a delight to steer, giving you the simple driving joy these 500s are all about. Bumpy roads are best avoided, however, as the 500's micro nature means the ride is jarring, especially with passengers on board.
Such is the car's weight (under a tonne) the engines have ample poke, the 1.4 Lounge getting up to speed a bit quicker though and making lighter work of inclines.
I'd compel you to opt for a manual version. In both 5-speed and 6-speed variants it's a lovely 'box, the clutch and cog-swapping light and it's easy to fly through the gears. Having three pedals saves money ($1500), fits more into the fun ethos of the 500 and the Dualogic auto box is near impossible to coax into smooth behaviour.
But let's not forget the 500's X-factor. It is just a lovely thing to drive because of what it is. Save up for the 500c Convertible, drop the roof and find a picturesque route to lazily cruise along - hopefully beside a tanned, exotic Italian lover of choice - and few drive experiences can be as enjoyable.
What do you get?
The big score is the Uconnect system. It brings a 5-inch touchscreen, DAB, voice command, Bluetooth and six-speakers. Sadly, no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which would boost the 500's appeal further.
The Pop has a funky leather wrapped steering wheel with simple audio controls, LED lights, 15-inch alloys, and seven airbags.
Your luxo-Lounge 500s also bring sat nav, a digital 7-inch instrument display behind the steering wheel, rear park sensors, check design cloth seats, poly-elliptic headlights and fixed glass sunroof.
Rear seats are for kids only, unless your front passengers are midgets or very generous; nothing unusual for a micro car though.
Storage space is also at a premium in the cabin, while boot space is a tricky 185-litres boot (Hatch) and 182-litres (Cabrio).
For Cabrio drivers, rear visibility is quite dramatically obscured by the folded roof.
Micro cars with style? Not many. But for less than Fiat 500 money, you can upsize to a Renault Clio ($18,000), Skoda Fabia ($15,990) or Mazda2 ($14,990).
Customisation is a huge 500 selling point, and no other car in this segment offers such bespokeability. There are 13 different colours including Teal Blue, Mint-Milkshake, Coral and Vanilla Ice-Cream Tri-colour. Soft tops come in black, red and ivory, while inside you can have two-tone fabric, Prince of Wales check fabric, or cost option Frau leather in black, ivory or Bordeaux.
Custom comes at a price though. Leather is part of a $2500 kit (also brings 16-inch diamond-finish alloys and xenon headlights), a sunroof for the Hatch is $1500 (come on, save up and get the Cabrio instead), while the lovely pastel or metallic paint is a must for an extra $500.
Other nice touches are the body-coloured dash strip, retro-cool (if a little hard to read sometimes) large speedo/tacho combo and high-mounted gear shifter.
Just as cute and cheeky as before, but with appreciated infotainment and styling upgrades, and a better ride. The manual Convertible is the pick of the range to offer the purest Dolce Vita and most purchasing sense, as you won't find another cabrio at this price.
Ignore the 500's shortfalls - and its higher-specced rivals in the micro car price range - and it remains a joy to see and be seen in.
What matters most
What we liked: Still a style champ, Uconnect introduction, ease and fun to drive the manual variants, quick and stylish Cabrio roof, maintains its retro charm.
What we'd like to see: Better rear visibility with Cabrio roof down, smoother automatic, needs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a turbo for the engines to offer a bit more shove, a lower entry price to rival competition.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year/150,000km warranty and three year roadside assist.
Model: Fiat 500 Hatch and 500c Cabrio.
Details: Two-door, front-wheel drive micro hatchback and convertibles.
Engines: 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 51kW @ 5500rpm and peak torque of 102Nm @ 3000rpm (Pop) and 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol with 74kW @ 6000rpm and 131Nm @ 4250rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual (Pop) or six-speed manual (Lounge); Dualogic automatics optional.
Consumption (L/100km): 4.9 (manual) / 4.8 (auto) in 1.2-litre Pops; 6.1/5.8 in 1.4-litre Lounges.
Bottom line plus on-roads: $18,000 (Pop Hatch); $21,000 (Hatch Lounge); $22,000 (Cabrio Pop); $25,000 (Cabrio Lounge). Drive away introductory price is $1000 more for each.
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