Little Italian is big on charm: Fiat 500 TwinAir Dolcevita

By Jarryd Neves, Motoring correspondent

Ask those with a penchant for designer handbags or shoes why they spend so much on their atelier derived accessories and theyll simply reply, Because I love shoes/handbags. Those who are happy to trot about in more humble shoes cannot see the point, but to the ultra-chic fashionista, nothing else will do.

I thought about this past week while behind the wheel of the recently refreshed Fiat 500 Dolcevita. On the face of it, the little Italian is a tiny hatchback with just enough space for two people and a suitcase. Priced at R279,900, the practical-minded would baulk at spending so much money on such a small car with not much in the way of cargo space.

But to understand the 500, you need to skip practicality and head straight for desirability. It may be 14 years old but the retro styling still looks oh-so-chic after all this time. Its cheeky, unashamedly fashionable and, in a marketplace where most cars want to appear aggressive and sporty, it is refreshing.

A cabriolet derivative of the Fiat 500 Dolcevita is available, at R324 900.

The test unit, a Dolcevita, evoked a ‘jet-set/Riviera’ ambience with its delightfully named Gelato White paintwork. Few small cars  – particularly the Dolcevita derivative  – exudes this much elegance. Diamond-finished 16-inch alloy wheels round everything off nicely. Much like the exterior, the cabin of the 500 is devoid of any styling gimmicks or frivolities. Pop the door open via the chromed door handle and you’ll step into one of the loveliest cabins this side of R300,000. A great slab of body-coloured gloss plastic spans the width of the facia, peppered with old world detailing. The hazard warning switch, for example, looks like a boiled sweet.

The dashboard is colour-coded with the white leather-trimmed steering wheel. The three-spoke tiller is flanked by chunky switches that are a tactile delight. The door cards and dashboard are trimmed in harsh plastics (as is the case with most cars in this price range), but somehow they fade into the background as your eyes take in the detailing. The seats, trimmed in a cloth/faux leather combination, have the ‘500’ legend picked out in contrast stitching.

The interior is not without its faults, though. The narrow body shell means Fiat has positioned the drivers seat height adjustment lever inches away from the handbrake, which can lead to you inadvertently jacking the seat up. While comprehensive, the trip computer can be a source of frustration. As newer cars move to displays that provide the driver with various bits of information, toggling through the Fiats small display can be time-consuming.

Fiat 500
Tasteful 16-inch alloys compliment the 500’s modish styling.

Standard specification is generous, the Dolcevita ships standard with cruise control, electric windows and mirrors, central locking, seven airbags, climate control and a fixed panoramic roof that allows plenty of natural light into the cosy cockpit. Also part of the package, an infotainment system with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and Bluetooth connectivity.

If youre planning on transporting more than one passenger, the Fiat 500 may not be the best choice. Although, technically, it is a four-seater, the rear pews are positively diminutive. Even if those upfront are willing to sacrifice legroom, space in the rear will still be at a premium. The back bench is best used as a parcel shelf, really, to complement the 185-litre boot.

A unique characteristic of the 500 is its quirky powertrain. A two-cylinder, 0-9-litre turbopetrol is housed under the stubby bonnet and, what it may lack in cubic capacity, the 500 more than makes up for in performance. The 63 kW and 145 Nm of torque propels the Italian city car to 100 km/h in a claimed 11.5 seconds. On paper it doesnt sound impressive, but from behind the wheel the 500 is an absolute joy to drive. The peppy TwinAir motor emits a rorty growl from its exhaust pipes, sending the Fiat down the road with gusto. Fuel consumption is rated at 3.8 L/100 km and over the week, I averaged a respectable 6.2 L/100 km.

Interior is a highlight, the dashboard festooned with lovely detailing and finishes. (Manual model pictured)

Through the corners, it is eager and alert; the precise steering, crisp and direct, allowing you to place the 500 exactly where you want it. The chassis is well sorted and could certainly handle more power. Equally as excellent are the brakes, which provide plenty of feel. Letting the dynamism down is the jerky automated manual (AMT) gearbox. In automatic mode, upshifts are twitchy and erratic. The ‘box is reluctant to downshift, hampering the Fiat’s enthusiasm. Happily, a manual is available (although not in desirable Dolcevita trim).

To deliver a verdict on the 500, you have to look at the charming hatchback from two points of view. From a practical perspective, it falls short on numerous levels. At this price point, there are sensible, spacious alternatives that make more sense from a financial viewpoint. The lack of a standard service plan doesn’t help, either.

And yet, the Fiat 500 is so charming and so desirable that, if you really wanted one, youd be willing to overlook each and every one of its flaws. Put simply, no other car in this price bracket affords such a great sense of occasion. Apart from the gearbox, it’s an absolute hoot to drive, a wonderful environment to spend time in and as a fashion accessory something to showcase style it’s unbeatable in this segment. Much like a pricey Prada handbag or Manolo Blahnik sandal, for those who desire a 500, nothing else will do.

Fast Facts:

Fiat 500 TwinAir Dolcevita

Price: R279,900

Power: 63 kW/145 Nm

Fuel consumption: 3.8 L/100km (claimed)

Top speed: 173 km/h

Rivals: Suzuki Swift 1.2 GLX auto, Kia Picanto 1.2 X-Line auto

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