REVIEW | The 2021 Fiat 500 Sport is a flawed but fun alternative to the norm

17 November 2021 - 16:02
From its model-specific front and rear bumpers, racy roof spoiler and 16-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels the 500 Sport is very much an Abarth lite.
From its model-specific front and rear bumpers, racy roof spoiler and 16-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels the 500 Sport is very much an Abarth lite.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

I’ve long been a fan of the Fiat 500. Simply because it has a bit of character and personality. Sure, you can buy more competent and practical city cars for similar money in 2021 but none will come close to matching the Fiat in the charm department.

Even today, 15 years after the fact, this Frank Stephenson-penned hatchback looks as fresh and contemporary as it ever did, which is a testament to just how good the design was in the first place. Labelling it a modern classic might be praise too far but it does come tantalisingly close if you ask me. 

Anyway, with no sign of production ceasing any time soon (more than 2.5-million units and counting have shifted through the Stellantis plant in Tychyand, Poland), the little 500 has just been the recipient of a refresh. Well I say refresh — it’s more like a consolidated model line-up with new names, adjusted specification and the option of in-demand options such as two-tone paint finishes.

And the derivative that arrived at our office for testing was the mid-range 500 Sport that, licked in a racy shade of metallic red paint, looked very much like an Abarth Lite thanks to a set of 16-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels, model-specific side skirts and bumpers plus an aggressively shaped roof spoiler. Topped off with a chrome-licked exhaust tailpipe it — visually speaking — sure lives up to the ‘Sport’ badges tacked on its front wings. 

Short wheelbase means that the ride gets choppy over poor surfaces.
Short wheelbase means that the ride gets choppy over poor surfaces.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

After swinging open a deceptively large door I’m met with the familiar 500 dashboard arrangement that, much like the car’s exterior design, still looks surprisingly stylish after all these years. On the technology front Fiat has of course tried hard to keep up with the times and as such the 500 Sport gets a teeny seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system (compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) plus an equally diminutive TFT instrument cluster with speed and RPM readouts that can be a bit tricky to read at times.

You also score fully automatic climate control, a chunky leather-wrapped sports steering wheel with satellite controls and a pair of sculpted sports front seats that offer a lot more comfort and support over the flatter ones you find in the lesser 500 model variants.

The overall driving position is still compromised thanks to a lack of fore and aft steering wheel adjustment (especially notable if you’re over 6ft tall) and it’s still frustratingly tricky to heel-and-toe due to the massive gap between the brake and accelerator pedals. On the plus side, however, all-round visibility is excellent while the gear lever — mounted high up on the centre console — fits nicely to hand and offers up snappy cog-swapping.

For 2021 the entire Fiat 500 range (excluding the Abarth versions of course) is powered by the firm’s teeny 0.9-litre turbocharged two-cylinder petrol engine tuned to deliver 62.5kW at 5,500rpm and 145Nm of torque at 1,900rpm. Sounding like an angry wasp trapped inside a cola can, this mechanical oddity takes a little bit of getting used to — for the first couple of kilometres you’re either bogging down and stalling or slamming into the rev-limiter — but once you get the hang of it the little TwinAir proves perfectly matched to the 500’s character.

For a car birthed in the mid-2000s the Fiat 500 still looks fresh and contemporary.
For a car birthed in the mid-2000s the Fiat 500 still looks fresh and contemporary.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

It also provides surprisingly brisk performance: use all the revs and you can thrum on down the road at a useful turn of pace. Brisk around town, this buzzy unit also feels perfectly at ease out on the highway where you can easily cruise along at well above the national limit without protest. And while the 1.2-litre four-cylinder FIRE motor of old struggled with overtaking, the TwinAir’s turbocharged mid-range punch lets you pass slower traffic with way more confidence. Just be sure you’re out of Eco Mode — if you aren’t then the car’s zeros and ones conspire to neuter performance in favour of fuel efficiency.

Speaking of which, I managed to clock 5.4/100km over 536km of driving — significantly better than the 8.1l/100km I achieved in the similarly powered Panda 4x4 Cross I tested in 2018.

Handling wise the 500 Sport is a rather entertaining thing to throw around the blacktop despite its aged underpinnings (believe it or not but the Fiat Mini Platform dates back all the way to 2003). Although there’s not much steering feedback here, mechanical grip sure is plentiful and you can fling it through your favourite twists and bends with significant gusto — way more than you might have initially thought possible given the car’s lofty crossover-esque seating position.

Also, given its relative lack of sophistication the 500 Sport feels almost analogue in the way it engages with the asphalt. While longtime rivals such as the Mini Cooper have advanced, digitised and matured over the last decade (almost to their detriment in certain respects), this Fiat still drives like hatches did before they became overly refined tech-centres on wheels. Comparatively speaking it has an old-school charm to the way it drives, which I quite like.

The seven-inch infotainment system is one of the smallest we've experienced in a modern car.
The seven-inch infotainment system is one of the smallest we've experienced in a modern car.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Ride quality, however, is still nothing to write home about with the 500 Sport’s composure easily ruffled by road imperfections thanks to its relatively large wheels and notably short wheelbase. It’s fine on smoother tracts of bitumen but our ill-maintained Joburg mean streets what with their ripples, potholes and exposed concrete expansion joints make this poor little Fiat at times skip around the surface like a hungry dancing bear. 

Be this as it may, I still enjoyed my time behind the wheel of the Fiat 500 Sport. It might be flawed, a bit chintzy in places and certainly showing its age in others (many will find the infotainment system barely adequate) but the feel-good factor that hooked me in the first time I drove this diminutive Italian hatch back in 2008 is still very much there.

As is the sense of occasion: whether popping on down to the shops or heading out on a weekend jaunt, I personally find this Fiat to be one of those cars you’re always happy to buckle yourself into as it’s not just another humdrum four-wheeled appliance. Not to mention look at — there were countless occasions where I caught myself stealing a quick glance back at the racily styled 500 Sport after parking at the mall or in the street.

Quick — think of another car going for comparable cash that can do that? I'm waiting...

Sculpted sport seats do a pretty decent job at keeping your body in check around corners.
Sculpted sport seats do a pretty decent job at keeping your body in check around corners.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Fast Facts: 2021 Fiat 500 Sport 

Engine: 875cc two-cylinder turbo

Power: 62.5kW at 5,500rpm

Torque: 145Nm of torque at 1,900rpm 

Transmission: Five-speed manual

0-100km/h: 11 seconds (claimed) 

Top speed: 173km/h (claimed) 

Fuel: 5.4l/100km (achieved) 

Price: R269,900


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