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Fiat 500 - Fiat's automotive iPod


Is it a girls' car because it's cute; a boys' car because it's stuffed with tech; or unisex? I reckon the latter.

I drove the 1.4-litre Pop Dualogic, with the Blue&Me option ($750). It's standard on the up-spec Lounge but well worth the cost.

There's a USB port for your MP3 player or a USB drive loaded with music (the latter's less likely to tempt thieves). And there's the voice-activated Bluetooth phone system. Load your address book into the car, make hands-free calls, or - and it impresses the heck out of passengers - have it read your text messages to you out loud. I didn't discover how it deals with txt mssges, but...

As for the car itself, it's funky, stylish, and retro without getting silly about it. The 74kW/131Nm 1.4-litre petrol engine's well capable of punting the wee 500 along, and it handles well for the breed, if not as brilliantly as the more dynamically-focussed Mini.

This car was fitted with the Dualogic sequential robotised five-speed transmission, a clutchless manual that takes a bit of getting used to.

There are just two pedals, but it doesn't behave like an auto. A robotized clutch activates, and at first you have to think about modulating the throttle as you would when changing gear in a manual car. Soon it's second nature, and after that you appreciate the system's flexibility. You can drive it like manual, tapping the gear lever; you can press the sport button for somewhat manic response; or if feeling more relaxed leave it in standard auto, for smoother changes and better economy. It's effective - but because it feels odd at first, the standard dealership test drive doesn't do it any favours.

Given most people assume small cars will be frugal, it was interesting driving in the different modes and seeing what they did to fuel economy. Standard auto was certainly less thirsty than 'sport', but a tad too relaxed for my hilly commute. I ended up switching between the modes and appreciating the ease with which I could tailor the car's response to that moment's drive requirements. Economy suffered a tad as a result - I ended my test at 7.5l/100km, considerably over the 6.3 claim which was no doubt achieved in sensible mode only.

While we're talking sensible, the boot may be compact, as are the rear seats, but there's enough space for one or two people occasionally carrying passengers or luggage, who want something that's easy to park. The bonus is that ANCAP crash tests suggest this is one of the safest small cars - its five-star occupant rating assisted by ESP and seven airbags making it a rarity in the class.

What else? There's the usual run of spec including climate control air, with our car ticking a few of the plentiful option boxes - including that Blue&You, the optional chrome pack ($350), and different alloys ($750). We could have gone further as the options list is capacious - including everything from 'go faster' stripes and racing numbers (ho ho ho), to a car cover that looks like the original classic, or practical add-ons such as surfboard racks.

Even the entry-level Fiat 500 isn't the cheapest small car, while this Pop 1.4 Dualogic retails at $30,990 plus the options. But apart from the basics its character, its style and the abundant techie bits make a strong argument to offset the extra cost over more basic fare. 


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