Fiat 500Fiat 500
Fiat 500
FROM one extreme to another. Last week we were testing a brash, gas-guzzling leviathan of sports car mixed with 4x4 in the form of Porsche's Cayenne GTS–one of the most antisocial cars on the road.

Engine: 1.3-litre, three-cylinder diesel with Multijet fuel injection

Power: 75bhp and 107lb.ft.

Performance: 0 to 62mph in 12.5 seconds and 103mph

Fuel economy: 67.3mpg (combined)

CO2 emissions: 110g/km 

Price: from £9,700

Rating: *****

This week we took to the streets in the cuddly Fiat 500 and sampled the automotive equivalent of taking a spring stroll with the cutest puppy in the park. Everyone points, smiles, lets you pull out at can do no wrong.

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Put Osama Bin Laden behind the wheel of a 500 and people would forgive his tendency for mass murder and preaching hate for the opportunity "coo" and "aww" at his car's wide eyes and cuddly proportions.

Forget the MINI–the 500 is the new darling of retro cool...or should that be cute?

The fact that the 500 causes such a stir–much more so than Porsche as it turned out–is testament to the affection felt for the original and the sensitivity with which the re-style has been carried out.

It's bigger than the original, but that was necessary to pass modern crash tests–the 500 has a five star EURO NCAP rating–and at 3.5 metres long its still damn small, even if that is a full half-metre longer than the 1957 original.

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Thankfully my 6ft 2inch frame fitted in quite comfortably and, once in, a cleverly packaged interior continues the retro look of the outside with interest.

From the outside the look closely apes that of the now classic 500 shape. It's larger and smoother-edged but no less quaint or appealing.

Inside the glass sunroof of our Lounge-spec car brings a lot of light into the cabin and, combined with the largely cream interior, ensures that there was nothing claustrophobic about the new 500.

Unfortunately the back seats were another matter with the falling roofline resricting headroom and minimal leg room.

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In the front everything is cleverly packaged and, as well as oozing 50s chic, feels well put together.

The lacquered bacolite-alike dash evokes images of expensive Italian coffee machines and the leather steering wheel, likewise, has a piano black centre. The buttons look like boiled sweets and ahead of the steering wheel the rev counter lies within the speedometer to keep things nicely confined to one prominent binnacle.

The 500 interior is like a piece of pop art, boasting design touches from another era combined with modern functionality. If you're in the front, at least, it's a fantastic place to be.

There are three levels of trim available–Pop, Lounge and Sport–priced between £7,900 and £10,700 and the one tested here is a mid-range Lounge version.

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Even Pop form is well-equipped with seven airbags, ABS, central locking, electric windows and door mirrors, an MP3-compatible CD player and Dualdrive electric power steering which goes feather light at the touch of a button.

For an extra £1,400 Lounge adds a leather steering wheel, bluetooth, air conditioning, 15 inch alloy wheels, body coloured door mirrors and a glass sunroof. For the same price Sport loses the sunroof but adds tinted windows, fog lights and a boot spoiler.

There is also a choice of 1.2 and 1.4 16-valve petrol engines or a 1.3 16-valve Multijet diesel.

We tested the 75bhp 1.3 16-valve Multijet diesel and it's hard to see it not being the pick of the range. Averaging a real-life 63 miles-per-gallon and perky, if not electric performance, thanks to the 500's diminutive 980kg weight it still competes a sprint to 62mph in 12.5 seconds.

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The 500's handling was interesting in an old-school European hatchback style with supple suspension provoking a degree of lean but surprising grip through corners.

The damping at the rear of the car was somewhat loose in its reign, however, with a tendency to bounce or provoke sweaty palms by stepping-out mid corner.

It's not as tied down or dynamically gifted like a MINI but it’s a very fun car to maintain momentum in.

Approaching the 500 I wasn't sure if I would come to the conclusion that it was, as we originally suspected with the reincarnation of the MINI, merely a crude attempt to plunder the past in search of sales figures but its character that makes it a unique proposition, good value and fantastic practicality (for two at least) won me over. I'm a fan.

Cutest puppy in the park? No. The new 500 is one cool cat...

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