Small torque

The stretched Granada limousine up ahead was wavering: indicating right, changing his mind, edging back to the left, indicating right again, no, wrong road, back to the left and, finally, it seemed, to the right once more.

Then he meandered back across yet again, by which stage the gap to his left had been filled. Fortunately, it was occupied by a Fiat Cinquecento, living proof that three into two will go without scratching your paintwork.

The Cinquecento was conceived to be the ultimate city car. The design brief was to produce something that could nip through gaps traditionally reserved only for bicycles, whilst at the same time seating four adults and leaving them enough air molecules to breathe. That much has been successfully achieved in a shell only seven inches longer than a Mini’s. Comparisons with the latter are inevitable if, in places, invalid. Given the passage of three-and-a-bit decades since the Mini’s launch, it isn’t exactly surprising that the Cinquecento should offer greater levels of comfort. Ride quality around town is, however, excellent by any standards.

With only 899cc and 41 bhp to its credit, the Cinquecento soon runs out of steam away from its natural urban habitat. Top speed, attained in fourth, is just 87 mph. It will cruise happily at 70, but life is somewhat stressful thereafter.

Despite its modest performance, Fiat is promoting a one-make rally challenge for the Cinquecento in Italy, in a quest to find the next Miki Biasion. For the moment, there are two less frivolous options on offer in the UK: the basic version costs just under £5000, while the SX, which adds glass sunroof, central locking and electric front windows to the generous if unspectacular standard specification (this includes rear wash-wipe, a tidy Grundig stereo cassette, split folding rear seat and bulkhead-tophatch carpeting), is £5415.58, around £200 more than today’s entry-level Mini, the 1.3 Sprite.

In addition to an attractive list price, the Cinquecento also promises modest running costs. Insurance is Group 1, and don’t think about saving for anything more ambitious than a sherry glass if you collect petrol tokens. Even with energetic use of the throttle to take full advantage of its size around town, we returned over 40 mpg. On longer trips, over 50 mpg should easily be attainable if you can get the thing to stay in fifth gear. The test car jumped out of top on several occasions.

Indeed, whilst most of the Cinquecento’s vital functions are admirable for a car of this class, the gearchange felt ponderous. Colleagues who have driven other test examples report that this problem is by no means confined to our demonstrator. Nor, however, is it common to all. Either way, it was the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise charismatic newcomer which proves that car design in the 1990s needn’t necessarily be dull.

It doesn’t yet have the evergreen Mini’s fun factor, but a little more bottom-end torque would put that to rights. Cinquecento Abarth, anyone? S A