Fun cubed – driving the Fiat Cinquecento Sporting
By Nicholas Lette, Dec 17 2015 12:02AM
One of the most common metaphors employed in the description of true sports and super-cars is that of a “racing car for the road,” and though the jury is still out on this nearly criminally overused cliché, it does make sense as an apt communication of unadulterated speed.
Unfortunately, whilst most people can appreciate this means a car must be rather good, quite how good is likely to fly over the heads of the proportion of the population who’ve not driven said race car. In this respect, the Cinquecento makes my job very easy.
What I require you to conjure up is not an image of some fire-breathing monster of the quarter mile or a million horsepower single-seater, but that of the cobbled together, pram-wheeled go-kart of your childhood. You know, the one that took days to nail together and what felt like even longer to drag to the top of the biggest hill around but the one that gave you your first taste of speed. Sitting on half a chair or splintered plank of wood, pulling yourself along with your legs stretched out ahead, swinging your weight forwards until gravity could take over, you knew that to reach the bottom of the hill, momentum was everything, and braking was never going to be an option. If you too can remember that feeling, then I need say very little more about why the smallest of FIATs always hold such an appeal to me.
Even at a time when sedate family hatches were offered with 16v engines and multi-point fuel injection, the 1100cc unit favoured by FIAT featured a modest 8 valves, a single point of injection and an honestly quite measly 54bhp. Not a very mouth-watering proposition and It may have been these lowly specifications which limited the success of the model on a global scale, but coming from the dizzying motoring heights of a 1988 Panda, the “Sporting” badge to me seemed more honest here than ever. The joy of changing into fifth on a motorway, or not having to worry about flooding the carb if the car didn’t start first time may sound like an exaggeration, but for me these were Christmas presents come early. Couple this with a stereo which actually works, seats with genuine lateral support, central locking and an anti-roll bar and that’s four more of my must-have boxes well and truly ticked. I’ve always been an advocate for simpler cars, but even with these relative luxuries, the little Cinquecento still tips the scales at 50kg less than the basic and utilitarian Panda it has replaced on my drive.
I will be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a dinosaur in the driving department, a quality not helped by having a first car with little or no syncromesh, unassisted brakes and a crumple-zone constructed of the occupant’s kneecaps. I was expecting to have to learn to drive again, accompanying every mirror-signal manoeuvre with a shuffle of the steering wheel and a nervous glimpse to see if my passenger has loosened their grip on the roof handle but I was wrong. The roadholding is terrific, 13” wheels and low(ish) profile tyres allow for controllable and predictable understeer, and with the four-pot engine hanging over the front axle, a little lift mid corner and the tail slews back into line with little or no body roll. The steering is direct and nicely weighted for lower-speed cornering, the only real complaint being the gearchange, the throw is extremely long and the gate occasionally vague especially when the oil is hot but the ratios are nicely spaced and with a smaller steering wheel, even a 6’ 2” driver can manage a heel and toe shift with relative ease. As with all small FIATs, the power band is quite thin and torque only starts to make an appearance above three thousand revs, but in the right gear at the right time, it’ll pull all the way to six and a half with a tasty hum from the bulkhead.
When I come to write an article, it is rarely the title that is first penned to paper, but in the case of the FIAT Cinquecento, I had to make an exception. Whilst it’s unashamedly boxy styling has found its fair share of favours in the automotive scene, it is always going to be a car to divide opinion, some may see the hints of Giugiaro in the large radius curves and flat glass but it is inevitable that these delicate and very subtle features may be by some, branded lazy, boring and dated. I have never hidden my love of small cars, in my experience they’ve always been those from which you can extract the most fun, with the fewest “surprises” and this tiny FIAT at only 6 inches longer than the original mini, certainly fits into the sub-compact category. Born into the mid-nineties when the hot-hatch market was being flavoured by Japanese imports aiming to give the established French and German offerings a run for their money, the Sporting model was certainly a humble and left-field choice even for a slightly eccentric Europhile but this epitome of cheap and cheerful performance motoring never compromised on fun.