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Used Fiat 500 buyers' guide
In 1984 when I was 16 years old, my school friend Barry bought a red Fiat 500. It was pulled from a farmer's barn for the princely sum of 20 Irish punts. Oh, the thrill of whizzing a £20 car around town, checking the coast was a very thrilling experience.
Twenty years later, Fiat showed the Trepiuno concept at Turin. Four years later, that car became the new 500, and it was an instant hit.
Although the new 500 is not as cheap and as basic as the original I drove as a kid, a lot of the key values still remain and most owners reckon it's a worthy successor and a great ownership experience.
Launched in the UK in January 2008, the first 500s came with the choice of a 1.2-litre or 1.4-litre petrol and a 1.3-litre diesel. Trim levels were Pop, Lounge and Sport with prices starting at just under £8,000.
Journalists rate the base version as offering the best bang for your buck but if buying used, there is very little price difference between a low-mileage Pop and an average Sport making the more lavish versions a tempting buy.
Model choice will most likely come down to personal preference but options like air conditioning is a must have and doesn't cost much on a used 500, so try not to buy one without it.
Where should I buy?
Trade price guide CAP recently announced that the 500 Abarth was one of the top three slowest depreciating cars in the UK, retaining 60% of its value after three years/30,000 miles. That's not the full story, as this refers to resale prices rather than what you'll get on a trade in, but 500s do hold their money.
UK list prices for 500 are a touch higher than in mainland Europe, and dealer discounts are not easy to come by. Online retailers such as Broadspeed offer (small) discounts on new 500s, but all are from UK dealer stock. If you want to take advantage of the comprehensive options list to personalise your new Fiat 500, you're likely to pay close to full whack.
Price controls don't stop there. Stock of ex-manufacturer used cars is tightly controlled by Fiat, and franchised dealers hold most of the good examples. If you're looking for a used 500, you are likely to visit the franchised network.
There are Fiat 500s that turn up as part exchanges outside franchised circles and at auction, where they are snapped up by independent dealers. For every ten Fiat 500s advertised for sale, nine will be offered by motor traders. If you are used to buying privately and saving some money, the private choice is much reduced on a Fiat 500.
What is the best price?
At time of writing, there are essentially no Fiat 500s on sale in the UK priced under £5,900. For a small car launched five years ago costing £8,000 that is phenomenal. The cheapest 500 currently on offer is a privately-owned 2009 1.2 Pop, with 20k miles and all the spec of an empty Corn Flakes box: yours for £5,975. Considering this car cost £8,100 new some four years, that is much higher than initial forecasts of 47% retained after three years.
After a sprinkling of private cars comes the trade onslaught. From £6,750 and up, the ads are from motor traders. £7,000 is a popular price point for 20k-30k mile cars, while 10k-mile gems with decent equipment begin to appear from £7,500.
The newest addition to the 500 line is the TwinAir: a widely acclaimed, twin-cylinder turbocharged engine which emits just 95g/km and does a claimed 76 mpg on the urban cycle, all the while qualifying for free road tax. TwinAir is hot property and genuine used examples have yet to come back to market.
Fiat dealers do have ex-demo TwinAir and TwinAir Plus models on offer, starting from £10,500: a reasonable saving. Cooking versions of TwinAir - Pop and Lounge - are also available ex-demo for under £10k. At this price, with free road tax and no charge in London's Congestion Zone, why buy a diesel?
Are there any insider tips I should know about?
£7,500 - £10,000 is the price point where the bulk of used 500s fall, and where one might nab a bargain if the seller is not paying attention. For example: a sassy 60-plate 1.2 Sport SS in silver, on sale at an independent dealership with 14,000 miles for £7,999, looks in line with other Sport models, but this car has cost options like full leather trim that are not on the description. If leather is a must-have, it is great value.
Introduced in 2009, Fiat's Start and Stop system can allegedly add 12% to urban fuel economy and brings additional appeal to early cars. Now standard on all new UK 500s, city dwellers buying a used 500 should stick it on their lists.
Difficult colour and trim combinations could be a future resale problem as today's best colours fall out of fashion and the 500's current in-vogue status is taken by another. White may prove risky due to its popularity in being the only no-cost paint option. Still, it looks good.
Remember these are city cars; 15,000 London miles could inflict a lot of wear and tear so don't be fooled by the mileage. Look out for door dents, scuffed alloys, tyres worn out by all that low-speed steering, paint faded from being stored outside and general urban decay.
Used buyers should spend some time on Fiat's online new car configurator and get familiar with the various options. Piling on the bits and pieces can take a pricey 1.3 Lounge diesel from £13,000 to well over £17,000 so, when standard cars hold their money as well as they do, saving money on options originally costing a fortune is the next best thing.
Which one should I avoid?
Picking one car to avoid from an already compact range of a good car like the 500 would be misleading. But cars with an annual service instead of extended service would get my vote: reports of cars going unserviced for two years or more due to 18,000-mile maintenance intervals do not appeal that much. Check the history.
Also consider that ride quality substantially improves with revised rear suspension from 2010. If your car is on the cusp, check what's under that back end: later cars are worth a little more.
In June 2009, Fiat struck a four-year deal with BSM to supply cars to its driving instructors, signalling an end to the 18 year relationship that the driving school and Vauxhall had.
Eighteen months later and 3,250 Fiat 500s purchased, BSM announced it was returning the 500s, when driving standards watchdogs complained that the back seats were too small for their driving test examiners to observe from.
BSM subsequently returned to Vauxhall and this posed a threat to 500 residual values with the influx of over 3,000 Fiat 500s hitting the used car market.
Buyers should check the V5 of any purchase for company names as first owner and should look for wear and tear that could be caused by the car being driven by inexperienced drivers.
What about the convertible?
If you like the wind in your hair then the 500C which is a roll-back-roof convertible should be considered. It has fixed sides which help in deflecting wind and also prevents opportunist theft in towns.
Prices for base-spec 500Cs used are just dropping into the price band.
Should I go for the manual or an automatic?
The choice of choosing between a manual and automatic will come down to user preference but it should be noted that Fiat's Dualogic transmission is not a full automatic. It is an auto-shift manual gearbox that can also be controlled from the steering wheel. Most car testers say that Dualogic makes little sense when the manual option is so easy to use, but value for money changes as depreciation kicks in.
If you absolutely cannot drive a car with a clutch, Dualogic cars entering the used market seem to be fetching little more than their manual counterparts.
What potential problems should I look out for?
There are reports of flimsy trim and components changed under warranty, but feedback is generally good. These cars are nippy but not outright quick. Economy suffers when they are used beyond their comfort zone: 1.2s used in open country might average 40 mpg. Careful drivers could get that figure higher.
The 1.3 diesel engine looks attractive on paper but has its share of issues. A technical bulletin in February 2008 advised dealers to replace diesel head gaskets on early models during service. Diesels can need more frequent engine oil changes when used for short hops: unburned diesel washes down the cylinder walls, diluting the engine oil. Engine failure is the result when warning lights go ignored.
When insuring a 500, make sure your insurer will cover the value of options fitted to the car. Some will not and options make many 500s unique. A late-plate 500 written off in an accident might be replaced like-for-like on the trim level, but make sure the options will also be accounted for. Check your policy booklet for details.
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