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Mini Vs Fiat 500

Cheeky Chapppies Published: 3rd Jan 2012 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mini Vs Fiat 500

What The Experts Say...

Few people know small Fiats better than Tony Castle- Miller of Middle Barton Garage (see our specialist profi le in this issue). He says while the 600 is a fairer comparison to the Cooper, he’d take a 500 over any Mini anyday and, apart from steering locks, virtually every part is easily available. They make great frugal runarounds and there’s a wealth of improvements and upgrades but Tony says just by slipping in the later air-cooled 126 engine virtually gives a standard 500 Abarth 595 pace without the expense; he always starts with this unit. He also adds that the Fiat is more DIY friendly than a Mini.

Mini Vs Fiat 500
Mini Vs Fiat 500
Mini Vs Fiat 500
Mini Vs Fiat 500
Mini Vs Fiat 500
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Car buyers in the early 1960s, soon to become ‘swinging’, were never more aware of the need for stylish transport, at bargain costs. Fun and games were to be balanced against the background of the Suez fuel crisis. Two new models focused the market’s attention on both fl air and economy in size and consumption: Dante Giacosa’s immortal Fiat 500, and Alec Issigonis’ innovative Mini.

In fact, so similar in history, concept and proposition are the two cars, that their modern interpretations are still competing head-to-head in the current market and media coverage. They also spawned competition and ‘hot’ versions of the standard models at the same time. Step forward Fiat 595 Abarth and Mini Cooper. Let’s not overlook the more mainstream versions either, if you are in search of some frugal fun!

Which model to buy?

Home-made or a funny foreigner?
It could be a question of pure availability. Both British Motor Corporation and Fiat churned out over 1.5m and 2.3m of the models respectively, albeit in different countries. More Fiats does not necessarily mean it is easier to fi nd or maintain them. Similar in spirit – a small but fun-to-drive city car – it seems that the term ‘minicar’ was coined for both Mini and Fiat 500. They are also similar in functionality, being able to carry parents at the front and children at the back: a miniature family car created by the need to save space, money and fuel without compromising on fun. Both brands looked at the ever-popular economy car par excellence, the German Beetle, and tried to emulate it, though using different routes.

When it came to racy versions, some 4000 Abarths were made against over 120,000 Mini Coopers of various denominations. Again, availability, price and a taste for the exotic may play a part in anybody’s choice. Anything before 1965 with an Italian badge will be either rare or a replica, which is not necessarily a bad thing (as explained later). A Mini, though, says a lot about the owner: whilst not as rare, it speaks about one’s understated desire for a piece of British history which will also give pure driving fun. Not to mention those rally results…

What's the best to drive?

Front engine or rear engine?
That’s a question all automotive engineers must have argued over, at some stage in their lives. When the ‘nuova’ 500 was launched, in 1957, it had its little 479cc engine in the back. A car that tiny (some 10 ft long), hailed by Fiat as the cheapest car in the world at the time, is not designed to be driven hard or indeed hang its tail off round corners. Yet it had a monocoque structure, a fi rst for Fiat, and all-independent suspension, another fi rst. Also new for the marque was the air-cooled, two-cylinder engine, producing a tiny but entirely appropriate 13bhp.

The power output rose discreetly over the years, but the sheer compactness of the vehicle allows for some quick directional impetus if necessary. A city car which blows raspberries at the city traffi c is a theme maintained by Fiat’s advertising image over the decades.

In contrast, the Mini was born for exactly the same reasons as the cheeky Fiat but took to the task in a completely different way. With a front-engine, frontwheel- drive confi guration, the Mini (originally called Mini Minor or Austin Mini, before acquiring its own status symbol) soon earned a well-deserved fame for its go-kart sharpness.

The Mini has a significantly wider track, lower centre of gravity and frontwheel drive, all of which tend to promote stability, predictability and the inspiration of confi dence in the driver. Add the suspension system, rigid rubber cones (instead of springs) at one with the sub-frames, and the all-out wheels at the four corners, and based purely on driving fun, there simply is no competition. Perhaps the gap is not as wide when it comes to the sportier versions, as the Abarth interpretation of a modest economy car raises the little Fiat’s performance and talents infi nitely higher than John Cooper ever did with his friend Issigonis’s baby. But, for regular, classic wheels, the Mini is simply unbeatable.

In standard form the Mini is the better bet for today’s roads given its peppier performance, especially on the largerengined versions. And while no cruiser it is certainly better equipped for longer jaunts.

Owning and running

Mini by a mile…
A lowly, ‘common’ Fiat 500 can be had for about £6000, any less and you will be asking for trouble. Being developed on a tight budget, they rust in all the right and wrong places, i.e. most of them, but all parts are available, mechanical or otherwise. The difference is in the age of the car: pre-1965 it is still possible to fi nd panels and parts, but they are pricier than later cars.

The older the car, the more fragile the ownership, and it may not be worth saving money at the outset, when more is then spent to put things right. It is true that original Fiat 500 owners usually treat their pride and joy with respect, and one should continue to do so. Budget may well be of consideration, as a Fiat 595 Abarth can set you back by as much as £20,000 for a truly splendid example. However, as replicas are worked on with much love and care for detail, possibly more so than the original cars, it may be diffi cult to spot the difference.

One might even, paradoxically, be better off with a ‘continuation’ rather than the real thing, unless you are a collector and need the purity.

Interestingly, with the Mini it is the other way round: when it comes to Coopers, because so many were made, it is easy for a standard Mini to be made to look like a Cooper, and not behave like one so beware of clever fakes. A decent Cooper will cost almost as much as a real Abarth, but a project can start at £2000. The interest for a sportier Mini has not abated over the years, and is stronger than ever – especially for the Cooper’s 50th this year; they are likely to have been driven very hard but parts supply and specialist support beats the Fiat hands down.

Other problems may be the brakes, which are as diminutive as the wheels – so they get worn quite quickly. Overall, the Mini, whether in normal or hot mode, is a reliable enough car and easier to own and run than a 500 while spares and repairs pose few problems for DIYers.

Don’t ignore the 1990 Cooper line up. They are cheaper than ‘the real thing’ because they don’t enjoy the same cachet but they are more modern and more usable - and ‘classic’ enough for a good many enthusiasts. Try one for size.

And The Winner Is...

It depends whether you wear a tricolore heart or an English cross (as the Mini itself does, quite literally); whether you can cope with a bright-coloured tiny car which makes people smile and has an asthmatic yet hysterically tenacious engine and unusual looks, plus rarity – or you want a car which still shows the world how it is possible to package punch, fun and capability in a soapbox. You’ll never regret owning any Mini, but if you do, then you might just be dreaming of Fiat’s little Italian job!

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