The Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 are two of the biggest-selling small cars in Britain but they've been successful because of style and looks as much as on-road performance or practicality. Both cars offer great levels of personalisation, not to mention that retro kudos because of their famous ancestors.
Does that mean that they're both cases of 'style over substance', though? Which ones should you actually buy, and which should you avoid? Here's our verdict.
What are the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 like to drive?
Whichever version you go for, the Mini Cooper is a hoot to drive. It's great fun on twisty roads thanks to go-kart-like handling and well weighted, informative steering. It's also easy to drive around town, and although there's a firm edge to the ride, it's never choppy or uncomfortable.
It won't surprise you to learn the Fiat 500 is at its best when picking its way through crowded urban streets. This is thanks to its small dimensions and light steering; indeed, its diminutive size does make it feel even more tuned to city use than the Mini.
Break away from the hustle and bustle of town roads, though, and the 500 doesn't sparkle; the handling is too roly-poly and the ride is far too fidgety and bouncy. On the whole, it's nowhere near as satisfying to drive as the Mini.
The 1.6-litre engine in the entry-level Minis called First and One has enough pace provided you're happy working it hard (fortunately it doesn't mind being revved hard), while the 120bhp 1.6 in the Cooper is lively, smooth and responsive. The 108bhp Cooper Diesel is flexible, but nowhere near as much fun to thrash as the petrol.
The Cooper S's turbocharged 1.6 gives 181bhp for hot-hatch performance, but the SD, with a 141bhp 2.0-litre diesel, is neither fast nor flexible enough. The John Cooper Works version ups the ante to a blistering 208bhp, and it's sensationally quick.
The entry-level 1.2-litre petrol in the Fiat 500 isn't fast in isolation, and it's pretty weedy compared with the Mini's motors, but it'll have just about enough poke for most buyers. The 0.9 Twinair (turbocharged two-cylinder) engine is lively if you keep it above 2000rpm, but it's particularly unrefined, with far too much noise and vibration.
The turbocharged 1.4 petrols in the Abarth versions give proper hot hatch pace. There's also a 1.3 diesel option, which gives adequate performance and is worth a look if you plan to do a lot of miles. It is a little noisy, though.
The Mini's petrol engines are smooth and cultured, even when worked hard, but the diesels, particularly the SD, sound a bit gruff. The Mini also lets in too much road noise at anything above walking pace, and there's quite a bit of wind noise on the motorway. The gearshift is slick, although it's too easy to select reverse when you really want first.
Twinair and diesel engines aside, living with the 500 on a day-to-day basis shouldn't prove too tiresome. Although wind- and road noise become increasingly evident as speeds rise, they never get to an irritating level.
Can I get the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 as an automatic?
The Mini's six-speed automatic gearbox isn't as rewarding to use as the manual, but it's a decent enough solution if you need two pedals. It's offered on selected models: all but the entry-level petrol, plus Cooper D and SD diesels.
The 500's 1.2 and 0.9 petrol engines are both available with a robotised manual gearbox called Dualogic. It has an automatic mode but it's not that impressive, because the transmission makes slow, jerky shifts, and it hurts fuel economy. Dualogic is a less satisfactory solution than the Mini's; we'd avoid it unless it's absolutely necessary.
What are the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 like inside?
Most of the plastics and fabrics used in the Fiat's interior fit with the retro image of the 500, but although it looks good in parts, many panels looks disappointingly drab. You could argue that the Mini has an even more premium image, but its cabin doesn't fare much better; although much of the trim looks the part, some of the materials and switchgear are disappointingly plasticky.
Neither of these cars is designed to carry four occupants for any more than short distances, and it shows. The 500's front cabin space is fair enough, and you can squeeze a couple of adults into the back, but only for a short journey and they'd better not bring much luggage, either, because there's room for a few shopping bags and little else. It's worth noting, too, that the entry-level Pop model doesn't even get a split-folding rear seat, so you can't extend the boot capacity on that edition.
The Mini has a little more rear cabin space, but it's still not particularly easy to get in and out of that area, because the door opening is low and narrow. The boot is actually smaller than the 500's too, although all models do get a split-folding rear seat that can extend its capacity to a more useful 550 litres.
The entry-level Mini First and One editions are pretty sparse on the standard equipment front, but the Cooper edition brings air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, alloy wheels and a CD player as standard. You don't get much more in a Cooper S, in fact, apart from some sporty styling touches and sports seats.
The basic Fiat 500 Pop has remote central locking, a CD/MP3 stereo and electric side mirrors, and not a lot else. You can add features such as air-conditioning as single options or go the whole hog and upgrade to Lounge trim, which brings air-con, alloy wheels, Bluetooth, a split-folding rear seat and a glass roof. Twinair models have their own trims, incidentally, and air-con is standard on every one of them.
All Fiat 500s come with front, side and curtain airbags, plus one to protect the driver's knees. These helped the car achieve a five-star rating in Euro NCAP crash tests although it's a shame that Pop models miss out on stability control.
The Mini matches that five-star rating and all editions get front, side and cabin-length head airbags. You also get ISOFIX child seat mountings, and importantly, stability control is standard throughout the range.
What will the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 cost to run?
Neither of these cars is available with much of a discount, incidentally so be prepared to pay close to list price and make sure that all of the options you're choosing are ones that you really want, because your personal touches are unlikely to be worth much when it comes to sell your car on.
Even so, one of the Mini's key strengths is residuals; this is a car that holds its value well, so you can expect to get back as much as 50% of its value after three years. The 500 can't match the Mini in this area, although entry-level editions come closest, at around 46%.
If you do plump for a Mini, we'd recommend adding one of the two TLC servicing packages. For a small, one-off fee, TLC covers your first two annual services plus a few other checks. The TLC XL package costs a little more, but also covers your third and fourth service visits.
Fuel economy is respectable on the 1.2 petrol 500 and regular Mini Coopers, although you will notice a drop-off if you try to get away with regular motorway usage. The hotter versions (Mini Cooper S, Mini Cooper JCW and Fiat 500 Abarth) are geared towards performance, and you will end up making regular trips to the filling station.
The diesel editions (Mini Cooper D and Fiat 500 1.3 Multijet) do bring much-improved economy on longer runs, albeit with a trade-off in refinement. Fiat makes grand claims for the 0.9 Twinair two-cylinder petrol's fuel efficiency, but our experience of the unit is that it struggles to get anywhere near its official average economy figures.
Which one should I buy?
Both of these cars have sound basic packages, so we'd go for one of the more lowly editions and add your own touches. The 500 1.2 Pop has enough performance to keep most drivers happy, and the savings over posher versions will allow you to choose useful options (such as air-con) and still pay less overall.
Our favourite Mini is the regular Cooper, which is quick enough and has a blend of handling and ride quality that makes it great around town. Again, plenty of options are available but study the 'Packs' carefully to make sure you're not paying money for features you don't want. We'd also avoid alloy larger wheels, which have an adverse effect on ride quality.
Of the two cars, we'd opt for the Mini Cooper if your driving patterns include even occasional sorties out of town, because it feels a bit more grown-up than the Fiat 500. It is more expensive, but you're getting a slightly bigger car and a more accomplished all-rounder, and it'll give you more of that cash back when you come to sell it on.