Hilariously teeny yet impeccably taut, Fiat’s funky little 500 is as chic and stylish as it gets for budget motoring. For its looks alone it richly deserves the European Car of the Year gong it collected in 2008. The 500 really is a remarkably accomplished aesthetic package, inside and out. Forget, therefore, the sub-£10,000 UK starting price and humdrum mechanicals. This car delivers a decidedly upscale feel good factor.
That much you probably already know. But were you aware the 500 also has some surprisingly meaty chops in the digital tech department thanks to Fiat’s intriguing Blue&Me infotainment platform? Standard on all 500s in Sport or Lounge trim and described by Fiat as a personal telematic system for communication and entertainment, the most visible aspects of Blue&Me are Bluetooth connectivity, steering wheel controls and an in-car USB port. That’s hardly revolutionary. However, because it’s based on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system, Blue&Me is significantly more powerful and configurable than you might imagine.
For starters, Blue&Me supports voice command for most of its functions. It also features Fiat’s novel eco:Drive data logging and driver training application, along with an up-to-date media playback system, handsfree Bluetooth telephony including audio-based text message reading and optional sat-nav functionality. It’s not necessarily what you would expect in the context of the 500’s simple if slick interior design and relatively modest pricing.
What’s more, Blue&Me’s Windows Mobile underpinnings ensure that future upgrades and potentially whole new applications are a genuine possibility. eco:Drive, for instance, was not available on the first Blue&Me-equipped 500s. But early 500 adopters are nevertheless able to add it to their box of Blue&Me tricks. Given that cars in general are traditionally conceived to be functionally static devices once they have rolled out of the factory – the odd sat-nav or engine mapping update, aside – that’s a something of a philosophical novelty.
The 500’s dashboard is unapologetically simple. In terms of LCD screens, that means a pair of monochromatic, single-line text displays are your lot, one located front and centre in the main dashboard, the other in the driver’s instrument cluster. Large, multi-function colour LCD panels are conspicuous by their absence. But that suits the 500 just fine.
What you do get is an audio system with pretty comprehensive MP3 and WMA playback. It starts with the obligatory dash-mounted CD drive with MP3 support. Where things get a little more interesting is the Windows Mobile-branded USB port located on the floor below the dash. This accepts a standard USB memory storage and supports browsing and playback of MP3 and WMA files stored via the PC- and Mac- compatible FAT32 file system.
Admittedly, the 500’s single-line displays are rather restrictive for navigating large music libraries. The fact that the system does not support playlists hardly helps either. Instead, you must organise your files such that a folder represents a playlist. But as long as you keep your expectations in check, it gets the job done well enough.
Courtesy of the Blue&Me interface, voice command is supported for key playback controls such as play, pause and track selection. However, the 500 also has a well configured set of steering wheel controls. Frankly, using these is quicker and simpler than barking out voice commands.
But what of the ever pressing question of iPod support? The short answer is yes, Blue&Me supports Apple’s epoch-defining media player. Just plug it into the Windows Mobile USB port and away you go – in theory, at least. In practice, there are several limitations which largely derive from the fact that Blue&Me is based on a Microsoft operating system.
First up, music stored on an iPod must be in MP3 format. AAC and MP4 files are not supported. Depending on the makeup of your iTunes library, these restrictions may or may not present a major irritation. But even if your music library is correctly formatted, you cannot access your iTunes playlists.
It’s exactly this sort of shortcoming that makes iPod support somewhat academic. Given the rock bottom prices of memory sticks today (and particularly if you plan on using the eco:Drive application, more on which in a moment) it’s easier and less frustrating to have a dedicated USB key for your 500. Moreover, Blue&Me does not currently support the iPod touch or iPhone (the latter is supported as a Bluetooth telephony device, however). These are problems Fiat could potentially address in future. Until then, there are some significant sticking points for Apple devotees.
As for the sound quality of the audio system, well, it neither delights nor offends. It’s a little short on real clout, subtlety or bass extension. But at this price point, it’s about as good as you could hope for.
Full voice control of a wide range of handsets via a handsfree Bluetooth connection is one of Blue&Me’s core features. Exactly how well it works will vary according to your make and model of handset.
Although the initial pairing process with an LG Viewty went smoothly, the system wasn’t able to automatically pull the phone’s address book. That means contacts must be individually pushed via Bluetooth. Fine for a handful of key contacts, not so great if you want your entire contact base uploaded.
Unfortunately, our 500 test car refused to accept even pushed contacts from the LG handset. That prevented us from testing the voice command system which allows you to vocally select contacts by name. However, we can confirm that dialling full numbers with the voice command system was a pleasant surprise. Numbers recited with conversational, fluid enunciation are accurately recognised. Mistakes are few and far between.
Another of Blue&Me’s nattier features is the ability to read your text messages out loud. User reports indicate that support for various handsets with this feature is patchy. Nokia and SonyEricsson appear to give the best results, the iPhone and handsets based on Windows Mobile (ironically) are apparently less consistent.
Predictably, the LG Viewty we used to test the 500 also refused to play ball with this feature. On the one hand, it’s a tall order to expect Fiat to ensure the system works with the enormous range of mobile phones currently available. On the other, the value of the feature is greatly reduced if it only works properly with a minority of handsets. Ultimately, if you want to ensure you get the most out of the Blue&Me, you may well have to change your handset.
If there’s one application that sets Blue&Me apart from competing infotainment systems as well as demonstrating its potential power, it’s eco:Drive. It’s a two part application involving data logging in the car itself and a PC application providing analysis and driving advice.
The overall aim of eco:Drive is to increase driver awareness of more efficient driving practices and highlight specific opportunities for improvement. It’s very simple to use. Download and install the eco:Drive application on a PC, configure a USB key as instructed, plug it into your 500 and start driving. The system is clever enough to support multiple drivers using the same vehicle, you simply identify the driver in question as you reconnect the USB stick to your PC to upload the logged data.
eco:Drive requires five days’ worth of data before all its features and functionality are unlocked. But during this initial period you can still view a wealth of data. For each journey, you can examine the overall journey time, distance travelled, Co2 emitted and cost in fuel. The eco:Drive PC application, we’re happy to note, is extremely slick, attractive and easy to use.
If you’re the sort of person who really cares about saving either your wallet or the planet, it’s fascinating stuff. You can, for instance, compare in detail the merits of attempting a given journey at different times of day or at different speeds. Likewise, it’s much easier to make an informed choice about the cost of driving compared to public transport alternatives. It also appears to be quite accurate, returning exactly the same 42.2 mile distance for both legs of a return journey test route.
Following the initial five-day logging period, you are presented with overall totals and averages for mileage, emissions and so on. You are also awarded scores on an arbitrary scale of one to five in metrics including speed, acceleration and gear changes along with an eco:Trend score out of 100 for your overall driving performance. eco:Drive then gives you useful tutorials on how to improve efficiency by showing where you are going wrong in areas such the average engine speed at which you change gear. From there, you can set a target for your overall eco:Trend and analyse your efforts day to day.
Adding to the fun, eco:Drive has a community dimension which reveals how your driving compares to other Fiat drivers. Currently, there are around 10,000 users in what Fiat calls “Ecoville”, though it’s not clear if that is in the UK or worldwide. But as fun as all the star and eco:Trend ratings are, we reckon it’s the access to the hard journey data that makes it most useful.
Oh, and if you are wondering, we achieved a fairly pitiful overall eco:Trend rating of 36 out of 100 during 361 miles of driving at an average of 44.2mpg. In truth, that’s a pretty good result given the fairly merciless ragging we inflicted upon the poor little 500.
The sight of a Windows Mobile logo attached to a device is often the harbinger of frustration and disappointment, if not outright doom. In the case of Blue&Me and Fiat’s feisty 500, that remains true to a certain extent. There’s plenty of room for improvement in areas like support for mobile phone handsets and iPods, for example.
But it’s not the whole story. eco:Drive in particular is a rather delightful little application that is both fun and adds real value. And with Windows Mobile providing the platform, fixing faults and adding functionality over time could become routine.
One obvious aspect missing from all this, of course, is a GPS navigation system. In fact, Fiat does offer an optional sat-nav unit that plugs fairly neatly into a slot on top of the 500’s dash. Physically, it’s much like an aftermarket unit. However, it integrates wirelessly with the car’s Blue&Me system via Bluetooth and therefore behaves more like a built-in system, muting music when directions are relayed and all that jazz. Unfortunately, it was not included with our test vehicle.
It’s also worth noting that Blue&Me is not unique. Ford, to take one obvious example, has developed a platform with a very similar on-paper feature set known as Sync. It’s also based on Windows Mobile and available as an option on many of the latest Fords from the new Ka hatchback upwards. With any luck, we’ll bring you our impressions of Sync in the coming months.
Our broad brush conclusion, therefore, is that the basic approach and feature set Fiat has chosen for Blue&Me is worthy of a firm thumbs up. A few niggles notwithstanding, it’s a thoroughly contemporary system that eschews chintzy visual gimmickry in favour of using tried and tested USB, Bluetooth and Windows Mobile technology to provide real utility and upgradeability. We’ll certainly be watching with interest as Fiat develops and improves Blue&Me.