by David Zatz
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The Fiat 500C is a cabrio with a twist: while most convertibles fold down the entire roof and its pillars, the 500C keeps the door frames and roof supports intact. That saves weight, since the rest of the car doesn't need as much reinforcement, lets the 500C retain much of the sporty nature of the regular 500. The little 1.4 liter engine doesn't have to struggle on hills or at highway speeds, either. The down-side is the loss of all-around visibility and the totally open feel of an all-out convertible.
The Fiat 500C's cloth top covers just the top of the roof; press a button and the top slides down, forming into folds. (The standard top is black; our tan top came as part of a stereo upgrade, which also turned the seats dark brown.) It stops at the back of the car, before folding down the rear window; you have to press it again to make it finish the job (nobody in their right mind would leave it in the halfway position, given the buffeting that involves). With the final press, the back window folds down, and the roof piles neatly onto the back of the car, taking up around a third of the rear visibility.
The Fiat 500 is powered by a little 1.4 liter engine with a clever torque-enhancing system called MultiAir. The engine is noisy when pushed, but that just seems to be "in character." Not everyone wants their cars refined to the point of boredom, and with the Fiat 500, you can regain the whole small-car experience you missed when you sold your Rabbit or Omni.
The stiff suspension, firm steering, manual transmission, and high-revving engine all combine to make driving exciting, even when you're really not going very fast. The extra short wheelbase, low overhangs, and sport suspension give the feeling of driving a go-kart; the manual transmission keeps you connected to the engine and the road, and the lack of excessive sound and shock insulation makes less acceleration feel like more.
When we whipped around turns at Bear Mountain in the Fiat 500, it felt like we were really racing; then the Dodge Dart took the same turns with aplomb, at 5 mph more. The Fiat definitely makes it feel more exciting, at the cost of "refinement" and a greater sense of stability. You can have a lot of fun without constantly coming up against your limits, or those of other drivers on the road, or the brains of that family of deer around the next turn.
The clutch is easy to get used to, especially with Hill Start control, which keeps the brakes locked until the clutch bites in. That's good, because with small cars, the manuals really can increase acceleration and gas mileage — and because this is a car that's all about being connected.
The shifter moved smoothly and engaged nicely, providing a good tactile feel. Reverse is set off all the way to the right, and uses a lockout ring to make sure you really want to go backwards and aren't, say, trying to get into sixth gear. It would be nice if they'd set it off to the left, which would make the 500 consistent with the Dart.
The steering is firm but clearly power assisted, sluggishly returned to center. Pressing the Sport button firms up the steering quite a bit, sharpening it up and increasing the effort, and, it seemed, changing the throttle curve. Taking the Fiat 500C over poor roads resulted in a lot of bouncing, and while it whipped enthusiastically around tight turns at moderate speeds, it did not inspire confidence in passengers. The 500C tends to bounce and jiggle and finds road imperfections you never knew were there, even as it cushions sharp shocks.
The Fiat 500 Sport we tested earlier had amazing traction, feeling confident and light on its feet. It seemed like all you need to do is wrench the wheel and the Fiat would follow without complaint. The 500C Pop was less confident but still provided high traction and a fun experience; without the Sport suspension, it felt a little heavier and less nimble.
The little engine was strong in lower gears and at higher rpms, accelerating well from a stop; at speed, drivers need to downshift to get passing power. While at 55 mph, fifth gear was gutless, a quick downshift solved that; and going to third gear pushed the engine up to 4,000 rpm or so, at which point it's a pocket rocket (you can still get gas mileage in the higher 30s in fourth gear). At 65, the engine is rotating at around 2,800 rpm, right in the torque range, so if you're just a little patient, you can stay in fifth all day long. Gradability is good, and we took long hills that slowed a test Hummer H3 below the speed limit with only occasional downshifts to fourth.
The Fiat 500C feels like a little racer around town; on the highway, it's neither a Viper nor a complete slouch. The engine doesn't really get the responsive feel unless you're running past 4,000 rpm. You can pass, but it won't be instant. If you're at 55, dropping down to third will get you going quickly; doing down to fourth, is good enough most of the time.
Using a manual helps in awareness of the power band; below 2,500 rpm there's not much going on, and the faster you rev, the more you get — power, noise, fuel burning. At around 6,600 rpm the fun runs out, but fortunately the cutoff isn't the sharp "wham!" style, it lets you stay right at redline while making it clear that you shouldn't be there. That gives you time to upshift but doesn't punish you for hitting the barrier.
Inside, the Fiat 500 is a mix of old and new. The black interior was relieved by a body-color red dashboard panel stretching the length of the car, and brightening it up considerably — a trick first reborn, as I recall, by the Chrysler PT Cruiser, whose old factory now makes the Fiat 500. Three old-fashioned-looking, non-lighting buttons intrude on the surface of this panel — Sport mode, hazard, flashers, and rear defroster. We found that the displays were always visible, even in harsh direct top-down sunlight; the air conditioner indicator was the only lamp to be washed out by the Sun. It would have been helpful to have a Cruise indication other than "Cruise On" or "Cruise Off" flickering across the trip computer.
The climate control section is modern and easy to use, including the "press to get a/c" fan switch. The vents all have individual on/off knobs, and the usual vertical and lateral movements.
The window up/down controls are centrally located by the gearshift; the shifter on our car had a clear white-on-black legend with a chromed reverse lockout ring. Overall, the interior is aesthetically pleasing, if a bit odd in its ergonomics. The use of black, white, and red worked well to brighten and visually enlarge the cabin.
The steering wheel is similar to the one used in new Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles, with leather-wrapped surfaces and the cruise control on one side, voice/phone control on the other. It has a good feel, and the audio controls on the back are handy, especially given the deficit of controls on the head unit itself.
The Fiat 500 is large enough up front, albeit quite narrow; large people seem to have no problem with it, other than having arms extending over the brake, and headroom is more than enough for a six foot tall driver, even with the seat ratcheted up via the slow, manual control. The driver's seat has an armrest on the right side, but the passenger seat doesn't, probably because there isn't enough room for both to use their armrests, and the driver needs to operate the brake and shifter as well. The base 500C's seats seemed less supportive than those of the Sport model.
The seats are a bit oddly arranged: the recline control and the fore/aft slider are in the center, to save space. The wiper control is set up the "upside down" Japanese way; for Americans, down is off and up is on.
Wind noise was fairly high, the cloth roof adding to it, without making it hard to hear people in the back seat or being a real nuisance. The cloth roof was well insulated and fairly quiet; the bump up front might have directed wind over the top, rather than letting it drag. (The open roof was a bit odd in traffic, as noises from other cars filtered in from the "wrong" angle.) Those who are cross-shopping a Fiat 500 against a more expensive car should note that the 500 puts its money into driving dynamics more than sound insulation. Make no mistake, though, if you're hanging onto a midpriced or cheaper car from a decade ago, the Fiat 500 will be quieter on the highway; times have changed, and standards of wind noise have risen quite dramatically.
Gas mileage is rated by the EPA at 30 city, 38 highway in both Fiat 500 and Fiat 500C (manual transmission); the open roof only adds around 50 pounds to the weight. Our impression is that those ratings are accurate, and that you can push the car hard, or get stuck in nasty traffic, or race up a mountain, and still beat 30 mpg. We managed in two separate 30 mile highway trips to pass 41 mpg, including tollbooths, periodic traffic jams, and a good deal of enthusiastic driving; a careful driver could probably get into the mid-40s.
The back seats are wide enough, with legroom, depending on the people up front, varying from tight to very tight. You can fit kids back there easily enough, and adults (average or lower height) will fit if everyone doesn't mind squeezing for a bit. The back seats are less supportive and satisfactory than the front seats.
Cargo space is tighter than in the standard Fiat 500; the convertible has a trunk, not a hatchback. The rear seats fold down (50/50) for more space. We could put in a good number of grocery bags, but you wouldn't want to try to carry furniture or large suitcases.
Visibility is not as good as the standard Fiat 500, even with the top down; there are blind spots on both sides, not well covered even by the split mirror, largely due to the thick rear pillar, and with the top down, the rear view is obstructed. The headlights, though, are bright and well-focused; Fiat uses amber turn signals, which are more effective than red ones; and sidelights and front turn signals are separate units, so they are more visible, especially at night. Sun visors are skimpy and don't slide out or extend. On our car, the rear visibility was countered somewhat by a backup alarm, which beeped on "seeing" an obstacle when in reverse. Sometimes, it seemed oversensitive, but that's better than missing objects which might really be there.
Other than not having a cushy ride, the Fiat 500 does have some drawbacks. Some are the nature of the beast; the Fiat 500 is a two-door, and sliding the seats forward to let kids in is a pain. The driver's side seat usually seemed to get right back to the correct spot, but the passenger seat could wind up anywhere. What's more, because it is a two-door, you need some real flexibility to reach the front seat belts (which do not adjust up or down). The seat belt buzzer beeps loudly (and uncontrollably) from the moment the ignition is on. The headlight switch has no position for parking lights; and, well, we have a whole separate section for "Blue & Me." One wishes Chrysler had done more interior work.
These are a lot of complaints about what is basically a fine car. It's not a great family car, though my kids loved it for a week (10 and 15 years old), I don't think they'd feel quite the same way after five years. The ride is firm and there are numerous little drawbacks and places where they saved money. But the first time you take a turn without bothering to slow down or arc around, just swing the wheel and go at a 90° angle at 25 mph like a cartoon character, or race up to speed on a highway on-ramp, you're likely to forgive all those flaws.
The optional Bose stereo had good sound when the volume was cranked up; it remembered different bass and treble settings for different media, a rare attribute which does make sense. However, at lower volumes, it loses clarity. With the top and windows down, at lower volumes, it sounded like a disco was next door. Hopefully, in time, the Fiat 500 will adopt Chrysler's user interfaces and UConnect, and provide a subwoofer control. For far more on the stereo, see our past review.
The base price for the Fiat 500C Pop (the bottom level) is $20,200, including destination — which is $1,500 more than the midlevel Fiat 500 Sport. That's actually inexpensive for a convertible, and it comes fairly well equipped. Safety features include reactive head restraints (up front), side curtain airbags for both rows, a knee airbag, stability control, Hill Start Assistance, four wheel antilock disk airbags, tire pressure monitor, rear defroster, and variable wipers.
Convenience features include remote entry, alarm, SentryKey, tinted windows, cruise, filtered air conditioner, height-adjustable driver's seat, storage under the passenger seat, express-down power windows, six-speaker CD with input jack and USB port, hands-free communication, steering wheel mounted audio controls, tilt steering, vehicle information center, and front floormats. That level of features normally comes one or two trim levels up.
Functionally, the Fiat 500C has 15 x 6.0 inch steel wheels with all-season radials and wheel covers, body color power heated mirrors, DRLs (high beams), projector headlamps, and, instead of a spare tire, a tire repair kit with an inflater and flat-fixer goo.
There were two options on our test car. The expensive one was the Bose premium audio package at $1,250, including satellite radio, a tan soft top, and brown seats. The cheaper one was the painted aluminum wheels — also 15 inches — at $500. As tested, then, our car totaled out at $21,950. It was made in Mexico, at a Chrysler plant, using 11% US/Canadian parts (including the engine) and 59% Mexican parts. Gas mileage is EPA-estimated at 30 city, 38 highway, and the warranty is good for a generous four years or 50,000 miles.
A "mild turbo" version is expected within a year, at least on the hatchback versions; said to produce around 130 horsepower, this would be a middle ground between the hot Fiat 500 Abarth and the standard editions, providing more pep without requiring all-out traction measures. The formula worked well on the PT Cruiser, allowing buyers to step up from the base models without going all the way to the somewhat punishing GT.
The Fiat 500C is a lot of fun, and it's almost unique in the United States, despite an increasingly crowded segment. It's a tight little small car that increases drivers' connections to the road, though everyone else seems to be biggering and refining. The Fiat is cheaper than the Mini, and it's more "genuine," since the Mini is a German car that apes a classic British design, while the Fiat 500 was and is a Fiat design... albeit one refined by Chrysler.
The little Fiat is a ton of fun, and it's sorely tempting for me as a commuter car, especially with the $200 a month lease on the base models. It's hard to argue with the gas mileage, parkability, or the fun. For highway driving, though, the tight steering turns to twitchy, and the fun of driving it turns a bit too much to work. It's a great city car, and it behooves enthusiasts to give it a try.
We noticed a tendency among some reviewers to revert to stereotypes, e.g. "The Mini has Italian styling flair, but it isn't sporty, because only the German Mini can be sporty." That's a fun game (especially if you ignore Maserati and Ferrari), so we'll play, too. "The Fiat 500C is well styled, with swoopy Italian design, but it basically follows the Mini, a German leader that dominates its segment with Teutonic efficiency, though it tends to be cold and distant. Mini seeks to decimate the field with its might, grinding its competitors up and shoving them into bags like sausage, while the 500 tags along behind, dousing its buyers with a spicey spaghetti-sauce feeling and feeling like a pizza." On reflection, maybe actually judging the cars on their merits makes more sense than simply reverting to types.
Fiat 500 info page • Michael Volkmann's Fiat 500 review • Fiat 500 Forum
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