Vital Stats

Engine:
1.4L Four-Cylinder
Power:
101 HP / 98 LB-FT
Transmission:
5-Speed Manual
Drivetrain:
Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
2,416 LBS
Seating:
2+2
Cargo:
5.4 CU-FT
MPG:
30 City / 38 HWY
Fashion-Forward Fiat For Fun



Northern California is an odd place – and that's just the cars. For every Toyota Prius-driving eco-yuppie, you'll find a diehard Datsun 510 enthusiast. And you can't toss a bushel of puntarelle without hitting a grease-powered Mercedes-Benz in the East Bay. But here's a better case in point: A few weeks back, I was driving an arrest-me-red Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible and it barely turned a head. One week later, there was a Mercedes-Benz E350 Bluetec parked in my driveway and I couldn't stop fielding questions.

Like I said, odd.

So when I snagged the keys to a 2012 Fiat 500C, I wasn't sure how it would be received by the mismatched masses of the Bay Area. Less than 10 miles later, I lost count of the number of thumbs-up and double-takes I got while crossing the San Mateo Bridge. Surprising? Not really.

After all, this is the coast that seared the original Volkswagen Beetle into the national consciousness and took to budget compacts years before Detroit had a clue. But while we've driven the 500 in all its guises, one question remained: Could you really live with something this damned cute?
2012 Fiat 500C side view2012 Fiat 500C front view2012 Fiat 500C rear view

If you're looking for something with some visual panache for around $20,000, your options are decidedly limited. The 500's obvious competition would be Mini, but a base Cooper starts at $20,100, with the droptop commanding $5K more. Honda Fit? Pedestrian. Smart ForTwo? Please. Mazda2? Fun, but lacking curb appeal. Nissan Juke? Polarizing. All of which puts the 500C in an odd middle ground. It's not a budget city car and it's not a premium subcompact. But it's a good niche to cater to.

While 500 pricing starts at $15,500 plus $500 destination, the C comes in $4,000 more at $19,500. Our Pop-spec tester with a five-speed manual carried a sticker of $21,750, and the only car we could secure for a photo shoot was a loaded Lounge model with six-speed automatic that cleared $24K. Not bad, but that $4K tariff basically means the power canvas roof accounts for more than 25 percent of a hardtop 500's base price, and that seems rather stiff. Either way, there aren't many options to choose from – particularly if you want to retain the manual 'box, which is only available on the less expensive Pop model.

With the standard C-spec goodies (Customer Preferred Package 21A) bringing Blue&Me hands-free connectivity and a pair of awkwardly positioned stereo controls behind the leather wrapped steering wheel, the only major option left is the $1,250 Bose Premium Audio Package. Tick that box and Bose pumps out a few extra watts through the six standard speakers, and a one-year SiriusXM subscription and alarm system comes along for the ride. All that's left is to pick your colors, roof fabric ($500 more for the Bordeaux red top), wheels (another $500 for the 15x6-inch aluminum hoops) and one of two interior trims. That's it. And that's fine. If you're looking for 10 million possible combinations, there's a Mini dealer down the street more than willing to take your order – and charge you a suitably Germanic premium for your individuality.

2012 Fiat 500C interior2012 Fiat 500C front seats2012 Fiat 500C rear seats2012 Fiat 500C rear cargo area

But the 500C can't possibly compete in the driving department, right? Well, that depends on what you're after.

While the 101 horsepower and measly 98 pound-feet of torque provided by the 1.4-liter Multiair four-cylinder couldn't outrun an injured turtle with a bottle rocket on its back, the 500 can make a case for itself if you're a fan of momentum driving – even if merging on the freeway requires you to consult that rosary hanging from your rearview mirror.

A long-haul highway car, the 500C is not.

With a wheelbase that's practically as long as the Fiat is wide, trundling along over 70 mph feels like you're doing The Ton. The light steering – useful in the city – goes from targeted to twitchy once you've crested 50 mph. Lay into the throttle in any gear at any speed and the tiny four-cylinder wheezes to life, just enough to get all 2,400 pounds past that smoke-belching Merc and into the path of an oversized Suburban (our sincere apologies to said Chevy driver).

2012 Fiat 500C engine

But get off the freeway and it's a totally different story – one in which the Fiat finally gets to play protagonist.

Hit the on-ramp under 50 mph and you can slide the top all the way back, making the 500 one of the most charismatic targas since the 1965 Porsche 911. All that high-speed angst and worry seems to get sucked into the sky as the 500C finally gets into its element. And its groove. It's like piloting an O.G. Beetle, but without any of the stuttering, strain and potential for death.

Dropping the top is one of the most simple affairs this side of a Mazda MX-5 Miata, with two roof-mounted buttons controlling the fabric roof's surprisingly quick motor. Press the button once and the top retracts nearly all the way back, still allowing a rather unobscured view out the rear window. Press it again and the fabric accordions atop the trunk, providing just enough of a view to make out the light bar on a CHP vehicle, but not much more. Not that you'll be having many encounters with the highway's police in the first place. With the top all the way back, wind buffeting is well controlled and it's only slightly better in the two-thirds position. If you press the close button twice, the top moves into a pseudo-sunroof configuration, and when fully closed, wind noise is kept in check unless you're crossing a particularly gusty bridge.

2012 Fiat 500C side view2012 Fiat 500C side view2012 Fiat 500C side view2012 Fiat 500C logo2012 Fiat 500C badge2012 Fiat 500C badge

While the steering isn't nearly as dialed-in as a comparable Mini or Mazda, it provides enough feedback to instill some faith in the chassis. It's safe to assume that most 500s will be outfitted with the six-speed automatic, but the enthusiast's money is on the manual, which provides significantly more engagement per mile, although it's delivered through a rubbery gate and a featherlight clutch. Brake feel is predictable once you get past the initial inch of slop and the stoppers held up to a beating, if only for a bit. Tire squeal from the 185/55 R16 rubber comes on at anything past six-tenths and body roll is severe, but the 500's oh-so-low limits quickly became part of its charm. Its bolsterless seats, driver-only armrest and ability to annihilate nearly all rearward visibility with the top down... not so much.

On the infotainment front, both a USB connection for iPods/MP3 players and an eighth-inch auxiliary jack are mounted on the left side of the glovebox. Tip: Choose your playlist before you go, as it's both impossible to plug in while driving and the stereo's menu system makes choosing an artist/album/song feel like playing mid-90s Mindsweeper blindfolded. The same goes for the voice controls, which are – at best – half-baked. If you're looking for interior tech, look at the Ford Fiesta.

2012 Fiat 500C rear 3/4 view

But if you're interested in style at a price, the 500 is where it's at. And the smiles-per-mile quotient is easily tilted in favor of the open-roof 500C, despite its paltry 53-pound weight penalty. With EPA estimates of 30 mpg in the city, 38 on the highway and around 32 mpg observed, it beats out subcompacts with nowhere near the charisma. Less-than-respectable interior plastics and a comically cute trunk (5.3 cubic feet, or enough for a grocery run for two malnourished 20-somethings) might be the biggest everyday negatives next to the shelves that stand in for rear seats, but such is the price of presence on a budget.

So... could we live with it day-in and day-out? No. Or at least, not in its current form. With the turbocharged, 175-hp Abarth version set to arrive late next year, nearly all the dynamic quibbles we have with the suspension, tires and engine (maybe even the interior) should be addressed. In keeping with Fiat's pricing approach, the Abarth will likely be thousands less than a comparable Cooper S with half the trimmings, and in ragtop form, it could be many things to many people. Even a finicky San Franciscan.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 77 Comments
      Mike Pulsifer
      • 3 Years Ago
      " a comically cute trunk (5.3 cubic feet, or enough for a grocery run for two malnourished 20-somethings) " Seriously? We got 2 weeks of groceries in there (two late 30-somethings). I guess we just eat healthy. And about the interior, how can you think the 500's is cheap and yet you gushed about the iQ's? Makes no sense.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Mike Pulsifer
        [blocked]
        QAZZY
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Mike Pulsifer
        My roommates and I are three 20-somethings, and we fill up an STi hatch for 2 weeks of food.
      Doc
      • 3 Years Ago
      Cant wait for the Abarth. Neat little car
        Phontsolo
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Doc
        I saw it in person when i visited Thailand recently. And let me tell you, it's no where near neat..... it's even better, it's bad ass.
      David
      • 3 Years Ago
      It is disappointing that "Lounge" trim cannot be had with a manual transmission. I wound never consider this car without one, but I like top-spec trim. Why did they do this? MINI would never force us to make such compromises (Devil's Advocate, yes, but it's a fact!).
        Shiftright
        • 3 Years Ago
        @David
        I agree, and why don't they offer the C in Sport trim? It has the bigger wheels, stiffer suspension and more enveloping sport seats, not to mention the more aggressive front and rear 'Sport' facias. Then again, I realize that minimizing combinations and option packages keeps the price low.
      dan1malk
      • 3 Years Ago
      The Abarth is clearly the enthusiast way to go, while the convertible is crippled by its price premium. I found the Sport model to be a nice middle ground. It has different, more comfortable/supportive seats, and a different suspension tuning that while isn't from the Abarth, firms things up just enough to ensure some confidence and have fun with. I'd love to read a more detailed 'Review' of the Sport model instead of the quick 'First Drive' we got a while ago. Like someone said earlier and on Autoblog in an earlier review, the Sport button is ESSENTIAL to get the steering feel right. It also sharpens the throttle making it a little more fun when you push it.
      PFJN
      • 3 Years Ago
      Hi, I think I agree with some of the commenters here. I've had my 500 Pop 5-speed for a couple months now and I've had no problems with highway driving at all, and I can't see how adding a cabrio roof would change that. In addition the car is really phenomenal for city/suburban driving, getting great mileage on side roads and is really easy to park. For my non-cabrio car I typically get at least 35mpg in combined city/highway driving (per tankful) and have gotten about 42mpg on a tank with mostly highway driving. For me its a fun, responsive car and its been very practical for my needs. Regards
      tump
      • 3 Years Ago
      I'm seriously considering swapping out my 2010 Mazda 3 5-door for the Abarth version - just for SF size constraints and easier parking in my neighborhood. One of these tiny cars is going to be it.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @tump
        [blocked]
          Dick Trickle
          • 3 Years Ago
          You might want to actually do some research if you think the Abarth is going to better than a Mini. It has lost every comparison I have ever read in the European press, mostly due to it's crappy torsion beam rear suspension, compared to the Mini's fully independent set up. EVO magazine said the Abarth Esseesse basically fits between the Cooper and the Cooper S in terms of performance.
          Markus Xenig
          • 3 Years Ago
          I own an abarth and I will trade ISTANTLY for a mustang,challenger or camaro!!! American people are INSANE!!!!!
      Austin
      • 3 Years Ago
      About the steering: did you not notice the "Sport" button? It firms the steering up commendably. Too bad you have to remember to hit it EVERY time you start the engine. And I never found highway merging to be a challenge (of course that was Toronto where it's all construction, all summer) even with the automatic. I had a coupe in Sport trim as a rental for a couple of weeks and loved it. The Abarth 500C will be a perfect complement to my Ram 1500.
      Phontsolo
      • 3 Years Ago
      Fiat is doing the smart thing here by doing what BMW does with the Mini so well. They offer options. That's why the 500 will be successful. Other car manufactures in the US be it American, German or Japanese should pay attention to this detail. Give American's options. If you want you can buy the barest of Mini's. But if someone else wants to buy the most expensive Mini with all the options. They can! OPTIONS, OPTIONS, OPTION.
      QAZZY
      • 3 Years Ago
      The Abarth sounds nice, but the thing is just so... damn cute.
      Bryan Lund
      • 3 Years Ago
      It's a new and different look, and it is a cute, European look. What's not to like here? It's an instant winner!
        Markus Xenig
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Bryan Lund
        You are another American FOOL!!!!!! Fiat 500 look is 50 years old!!!!!!! And here in Italy we just laugh at your American dumbnesses,if we just had the Camaro,Challenger and Mustang at the price YOU can have it we just would throw the fiat 500 in the closet!!!!
          buttersbits
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Markus Xenig
          Would you throw the 500 in the closet after having to fill up a larger gas tank repeatedly? Would you throw the 500 in the closet after finding that your muscle car can't fit in any parking spot? Would you throw the 500 in the closet after finding that your muscle car was a pain to maneuver around tight urban settings or *gasp* an EVIL SPEEDBUMP OF DOOM or its cousin the STEEPLY INCLINED DRIVEWAY FROM HELL!!! 500 and muscle car dont belong in the same sentence, but they coexist just fine in the same garage. Totally different cars with totally different purposes/driving styles. Respect them for what they were made for, not what you think they should have been made for. We dont give camaros and mustangs a second glance because it seems every other driveway has one, the SAME REASON YOU DONT CARE ABOUT THE 500. Oh, and the Fiat 500 looking 50 years old is, again, with purpose... ever heard of 'retro'? Some like it, some don't. You've submitted your ballot, time to move on.
      lilirishgirl
      • 3 Years Ago
      Show me the twinair!
      • 3 Years Ago
      [blocked]
        Shiftright
        • 3 Years Ago
        But then you'd have to be seen in a Fit, which, as a good as it is, is homely and looks cheap.
        gtv4rudy
        • 3 Years Ago
        You don't get it.
        • 3 Years Ago
        [blocked]
          Shiftright
          • 3 Years Ago
          Comparing this to a Fit is completely pointless. Different cars for different purposes.
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