2012 FIAT 500c Expert Review:Autoblog
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
New Car Test Drive
How tiny cars should be done: with Italian spirit.
The 2012 Fiat 500 is like the Mini or Volkswagen New Beetle, a modern recreation of a classic. It was introduced in Italy four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 0.5-liter original. Half a million Fiat 500s have been sold in Europe already, spurred by 60 international awards, including European Car of the Year in 2008. Now, as a Chrysler product, the Fiat 500 is being made in Mexico for the North American market.
The 500 is affectionately known by insiders who can pronounce it as the Cinquecento, or 'chin-kway-chento.' Out of the box, it's a contender for fun-to-drive champ, as a four-seat A-class commuter car. We found it to be more fun than its competition, including Mini, Fit, Fiesta, Yaris, and Mazda2.
The Fiat 500 is about 6 inches shorter than a Mini, costs about $4000 less while including Bluetooth, and offers safety with a 5-star crash rating, sporty performance, fuel economy, technology, cool style and good looks. It features seven airbags, a new 1.4-liter engine with something called MultiAir cylinder head technology, state-of-the-art BLUE&ME hands-free technology and a Bose sound system standard in two of the three models, and a great 5-speed gearbox or optional 6-speed manual automatic transmission that's also fun.
There are three models, although versions would be a better word than models, because they're so different, in a slight but meaningful way.
The Sport really means it. If you want a totally cool sports car that gets 34 mpg and can move four young people around, the Fiat 500 Sport is for you. The ride is firm, brakes are amazing, steering is quick and gearbox terrific, so use it all or live with it. The seats are terrific and the special Sport interior is attractive.
The Pop is that rare if not unique model, both the lowest cost and most all-around practical. For $2000 less than the Sport, the Fiat 500 Pop is less aggressive with a better ride. But the extra equipment in the Sport is a great $2000 value, so you're a winner either way, as long as you know what you want. You can also get the automatic transmission in the Pop, for $1000. You lose some Italian flavor with the automatic, but not having to constantly work your left leg in the city, or freeway traffic jams, is a relief.
The Lounge is for those who want their Cinquecento to feel more like a real car, with the automatic transmission, softened ride and steering, added chrome, more amenities, and optional leather.
With the Sport, you get a lot for the $2000 higher price versus the Pop. With the Lounge, at $3000 more than the automatic Pop, you don't get so much. You get to feel like your Fiat 500 is the luxury version. All three models are named well. It would be best to take a test ride of all three before you buy, to feel the differences. Which might not be possible for a while, as Chrysler dealerships have to ramp up to sell the Fiat 500. Production began in March 2011.
The 2012 Fiat 500 comes in Pop, Sport, and Lounge versions. All Fiat 500s use a 1.4-liter engine.
Fiat 500 Pop ($15,500) comes standard with the air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio with auxiliary input, power windows, power door locks, power heated mirrors, cruise control, vehicle information display, fabric seats, 15-inch steel wheels. A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard; a 6-speed automatic ($1000) with manual shifting is optional.
Fiat 500 Sport ($17,500) comes with firmer springs and shock tuning, tighter steering calibration, and a sharpened exhaust note. It comes with the 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. It's distinctively styled, with front and rear fascias with black mesh openings, slightly flared fenders, rocker panel cladding, roof spoiler over the liftgate, and 16-inch aluminum wheels. Smaller touches include red brake calipers, chrome exhaust tip and foglamps. Inside, the Sport features seats in what Fiat calls a Gray/Black interior environment, six-speaker subwoofer Bose sound system, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and BLUE&ME Handsfree Communication technology with USB port and iPod control.
Fiat 500 Lounge ($19,500) is the upscale model, with the 6-speed manual automatic, a fixed glass roof that makes it feel bigger inside, premium fabric seats, Sirius satellite radio, 15-inch aluminum wheels with wagonwheel spokes, and more trim and chrome on the outside. It has the same softer suspension, steering, and body panels as the Pop.
Safety equipment includes seven air bags, reactive head restraints, electronic stability control, and ABS with brake-force distribution, brake assist, and brake override.
If ever a picture of a car were worth a thousand words, the Fiat 500 is it. Take a good look, and you'll have a feeling of your own and won't need our words. But you have to look closer to see the distinctions in the models, which are worth pointing out.
The Fiat 500 is the epitome of tidy. Granted, it's easier to be tidy when there's less to deal with, and the Fiat is so small there isn't much. But the Sport, especially, is perfect. There's a chrome strip on the nose like a pencil-thin moustache, that the Cinquecento's designer added just because without it, he said, the car's styling was too perfect. Rarely does any manufacturer understand what clean really means, but Italians do. For that reason alone we need them back in North America, to be a good influence.
The face of the Fiat 500, with round halogen projector headlamps and parking lights, combines the family resemblance of other Fiat models sold in Italy, with a modern interpretation of the original Cinquecento, imported to the U.S. as a 600cc model back in the 1960s. No one in North America remembers, of course; but no matter. It's a winning European design that's been brought to the U.S. after four years.
Simplicity and strength are conveyed, especially on the Sport with its unique fascia, thanks to very short overhangs and muscular fenders, with the front fascia tapering outward to large wheel arches. On the Sport, the best looking model, there's a horizontal cooling duct of black mesh that adds racy character, while the lower mesh grille integrates foglamps. The liftgate spoiler is a must.
The distinctiveness of the Fiat 500's shape appears from the profile view, more than front or rear. The black window outline on the Sport enhances the good looks of the all-business roofline, while the chrome on the Lounge, especially those chrome mirrors and door handles, detracts from it. The Sport also has rocker-panel cladding that isn't bad, as rocker-panel cladding goes.
The rear view is stylized by a chrome license-plate brow, common in cars today, but true to the original Cinquecento that was inspired by a bicycle seat, believe it or not. The healthy rear taillamps are located between the edges of the liftgate and follow the door's vertical cutline. For a contemporary look, the rear glass spans the width of the liftgate and meets cleanly at the pillar. The Lounge has a chrome rear bumper that adds a touch from the '50s.
Also, we might add that the coefficient of drag is 0.35, which is darn good for a little box of a car.
The original 500 had a canvas roof that's legendary, and today's 500 features an optional dark glass roof that copies the style. The optional sunroof is available as fixed or powered.
There are five separate wheel designs of 15 or 16 inches, with at least three of them good-looking and eye-catching, and 14 vivid colors to choose from. Try Nero (black), Rosso (red), Bianco (white), Azzurro (blue), Grigio (gray), Argento (silver), Giallo (yellow), Verde Chiaro (light green), Rame (copper), Verde Oliva (olive green), Rosso Brillante (tri-coat pearl red), Bianco Perla (pearl white), and Mocha Latte and Espresso, which apparently need no translation from Italian.
If the exterior is the epitome of tidy, the interior is the epitome of neat. As Roberto Giolito, the head of Fiat Style says, it delivers absolutely everything that is required and nothing more. Unlike, say, the too-cute Mini and too-boring Yaris.
The Fiat 500 instrument panel gives the Fiat the visual feel of a sports car, except for its one flaw: the tachometer is combined with the speedometer, and this takes some fun out of driving and shifting through the gears, in particular with the Sport, because it ought to have a tach of its own. The tachometer ring is inside the speedo ring, and almost all of the space inside the ring is taken up by LCD information. So all that's left is the tip of a tach needle moving around a chrome ring against small white numbers that are hard to read, especially past 6000 where the numbers are red. And the stub of the speedometer needle, with all its numbers to 140 mph, moves around outside that. It's almost as confusing to the eye as it is to the brain to read about here.
Also, if the Fiat were as simple as they say it is, the radio would have a dial to tune stations, and not a button that you have to hold your finger on and take your eye off the road to watch the digital number tick along.
Everything else is real good, especially the metal instrument panel painted the same color as the car. And the seats, all four upholsteries, are really great. Standard cloth, premium cloth, sport cloth. It may be referred to as cloth, but it doesn't look like cloth. They're all different fabrics, all satisfying, as much like leather as cloth can feel. There's also optional premium leather, but the other seats are so sharp that leather isn't missed. And the fit is just right, although other reviews have complained that there's not enough bolstering in the Sport seats.
The top of the dash is vinyl and its design as simple as it gets: it's just there, and doesn't try to be anything, like for example the new Focus that tries to be a cockpit surrounding the driver. There are good armrests for both of the driver's elbows when holding the perfectly sized leather-wrapped steering wheel at 9 and 3 o'clock. The Sport shift knob is about as big and round and chrome as you can get away with. Doors cleverly lock with an inward push of the handles. And it's a little car with big long deep door pockets, how about that.
The steering wheel tilts to adjust, and there's all the legroom in front that you need, although the driver's right knee nestles against the console. Still, one 6-foot, 6-inch driver said he fit okay in the 500. The climate and audio systems and vents are in the center over the console, but it's not exactly a center stack, it's less than that, while still being complete. The shift lever, whether manual stick or autostick, rises from the bottom of the dash, a forward place where it's a more natural reach.
Legroom in the rear is 31.7 inches, obviously not much; we barely squeezed our briefcase behind the driver's seat. However, with the front seats slid forward, the rear legroom is not half-bad; but that's because the rear seat is a bench, so passengers sit upright. Fiat says it's roomy for two adults, and we wonder what species they mean, certainly not two adult humans. Young people running around town might not mind the squeeze, nor the climb into or out of the rear seat. With the rear seats up, you might be able to get two carry-on bags in the back. Drop the seats and it's a little hatchback with lots of room to throw small stuff in, through the liftgate.
The glass roof in the Lounge not only makes the interior feel more airy, it raises the ceiling, over the headliner or optional sunroof. There are three cupholders in front and two in back, and the glovebox is ample. Navigation is optional by TomTom, and handsfree communication, standard on Sport and Lounge, is by Blue&Me.
The three Fiat 500 models, Sport, Pop, Lounge, are quite different in the way they drive. Same power, but different brakes, handling and transmissions.
Let's start with the Sport, which is truly sporty, with a firm ride, thanks to stiffer springs and shock tuning, firmer brakes, and quicker steering. It all adds up to a wonderfully responsive car, although the ride isn't as relaxing as the Pop or Lounge, especially over bumpy roads or in the city. But if play is what you like, you'll have a blast in the Sport.
The 5-speed gearbox is a joy to shift, with a throw that's short, quick and secure. Its linkage is by a cable, a method that generally is less sharp, but in the Sport's case, we felt no loss. We banged shifts left and right, even hard downshifts into first, and the gearbox loved it as much as we did. The forward lever location is ergonomically natural, and that adds to the neatness of it all. The clutch is light. We never missed, never fumbled, and always got the heel-and-toe, as well. It doesn't often happen that nicely, out of the box. It's that Italian touch.
The Sport's red brake calipers can be seen through the 16-inch wheels in a color called Carbide and make a statement that's backed up by braking performance. Stopping in the Sport is significantly more responsive than in the Pop and Lounge, which is good when you're driving in a sporty manner, but it requires a soft touch around town. The Pop and Lounge do that soft touch for you. With 10.1-inch front and 9.4-inch rear rotors, and so little weight to bring down, getting stopped in time is never a worry.
The 6-speed manual automatic transmission is available even on the Sport, and it too is a transmission you can play with (although we think if you're going for a Sport in the first place, go all the way). The lever location is the same in the automatic as it is in the manual (although the knob isn't), so it feels like a stick shift. The Lounge comes standard with the automatic, and the Pop works well with it, as a compromise. There's a sport mode for the automatic transmission that sharpens and delays the shifts nicely, without too much override, so you'll still have a sporty little car, with the manual automatic Chrysler the Autostick. As they have the right to do, having invented sequential manual shifting of the automatic transmission in 1995, with the Dodge Stratus.
In the Lounge, the first thing you notice is how much looser and easier the steering is, then the same with the ride, and the brakes. In the city, this is good. The more relaxed steering makes the whole car feel a bit bigger, but the fixed glass roof in the Lounge has something to do with that, too.
The 1.4-liter engine is the same on all models. It features a reinvention of the cylinder head that's called MultiAir technology, to get 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque. MultiAir is a complex system that drives the intake valves by oil pressure actuators, triggered by electronic control: it's truly continuously variable valve timing. One big downside is that premium fuel is recommended, although not required, but we still wonder: how much power is lost with regular fuel, and how much will engine longevity be affected? So we'd use the premium.
Chrysler estimates 30 City/38 Highway miles per gallon, but it might be better than that; we got 34.2 mpg, revving it high and running it hard.
Our day-long test took place over winding and uncrowded roads east of San Diego (in the Sport), and around the city in the Pop and Lounge.
Passing on two-lanes, in sport mode, there was enough acceleration to work with. Shifting gears to stay in the powerband makes it fun. It's a momentum machine. It comes on at 4000 rpm and redlines at 6800, a point that's unfortunately hard to judge because of the difficulty of reading the tachometer, especially the red numbers and lines over 6000 rpm. At least the rev limiter cuts fuel gently; the engine just flattens at 6800, it doesn't nose-dive.
One treat is that the engine feels like it's ready to shift at 5000 rpm, and it certainly can be shifted there and still maintain momentum, but it just keeps putting out for another 2000 rpm, pleasantly surprising you. Another pleasing aspect is that 80 mph in 5th gear is only 3300 rpm, and on level ground it glides fairly effortlessly at that speed. Quietly too, thanks to hydraulic engine mounts and extra sound deadening material.
Ninety miles per hour in 4th gear is still only 5000 rpm. Do the math and that's a theoretical top speed of 153 mph in 4th gear; fat chance, but the sweet engine fools you into thinking it might just be capable.
The new Fiat 500 creates a niche of its own: a tiny, high-mileage, low-cost, four-seat car that has the style and performance of an Italian sports car, with a 5-star crash rating. It's 6 inches shorter than a Mini and about $4000 cheaper, while bringing a fun-factor that similar Asian cars can't match.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Cinquecento models near San Diego, California.
Fiat 500 Pop ($15,500); Sport ($17,500); Lounge ($19,500).
Options As Tested
Fiat 500 Sport ($17,500).
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