First Drive

2012 Fiat 500C

2012 Fiat 500C
2012 Fiat 500C
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Pop-top Cinquecento Makes For A Sunny Disposition

2012 Fiat 500C - Click above for high-res image gallery

What price the sun? That's the question Fiat is asking potential buyers of its new 500C. All else remaining (mostly) equal, would $4,000 come between you and the chance to have bright, unfiltered Helios riding shotgun? Or, using forty Benjamins to mark your steps, would you gladly throw the money down and do a Tarantella from the $15,500 Fiat 500 to the $19,500 Fiat 500C?

While logic doesn't own a car in this segment, we can say this: Having spent an afternoon whooping it up in the 500C through the winding lanes of upstate New York, wallet aside, when compared to the hardtop model, the 500C is all gain and just a pinprick of pain.

Let's set the scene by returning to that statement about logic. Specifically, its absence. Trawling the comment sections of various web sites, it's common to find people deprecating the 500C's price. And to some extent, that surprises. The $19,500 Fiat 500C has two additional seats and a whole lot more cargo room than the $23,110 Mazda MX-5 Miata, and the primary complaint about the Miata is that it's "gotten so big." Think on that for a moment. The "largest" issue about a ladybug-sized two-seater is that it's grown (marginally, at best), but for some reason, the $3,610-less-expensive 500C – which gets better gas mileage – has been priced by rogues and blackguards. The Mini Cooper Convertible is $6,055 more than the Fiat. The Fiat is a smaller car and feels smaller inside than the Mini, but in a number of metrics, it actually has more interior space. Yet the Mini is most often dinged not for its price, but... for not having enough space.

The runabouts in this segment have little overt interest in logic, so they don't take straight shots at the price line. Nevertheless, the segment works, so it's in Fiat's favor to portray the 500C as an unqualified bargain.

2012 Fiat 500C side view2012 Fiat 500C front view2012 Fiat 500C rear view

It is true, though, that the 500C is not exactly a convertible – the firm gave the 500 hatch a
reverse mohawk (Nohawk? Hawkmo?), making it more than a targa, less than a full-on droptop. Instead of calling it the 500 Cabrio, it should really be called the 500 Sunshine.

There are 53 pounds separating the Cabrio from the hatch, due to the top mechanism, bracing in the new windshield header and brackets between the rear wheel housings and underbody, along with thicker C-pillars and a spar under the parcel shelf. Yet because it's more like an altered 500 than a topless Cinquecento, the 500C doesn't take an axe to the body of qualities we like about the hatch. You can truly use the hardtop as a base for figuring out if you want to spend the extra money. Until you put the top down, the 500C barely looks any different than its sibling from the outside, and even inside, the two-layer top, which isn't trussed-up with external ribs or bracing, doesn't distort the experience.

2012 Fiat 500C top2012 Fiat 500C top

Press the 'open sesame' button once and the top slides back to the Spoiler position, gathered at the top of the C-pillar. A wind deflector stands at raked attention from within the trough of the windshield surround, projecting beyond and eliminating buffeting. Push the button again and the top slides all the way open, gathering in folds above the rear parcel shelf. You can then pull the wind deflector down and latch it in place with a plastic slider. Even with air flowing all the way through the cabin, the two front seats remain serene enough for conversational tones and phone calls. Rear visibility, on the other hand, does take a hit thanks to the top stack: You can make out the color of the roof of the car behind you, but not much else. It's not bad at all, though. You can see there are cars behind and the two-piece driver's side mirror has an acutely convex outer unit for additional blind spot visibility.

The sliding top also gets major points for functionality. You can open it all the way up while driving at speeds up to 50 mph, and if you just want to get to Spoiler, you have that power up to 60 mph. You can stop it at any point along the track by pressing the 'open' button again. If you want to access the 5.3 cubic feet of trunk space when the top is all the way open, tap the trunk release and the top slides up to the spoiler position, then the trunk unlatches. You have to press the 'open' button again to get the top back down. Closing is a two-touch affair, with the top stopping automatically a few inches from complete closure so that you can get your – or your child's – fingers out of the way. (Scroll down and watch the Short Cut video below to see how it all works).

2012 Fiat 500C top view2012 Fiat 500C top down

The minuscule weight increase allows the manual-transmission-equipped 500C to remain in the same test weight class as the hatch, maintaining the same fuel economy ratings of 30 miles per gallon in the city, 38 on the highway and 33 combined. The automatic transmission moves up a class, so while the auto-equipped hatchback is rated 27 city, 34 highway, the Cabrio is rated 27 city, 32 highway and 29 combined.

We're only guessing, but it's possible that the 500C's sliding roof arrangement has been used not only to evoke the 1957 Cinquecento, but to keep from burying the efforts of the 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo under the additional stiffening a traditional convertible would need. You get 101 ponies and 98 pound-feet to pull 2,416 pounds (that's the manual – the automatic is 2,486 pounds), and they work hard – and you will, too – to do it. Peak horsepower doesn't arrive until you're 400 revs shy of the 6,900-rpm redline, while peak torque shows up at a much-more-decent 4,000 rpm. Keep matters above 3,500 rpm if you want to feel the spirit, and even on the highway, you'll need to drop down to third, not fourth, for any menacing incline.

2012 Fiat 500C engine

On the other hand, the driving experience is unchanged, and the best way to describe it is "Weeeeeee!" That was the punctuation used by my co-driver – twice – when making passing maneuvers on the George Washington Bridge, and the utterance is perfectly applied. In a rare case of the U.S. getting a sportier suspension than our Euro brethren, the independent Machperson struts with a stabilizer bar up front and twist beam, coil-spring rear suspension give the 500C a surprisingly supple ride. After bouncing around in a minivan over New York City's Cambodian roads, the 500C's manners were comparatively gracious and forgiving. And not only does it smooth out even sharp, nasty bumps, but when the curves come a-callin' it settles in gamely for vigorous vectoring. The Sport button makes a noticeable difference in throttle response and steering, but when you're at eight-tenths in standard mode, going to 8.4-tenths is a difference in degree, not kind.

That brings us back to the competition. Fiat brought a Mini Cooper S Convertible for some back-to-back action, and when it comes to NVH, ride and handling the 500C takes the Mini to the woodshed, gives it a pasting and steals its lunch money. And its girlfriend.

Fiat says the 500C "delivers leading interior sound quality (quietest at 45 mph, 70 mph and lowest powertrain noise)." We can't verify the exact numbers, but driving both cars (equipped with auto 'boxes) on the same stretch of road, it's immediately and achingly apparent which one is superior; the Fiat made more engine noise under acceleration, but once at cruise was hushed. The Mini's exhaust droned into the cabin when at constant speed, and even with the top up the rear danced around like the latter half of one of those two-man horse costumes. Traversing an ill-paved expansion joint that had turned into an expansion canyon, the Mini crashed over it while the 500C produced a muted 'thump-thump.' Let's be honest, though – the Mini pays a price for being a true convertible and nearly 400 pounds heavier. But if you want to talk about ride, the conversation is already scripted.

The only misgiving we had about the 500C was the interior on the Pop trim (the entry-level spec), and in case you forgot, it's $6,055 less dear than the Mini. It isn't that the Mini is less plasticky, it just does much better things with plastic, which we'd expect. The bigger issue is that other cars costing $19,500, or less, also do much better things than the 500C. The interior looks great in photos and from ten feet away, but to sit in it is to experience the least cute thing about the car. Still, it's the same interior as in the hatch, so if you like that then you'll like this.

2012 Fiat 500C steering wheel2012 Fiat 500C front seats2012 Fiat 500C speedometer2012 Fiat 500C instrument panel

Later in the day, we spent an hour in the top-tier Lounge trim – the Cabrio doesn't offer the hatchback's Sport trim – and although it appeared that Kanye West got hold of the Ivory dash palette of the $26,050 tester, its embellishments raise the bar nicely. The big seats aren't hugely bolstered, but have just the right firmness for long-term comfort; they're the same units as in the Pop, but trimmed in leather (a cost option) they look properly stylish. In addition to the extra gear that comes standard on the Lounge, like climate control and the Bose premium sound system, it just looks like we'd want this car to look. If you can find the extra $4,000 to spend, you should spend it here.

Speaking of options, we didn't keep track of how many times we heard or read the word "personalization," but it got thrown around like AR-15 rounds on 'free fire.' Offering 14 exterior colors, three cloth top colors, 12 interior options, 21 graphics packages and 50 accessories, there are 500,000 unique possibilities for your 500C. That's one of the things buyers in the segment have come to expect, but it's also a lure for those who are still wary of a new brand with a new car in a new land. Fiat sweetens the bait with its Forward Care program that provides a four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, four years of unlimited roadside assistance, and a three-year/36,000-mile maintenance program that includes wear-and-tear items and trip-interruption reimbursement. That's a long-winded English translation of Fiat trying to say, "You can't lose."

2012 Fiat 500C rear 3/4 view

The Fiat 500 has that whole 'cute' thing positively nailed. The 500C holds on to the best of the hatch, and in making the sun god your co-pilot, it swings another impossibly cute hammer at another impossibly cute nail. The long-term prospects will be for time to decide, but our quick assessment is that Fiat's pretty close. As far as we can tell, the only thing you have to lose is your toupee.

FIAT 500C Information

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