2012 Fiat 500C Lounge Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

If you're going to live the good life, the sweet life - or what the Italians call "la dolce vita" - you need a healthy serving of style. After all, it's hard to fully appreciate the pleasure of sipping a cappuccino, seeing and being seen, if you schlepped to the cafe in dowdy clothing and a boring car.

It's a good thing then that the Italians know style, and even better that thanks to its new partnership with Chrysler, Fiat is bringing its Italian flair to North American shores again for the first time since 1984 when the company threw up its hands and vacated our market muttering something along the lines of "sciocchi incolti."

With its retro-inspired "Nuova 500" Fiat has certainly created an appealing-looking little car, although the diminutive Italian coupe is far from trendsetting, following as it does in the footsteps of Volkswagen's New Beetle and the revived Mini. But true to automotive tradition, the Italians have created a car that trumps the competition both in style and in price: The Fiat 500 starts at $13,495, versus $21,975 for the Volkswagen Beetle and $21,950 for the Mini Cooper Classic.

The Italians have also done something a little different when it comes to the convertible version of the 500, which is the model I drove: While the Mini Convertible features a traditional full folding roof (and the cabriolet version of the current-generation Beetle will likewise have a full folding roof when it comes out in 2013), the Fiat 500C cabrio retains fixed door frames and roof rails, so its convertible top is in essence an enormous sliding fabric sunroof.

Fiat's slightly different approach to open-top motoring offers a number of advantages: First, it allows the 500C to retain its perfect proportions and sweet roofline (and its side curtain airbags) whether the top is up or down. Second, it means that the top can be opened or closed while moving at speeds up to 80 km/h, and can be opened either partially or fully. Third, it means the 500C costs only about $4,000 more than the coupe, compared to $7,250 additional to get into a Mini Convertible (the starting price for a 500C is $17,950, while the Mini Convertible starts at $29,200).

On the road with the top open, you do sense the roof rails in your peripheral vision, but that's actually somewhat comforting in a car that's almost as tall as it is wide (the 500 is 1,488mm high and 1,627mm wide). More to the point, because the roof slides all the way back and then down to below head level, you really do get that wide-open-sky feeling, with the sun beaming in regardless of how the car is oriented. And yes, if you open the side windows you get all the wind flow expected of a traditional convertible.

The only real downsides to the sliding roof arrangement are that the top, when folded, almost entirely blocks the view to the rear, and it also interferes with the trunk lid when the roof is fully opened. Fiat gets around the former problem by installing park assist sensors as standard equipment, and gets around the latter problem by arranging things so that when you press the trunk release button, the top closes by a few inches, just enough to allow the trunk to open (and no, it doesn't automatically move back again when you close the trunk).

On the subject of work-arounds, the driver's side door mirror includes a split-segment wide-angle mirror that initially had me thinking, "What a thoughtful touch," but which quickly proved essential because shoulder-checking visibility is mightily restricted by the 500's thickish B pillars and short rear windows.

Under the hood, the 500C gets the same engine as the coupe, which is a 1.4-litre, 16-valve Multiair 4-cylinder producing 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque and hooked up to either a 5-speed manual transmission or an optional 6-speed automatic. Admittedly 101 horsepower may not sound like a lot, but given that the 500C weighs only 1,104 kg (2,434 lbs) the little engine is able to deliver relatively spritely acceleration, and it goes about its job with a free-revving enthusiasm that makes working the slick-shifting 5-speed through the gears downright entertaining.

I've driven an automatic-equipped coupe, but my 500C test car had the 5-speed and for my money it's the clear winner. It has light clutch action, and the big aluminum gear knob has short, precise throws that make for easy shifting. The automatic on the other hand, while perfectly competent, does seriously dampen the car's frisky nature - and oh, how a real Italian would scoff!

The Italians might also scoff at the suspension tuning in the North American version of the car, which is softened up somewhat to provide a smoother ride, but here I'm less inclined to agree. In Italy - where a typical 500 will likely see plenty of time on the fast-moving autostradas and on twisting country roads - a firm, performance-oriented suspension makes sense. But in North America the 500 is primarily an urban-oriented machine, and our city streets are notoriously potholed and rough-surfaced. With its short wheelbase, a stiffly-sprung 500 would likely prove far too choppy for everyday comfort, while the softer North American tuning is really remarkably comfortable and compliant, yet still plenty of fun to toss around tight city corners. The tradeoff comes in highway cornering, where I did find the 500C to be a bit on the spongy side.

Trim-wise, the 500C is available in either Pop or Lounge flavours. The Pop trim ($17,950) includes power locks, power windows, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, and comfortable cloth seating (there's actually more legroom in the back than in a Mini). There's also a wide range of available optional equipment including air conditioning, aluminum wheels, Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity and such. The Lounge trim starts at $20,495 and comes already equipped with all the above optional equipment and more, including leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bose premium audio, fog lights, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, cruise control and a security system.

For the money you get an appealingly styled little runabout that's nimble and fun to drive around town, can fit two people in genuine comfort or four with only a little bit of squeezing, and that's easy on fuel (rated city/hwy fuel consumption is 6.7 / 5.1 L/100km with the 5-speed and 7.4 / 5.7 with the automatic). Better yet, the 500C's sliding fabric roof allows you to take advantage of life's sunny breaks without ever stopping, ensuring that you'll have the top down far more often than if you owned a conventional convertible. Bellissima!
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Convertible, Fiat, 2012, 500C, $10,000 - $19,999, Subcompact,

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page