Review: 2012 Fiat 500C Lounge
By Chris Haak
While Fiat’s 500 may be late to the party in some ways (it arrived in the US four full years after its overseas launch and it’s also coming in at what may be the tail end of a “retrofuturism” era), in some ways it’s also right on time. The car represents not only a beachhead for the Fiat brand’s return to the US, but also desperately-needed fresh product for Chrysler as the company awaits further reinforcements from its new owners across the pond in that boot-shaped country named Italy.
The 500C (the C stands for convertible, of course, just like the IS 350 C’s C does the same thing) represents the second derivative of the 500 to be sold in the US after the base hatchback. We’ll also definitely be getting a sporty Abarth version of the car, likely to make its debut in Los Angeles in a few months, and possibly an additional variant that will enlarge the 500 and add more utility.
To create a convertible out of the Fiat 500, Fiat’s engineers completely redesigned the car’s body and chassis to accommodate the soft top. The 500C shares no body panels with the standard 500.
I’m just kidding. The 500C shares basically every body panel with the standard 500 except for the roof. In fact, calling the 500C a ‘convertible’ is kind of a stretch. It’s really a European-style large canvas sunroof – the kind you might find on a Citroen 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, or – you guessed it – an original Cinquecento.
The giant folding sunroof has its positives and negatives over a more normal convertible top. On the side, interior space is not compromised because it doesn’t narrow the back seat or infringe upon luggage space as other types of convertibles do. The car also permits you to open or close the top as you wish at any speed without restriction, while conventional convertibles require you to be at or near a complete stop when operating the top. However, having the roof and door pillars completely intact, not to mention the rear side windows that don’t move, sort of takes away from the convertible experience. By nature, you just don’t feel as open and ‘one’ with nature in the 500C – that may be good or bad for you, depending on your perspective. Should you find that you can’t decide to go al fresco or not, and leave the roof only partway open, you may find severe wind buffetting unless you either open or close it a bit more, or open the windows to release some inside air pressure.
Seeing an original Cinquecento alongside the new car, the new car completely dwarfs the original. The Mini Cooper enjoyed a similar size increase over its ancestor. Yet the 500 is still quite a small car. As a tall driver (six-foot-four), my preferred driver’s seat position in the 500 found that seat nearly against the bottom cushion of the rear seat. Because of the car’s tall roof, however, it’s possible to adjust the driver’s seat forward and more vertical so that there was almost enough room for our two under-six sons and their forward-facing car seats (one Graco booster and one Britax Marathon convertible car seat) to fit behind my wife and me.
The interior is nicely finished, with what can best be described as “cute” features – circular head restraints, a body-color dash panel (pearlescent white in my test car). You’ll find chrome trim throughout, including in the center of the white (!) steering wheel around the airbag cover/horn button, around the vents, around the speedometer/tach, the interior door handles, and around the gearshift. In my test car, the seats were covered in bright red leather, and the door panel inserts matched the seats, but were black elsewhere. To me, the interior design perfectly complements the exterior in both shapes, textures, and colors.
Don’t expect to find things like a leather-wrapped dash, navigation system, or luxury-car features in the 500, despite the Lounge model’s position in the hierarchy as the “luxury” variant of the 500 (the other two types are called “Pop” and “Sport”). However, you’d be hard pressed to find those types of things in many of the 500’s B-segment competitors. While the interior designers clearly put a premium on form and colors and perhaps less so on ergonomics, it’s a much more user-friendly environment than in its archrival Mini’s cockpit. In place of the Mini’s ridiculous toggle switches are conventional body-colored buttons. The labels on the buttons are black during the day, but illuminate red at night, which looks good with the red-and-white color scheme.
The steering wheel feels good in your hands and you sit fairly upright in the Cinquencento. I’m not sure how good of an idea it is to have a white steering wheel considering how grimy most folks’ hands are (I have had to do a few Simple Green treatments on the wheel and shift knob in one of our cars’ medium-gray steering wheels), but since the 500’s leather is heavily treated and rather slick and shiny anyway, it will hopefully be easy to clean off the inevitable grime from thousands of miles of use. The white interior accents (wheel, dash, control stalks) certainly pack much more visual appeal than do the standard boring black ones.
One of the joys of driving a car as small as the 500 is that the car can squeeze into small openings in traffic, even despite its tiny 1.4 liter, 101-horsepower engine and six-speed automatic. That being said, don’t expect to win many stoplight drag races, although the heavier MINI Cooper’s standard 121-horsepower 1.6 liter four has to move a heavier car. Each Fiat MultiAir horsepower has to move about 24 pounds of car, while each Cooper horsepower has to move 23.3 pounds, so there isn’t much difference there.
My test car was equipped with 15 inch aluminum wheels and 185/55 all-season tires. That is hardly the sportiest possible combination, but because the 500 is such a small car, on it, 15 inch wheels look proportionately like 16s or 17s on a regular size car. You can’t get anything bigger than 15s in the 500C Lounge, though if you go for a fixed-roof 500, you can get 16s. There’s always the aftermarket, too.
Unlike with other convertibles, the Fiat 500 is quiet both with the roof closed and open. Weather sealing with the roof closed appears to be excellent, with no water or wind leaks observed at all. The inside of the fabric roof is finished in a nicely-patterned ivory-colored cloth (at least it was in this one) that helped improve the car’s perceived interior quality. With the roof open, there is the advantage of having most of the structure of the fixed-roof car still present, so aside from buffetting with a partially-opened roof (which I’ve already mentioned), open-air motoring is fairly placid. Unsecured items simply don’t blow around in the interior with the roof open (unless the windows are opened as well).
Being a small car with moderate capabilities (ahem, 101 horsepower, 15 inch wheels), I didn’t have great performance expectations. But at just 2,434 pounds, it’s a tossable little bugger. The 500 has small brakes and little tires, but they stop the car just fine. Suspension is tuned more toward the comfort end of the spectrum, but the car is a fun one to drive. I found the steering a bit hard to get used to; in normal mode, it feels overboosted and slow, particularly at low speeds. By pressing the sport button on the dash, steering effort increases by a fairly large margin, and it feels a bit less artificial. However, the downside of the sport button is that the car holds lower gears – assuming that you want to carve some corners – which can get annoying if you want to just drive to work. Staying in lower gears also harms fuel economy.
The EPA ratings for the Fiat 500 with the six-speed automatic are perhaps my biggest disappointment. Rated at just 27 MPG in the city and 32 MPG on the highway, I saw about 29 MPG in mixed driving. Considering that the Ford Mustang V6 with over 300 horsepower is rated at 31 MPG on the highway, the 500’s number is a bit disappointing. That the city and highway numbers are so close together tells me that 1) the engine is not strong enough for American driving habits, and 2) the car is geared lower than it should be in order for it to not lose momentum on uphill climbs. MINI manages to eke another three MPG (35 MPG total) on the highway from its Cooper convertible (manual or automatic), while the cars both share a 27 MPG city rating. On fixed-roof 500s equipped with a five speed manual, the ratings look more like what you’d expect, with a 30 city/38 highway pairing.
There’s always a price premium applied to a car when a company removes its roof. Unfortunately, the Fiat 500’s $4,000 convertible premium represents roughly a 25 percent hike versus the standard fixed-roof car, and that differential is the highest among cars sold as both coupes and convertibles. Yet, you’re getting ‘less’ convertible with the Fiat solution, since it’s not a full convertible. Compared to its arch-rival, the MINI Cooper Convertible, despite being six inches shorter and with a 6 1/2 inch shorter wheelbase, the 500 actually tops the MINI in most interior dimensions – since it’s not a real convertible and all. What’s more, the 500 is about $6,000 cheaper than the MINI (which drops to $3,000 when using TrueDelta.com to compare equipment-equalized pricing). My test car rang in with an MSRP of $26,050 including destination, “Bianco Perla” (pearl white) paint ($500), luxury leather package ($1,250), and $300 optional aluminum wheels. Probably because the car is so small, the destination charge is just $500.
Want a better, more cost-effective solution? Go for a Fiat 500 coupe with the $850 panoramic sunroof. You get all of the sunlight, save more than $3,000, and enjoy more cargo space and better rear visibility. Two weeks ago when I spoke with a Fiat PR person, he said that they were selling all the 500s they could make. It’s a good car, and with three years of free scheduled maintenance, its retrofuturistic charm, and tossable nature, it certainly brings a good deal of personality to the subcompact segment. Now, let’s see that Abarth model (coming to Los Angeles)!
Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.