Italian cars have always had a certain zest. They always seem to be built with a passion more than an objective. While this characteristic made for an interesting vehicle, as often as not, it made for a poorly built and poorly functioning vehicle. One of the many companies to suffer from this fate was Fiat, a quirky Italian automaker that exited the US market in 1984.
Fiat has been under new management by Sergio Marchionne since 2004 and has been becoming a world powerhouse. Thanks to the recent acquisition of the Chrysler Group LLC, Fiat is poised to take the US market by storm. Here is the Italian’s opening salvo, the 2012 Fiat 500c.
With a stylish design, and a small footprint, the 500c is aimed squarely at city hipsters and fashionistas who prefer good looks over blistering performance. Our test car came with a metallic Rame (copper) coat of paint and a two toned Marrone and Avorio (brown and ivory) colored interior. To up the style factor, our car came equipped with a beige convertible top and optional 15-inch oval spoke rims.
The little Fiat is powered by a 1.4-liter MultiAir fuel injected engine, that produces a mild 101 horsepower and an even less impressive sounding 98 lb ft of torque. Don’t let the numbers fool you, though, this car is more fun than the figures suggest. The engine is very happy to rev to its near 7,000 rpm red-line and the 5-speed manual adds an extra level of engagement. To make running through the gears even more entertaining, the tachometer is situated inside the speedo, making the larger speedometer needle appear to chase after the smaller tach needle. The shift action is a little numb, but it is quick and we never once missed a gear. The clutch, however, is easily the weakest link in the system. With almost no feel and a very extended travel we found ourselves coming dangerously close to stalling at many occasions.
Once you get over the clutch and get the car moving, the real fun begins because this is not a car that can be driven slowly. With its low power and rev-happy nature, the engine begs to be kept well above 3,500 rpms. Once you are in this sweet zone, the engine emits a small and peppy growl and enough grunt to hustle the little machine forward with gusto. When you add in the small tires, and tossable handling, the smiles begin growing.
The car feels a bit like a caricature of itself. The soft sprung suspension provides lots of body roll, while the minimal grip of the tires means you understeer constantly. While normally these traits create horrible driving dynamics, the 500c is anything but horrible. The body lean and squealing tires create a sense of drama and excitement. This is a car that makes you feel fun and adventurous. Approaching the absolute limits of a cars handling dynamics creates a heroic feeling in the driver. With the 500c those limits are reached at safe and legal speeds.
This great pantomime is one of this little Italian’s greatest assets. While a competitor like the MINI Cooper provides impressive driving dynamics in a package of a similar style and retro shape, there is no equaling the sheer eccitazione of the new age cinquecento. TO drive one is to experience a new type of joy lost to members of this nation.
Of course the Fiat 500c is no ordinary small car, that little “c” in the logo stands for convertible. While not a standard convertible in the sense that the 500c has solid b and c pillars, the little canvas top of the Fiat can be commanded to fold down on itself. While the rest of the car is designed to be utterly stylish, the storage of the canvas top seems like a bit of an afterthought. The top merely hangs of the back of the Fiat achieving a look similar to the New Beetle convertible.
While the top may not be as good-looking as the rest of the car, it is very easy to use. Hold the button positioned above the windshield and the top begins to move rearward. Thanks to the unique sliding canvas design of the 500c, this top removal tango can be performed at speeds up to 50mph. This flexibility makes top open driving a much more convenient proposition, especially if the weather is less than perfect. Finding yourself in a sudden rainstorm in a convertible is frustrating enough without having to come to a complete stop to put the roof up.
While the outward appearance exudes style, and the drive creates excitement, it is the interior that completes the package. The color matched dash of our little test car went well with the brown and ivory colored seats. One unique choice of the cabin design is the extensive use of circles. From the headrests and gauges to the air vents, control switches, speakers and center console, all are circular.
The seats, while nice to look at, are only mediocre to sit in. They are cushioned well enough, but the flat bottoms do little to provide support for long journeys, and the lack of lateral bolstering makes it difficult to maintain position during the previously mentioned aggressive driving. All the switches are easy to locate and operate although some of the buttons on the right side feel like a reach.
The cabin of the 500c comes with plenty of standard equipment, but our car came with a smattering of extras thanks to the optional Customer Preferred Package. This included an upgraded Bose stereo system and SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and the security alarm. The Beige roof canvas and brown seats were also included in the $1,250 package. While equipment is plentiful in the 500c, space is not. There are four full seats in this little convertible but you will be hard pressed to place anyone but an amputee in the rear thrones. There is also a similar lack of volume in the trunk. Luggage capacity is limited to a small suitcase, or a few duffle bags. To increase usable cargo space, the rear seats do fold forward.
How much will all this Italian style and quirkiness cost? This is probably the biggest kink in the armor of the 500c, as our tester rang in at a relatively hefty $21,250. The $500 destination charge brings final sticker cost up to $21,750. While that price is about four grand less than cost of a MINI convertible, it is also about $1,000 dollars more than a similarly equipped Ford Focus 5-door. That makes this a hard pill to swallow.
Let us recap; we have a small convertible car that is entertaining and engaging to drive, it has heart stopping good looks inside and out, but it also has a price tag that is hard to justify. So where does that leave us? The little Italian-that-could has easily been one of the most fun cars we have driven so far this year, and we wouldn’t hesitate if the keys were offered to us again. The price is the only real point of contention, but if you find yourself in need of small car that is as stylish as it is fun, and don’t mind paying the premium for the Italian design, the Fiat is in a class of one.