John Steel, 42. Resident Nurburgring hotlapper, amateur race driver and menace of all slow moving objects. On weekends, he likes thrashing his Porsche 997 Mark II GT3-RS around the local track. Karen Levy, 25. Professional mall stormer, party queen and dedicated student. Enjoys a fine café-latte by the Mediterranean Sea and the gentle spring breeze while driving her Fiat 500C.
Two people, two separate sides of the automotive equilibrium. This time, driving around the peaceful and slow moving streets of southern Tel Aviv, amongst buzzing restaurants and overcrowded coffee shops, I get to explore the latter. Meet the Fiat 500C: the open-air sibling of the 500 retro car, and an inevitable win of form over function.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the ‘C’ in this Italian mini car’s name stands for convertible – only the 500C doesn’t really convert into anything. Taking the recipe of the original 500, Fiat’s ever-quirky engineers left the roof structure entirely solid, with a sliding fabric roof replacing the conventional steel – essentially a very large sunroof. This unconventional setup allows for a greater structural integrity than a traditional convertible, improves safety (all 7 airbags are left intact) and benefits practicality (since the roof doesn’t have to be stored in the trunk). But the real reason this setup was chosen is also the original sibling’s raison d’etre: affordability. Does it all work out in the real world? Let’s see.
Parked by the curb, the 500C attracts a lot of attention – most of it, predictably, from ambassadors of the female gender. Interestingly (while not surprisingly), it is also the Gay Car of the Year. Gender preferences aside, the 500C is a pretty car – ‘cute’ attractive, not ‘wow’ attractive. The retro-esque grille with the horizontal chrome emblem and round headlights give the car a face of sorts – and it’s certainly smiling. Its bubbly proportions and the tan roof neatly folded against the trunk transform you to a time when The Beatles topped the charts and Cuba was all about nuclear warheads.
Looking for the rear window? It’s not there, at least not when the roof is folded. Without a trunk to fold into, the fabric cover neatly arranges itself to perfectly block the driver’s rear view. With the roof, gone is the small window – so if you’re into drop top driving, you’ll have to rely on the mercy of the parking sensors and the flexibility of your partner’s neck. Really, who needs a rear view where there’s so much sky to look at?
The disappearing rear window isn’t the only awkwardness in the 500C’s chic cabin. Fortunately, that’s mostly good awkwardness: color coded plastic panels, a radial speedometer and rev counter, and in the well equipped tester – sporty red leather seats with contrasting white headrests. All pleasing to the eye, but not to the touch – Fiat’s newly-found interior quality hasn’t found its way here.
The wiggly handbrake, air conditioning controls and door handles and the flimsy rear seat access mechanism are just a few of the components that don’t have anything in common with solidity or quality, and most of the plastics are hollow and low rent. The same goes for the roof: my tester barely clocked 5,000 (admittedly difficult) miles and the roof was already stained. The driving position is also seriously lacking, leaving you too far from the steering wheel and too close to the pedals. Taller fans of the elevated driving position will find their head comically sticking out the roof.
The 500C’s roof has three modes: closed, half-open and Who Let the Dogs Out. The last two are fine for city driving, but in speeds reaching recommended freeway velocities, you risk blowing off your eardrums. Fortunately, if you’re looking for a peaceful and quiet drive, sound isolation while the roof is closed is quite good – not significantly worse than the standard 500.
Should the party in question consist of more than two adults, you better call shotgun fast – the rear seats are just OK for a shorter teen, and range from troubling to impossible, depending on your definition of a full size adult. Luckily, the unique roof doesn’t hamper headroom – which wasn’t too impressive to begin with – that’s sufficient for sub-six-footers. Getting back there, however, is a chore: rear seat access is clumsy – the handle doesn’t push the seat forwards, so entering the rear seat is a multiple stage process. The trunk is more reminiscent of a glovebox (6.3 cubic feet), and while the fancy roof only takes up 3 liters of storage space, sizeable shopping bags are probably the most you’ll fit in there.
The good thing about convertible cars: everyone seems to think you’re enjoying yourself, when in fact, you’re not. Powered by the 1.4 liter gasoline unit, the 500C spits out a full 100 horses – which sounds good for a small car, until you recall it isn’t really small, what with its dazzling array of airbags and safety features, nearing the car’s curb weight to a tick below a ton. And so, along with Fiat’s soon-to-be-discontinued sequential Dualogic gearbox, it completes the sprint to sixty at almost 11 seconds.
11 seconds don’t sound like much on paper, and they definitely don’t look like much on the road. The insensitive throttle needs a serious kick to garner some pace. Try flooring it when the light turns green and there isn’t even one tiny bit of a tire squeal to boost your alter ego. And then comes the shift to second.
Yes, this gearbox is terrible – there really isn’t a softer way to describe it. Sure, you can adapt to it and you can meticulously learn to lift your foot off the throttle when it decides to shift. You can also bring it flowers and chocolates on its birthday – the thing is, you’re not supposed to have a delicate relationship with your gearbox, and being advertised as an automatic, this powertrain creates false hopes of a smooth self shifter. Be aggressive with the throttle, and your head gets thrown against the hard plastic heardrest – almost as if the car scolds you for misbehaving. Smash the throttle in high gear, and absolutely nothing will happen – it simply won’t downshift.
According to the auto journalist’s handbook, when all hope is lost, try the Sport button. Pressing the red button makes the 500C hold on to a gear for dear life, ignoring subtle notes (like a gentle pet of the throttle) and bolder ones (like cursing in three languages). The steering marginally stiffens up and the throttle becomes more sensitive, but these changes are too subtle to have any dynamic implications.
Sport, then, is probably not a part of this 500C’s lexicon. Performance aside, the overassisted Dualdrive steering stiffens suddenly and artificially during acceleration. It’s vague and lacks any concept of feel, which doesn’t inspire confidence during spirited driving. If you manage to get past the steering, you’ll find that the little convertible can offer decent amounts of fun thanks to its short wheelbase, allowing it to cut corners and induce some tail play – all monitored by the electronic nanny, of course. But it isn’t a sporty car – not even a warm hatch, and surely not the first choice for a Sunday drive.
If you’re a John Steel, you would probably hate the Fiat 500 Convertible. The back is cramped, the plastics are cheap, the ride is bumpy, the driving position is horrible, the engine is weak, the gearbox is annoying and the steering is awful – I could bash this car for hours. But then again, judging the 500C acutely would be wrong. It drips with character, sits theoretical four people and some luggage, attracts loads of looks and has a shiny tan roof, which is what Miss Levy looks for in her brand new city car. So if these are the qualities at the top of your shortlist and you can’t afford the more expensive (but much better, albeit less practical) Mini Cooper Convertible, the 500C may be the car for you. I, for one, know it’s not for me.
Fiat provided the car, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
This review brought to you by icar.co.il