Due to the state of the economy and the price of gasoline in America, it’s no small wonder small car sales are on fire. For those that wish to hide the fact that they have downsized for sensible reasons like lower operating costs, there is a segment of the market just for you: small retro cars. While everyone has tried their hand at this game from Chrysler’s PT cruiser, Chevy’s HHR and the continual resurrection of the VW Beetle, nobody seems to have hit the nail as squarely on the head as BMW with their Mini franchise and their 40,000 in yearly sales. What’s the new Italian owner of an American car company and dealer network to do? Sell a “minier” Mini-fighter of course.
Back in ’68 Fiat had a cheeky little car with some crazy windscreen wipers. While the car wasn’t modern, as Samir Syed found out, it was, and still is a hoot in the Italian countryside. In 2007 Fiat resurrected the 500’s soul by putting a retro wrapper on the Fiat Panda and the result is a city car that, like the Mini Cooper, has grown from the original to more American proportions. Back in 2010 Tal Bronfer got his hands on a European 500C and now that the Fiat has landed on our shores Fiat lent us one for a week on the back country roads in the SF Bay Area.
From the outside, the 500C is certainly a cute little car. Perhaps it’s the size (it’s shorter than a Mini Cooper by seven inches), the round headlamps, or the striking red folding soft top, but I haven’t had this many people point and stare at a car; ever. It even garnered more looks than a Jaguar XKR convertible which was described as “sex in automotive form” by one of my passengers. On my daily commute an SUV full of people on their way to the daily grind practically stopped in the carpool lane (causing major traffic disruptions behind them) so they would all whip out their iPhones and take pictures of the topless Italian puttering along in the next lane. If you like being the center of attention, never has the price of admission been this low. Starting at $19,500 for the “Pop” trim and $23,500 if “Lounge” is more your style, this is significantly cheaper than the Mini Cooper convertible. For those without calculators, this is an approximate $4000 premium over the “regular” 500 or a 26% premium to remove your lid. What if the BMW 3 convertible cost 26% more than the coupe? Oh wait, it does. Why do people complain about the cost of the topless Fiat when the Mini convertible is $5450 more expensive and that’s not a “problem”? The answer of course is: brand. But the plucky Italian has a few tricks up its cheap sleeves to add value to this proposition, is that enough? Let’s find out.
Before we get into comparisons, we must stop equating size with price. There’s a new world out there and with new CAFE rules looming, things may be getting smaller, so deal with it. Of course at $19,500, the 500C is the cheapest four-seat convertible in the USA, so it should come as no surprise that interior plastics are not high-rent. They are appropriate for the price tag however, and vs the Cooper-sans-top, the plastics seem fairly competitive especially when you factor in that discount. I might even say the carpet in the Fiat has a slightly more premium look and feel, but this would be counterbalanced by the hard plastic door trim panels inside the 500’s cabin. Our tester wore red and black fabric with a charcoal dashboard, but buyers can opt for a lighter color scheme with an ivory steering wheel and dash that looks decidedly euro-chic.
All Fiat 500Cs sold in the USA have Fiat’s “Blue & Me” system which combines Bluetooth speakerphone integration with some minor voice control of your audio system. If you were expecting SYNC-like iPod or USB control, you will be disappointed with the strange Blue & Me interface. It’s too complicated to explain in print, if you’d like to know more, check out our TTAC Quick Clips video. Our tester came with the $1,250 optional Bose premium audio package which uses six Bose speakers and a very small subwoofer located under the passenger seat. Bose turns out to be the prefect company to handle the audio for the 500 as the subwoofer performed admirably top up or down. With such a small driver in the sub, I estimate 5-inches, if you are into bass heavy music at ear splitting volumes, install your own beatbox.
Out on the road the first thing you notice about the 500C is the over-boosted steering thanks to the electric assist, the second thing you notice is the grip. The 500 is no race car by any stretch, but it does feel as “go-karty” as any base Mini I have driven. As hard as this may be to believe, the Fiat also honestly feels more refined than any Mini on offer. Unlike the topless Brit, the 500C handles almost identically to the hard top 500. This is thanks to that wacky canvas top we haven’t discussed yet. Instead of chopping the entire top off a 500, Fiat decided to remove the rear window and 98% of the roof leaving the B and C pillars as well as the door frames intact. The resulting ginormous hole was plugged by a canvas soft-top that runs on tracks and collapses like a venetian blind on top of the “trunk”. This almost-topless design results in a stiffer chassis and only a 50lb increase in curb weight over the hard top. Speaking of weight, the way the 500 drives is dictated largely by its heft, or lack thereof; at 2416lbs it is lighter than the 2701lb Cooper convertible and this difference is noticeable out on the road.
When the going gets twisty the 500C gives up little to the Cooper, let alone the Cooper convertible, at a tested 9.5 seconds to 60, it may be slower than the 8.9 we clocked in the Cooper ‘vert, but it makes up for the reduced go with a greatly improved ride and grip. On rough twisty roads the topless Cooper feels less settled and far more flexible than the Fiat (a quality I don’t really seek in a convertible). While the “Sport” button in the Fiat helps firm up the steering, it does nothing for the feel which is the only real niggle I found on my trip down California’s windy Highway 35. Being able to raise or lower the top at speeds of up to 60MPH without skipping a beat on a windy country road made me forgive the steering feel. (At speeds up to 60MPH the top can be opened, and up to 50MPH the top and rear window drop to the trunk.)
Motivation of the 500C comes courtesy of a 1.4L 101HP “multiair” engine coupled to your choice of a 5-speed manual or an Aisin-sourced 6-speed auto. Since peak HP is achieved at only 400RPM shy of the 6,900RPM red line, wide-open-throttle is a frequent and pleasant companion. The need to rev the nuts off the 1.4L engine to extract all the horses and the 98 lb-ft of twist means the 5-speed manual is the dance partner of choice for maximum enjoyment. We can thank our lucky stars the jerky “Dualogic” robotized manual didn’t make it to our shores; instead the 6-speed auto (standard on Lounge models) is exactly what you expect out of a slushbox: early upshifts, smooth gear changes and a not quite as much soul as the manual offering.
Aside from being more “balls-out” fun than the automatic equipped 500, the 5-speed manual also delivery significantly better mileage with EPA numbers of 30/38 as compared to 27/32. In our 880 mile week-long review we averaged an admirable 33MPG average. Keeping in mind my daily commute is comprised of rural mountain highways and plenty of idle time while shooting video and still photos, I came away fairly impressed. A 40-mile highway trip on US-101 in moderate traffic yielded an average of 41MPG. As always, your mileage will vary.
Passers-by first wanted to know what this little rag top was; after they found out it was a Fiat they wanted to know whether it had broken yet. There is the problem; deserved or not, Fiat still suffers from a lingering reliability worry in the US. Almost on cue, the folding top gave us cause for concern on day three. Fortunately, the fix was easy and took only two minutes. Unfortunately, the local Fiat dealer was far less than helpful. Even if the 500C’s reliability is stellar, a poor dealer experience could put a serious dent in the small Italian’s debut on our shores. For those that come after me, here’s the issue. The roof’s one-touch feature would not work, the trunk would not open and the rear defroster wouldn’t turn on. A call to the local Fiat dealer resulted in a most worrying conversation: we were told we would need to bring the Fiat in to have it reset, I asked if I could do it, I was told no. Frustrated, I finally explained I was a journalist and “broken Fiat=bad review.” Information began to flow: all I had to do was to hold the open switch for 3 seconds after the roof had fully opened, then close the roof and keep holding for 3 seconds after it had closed. Viola; the Fiat was back to life but my faith in a quality dealership experience was dashed.
At the end of the week I was sad to see the plucky Italian head off into the sunset. At $21,649 as equipped with Sirius SAT radio, Blue & Me, the Bose audio, aluminum wheels and some red vinyl decals, the 500C is still about $10,000 less than the average new car sold in the USA not to mention $5,000 less than a comparably equipped Mini. While it may not have the value that a new Nissan Versa brings to the table, it is far more entertaining to live with. Until the 500 becomes US mainstream, if you want a high gawk factor for low bucks, the 500C is for now the best choice. Since the original 500 was eventually replaced by the Fiat 126, which looked like an Italian Trabant but was called “progress”, raise some vino to the hopes the Nuovo 500 has a long and healthy life.
Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Not a fan of our Facebook page? Too bad. For our facebook peeps, here’s what you wanted to know: Chris M: Quite fun, and the mileage is still fairly good while having fun. Chris: The roof is automatic with one-touch. Richard L: No, but I did have an insatiable desire to drive up and down stairs. John L: Yep, the roof stays “folded.” Drew W: Yes, but the chic part is a major attraction. Daniel S: I hate convertibles, but I love this one. Go figure. Anthony G: I wanted more power. Darren W: Got it in one…
Statistics as tested
0-30: 3.0 Seconds
0-60: 9.5 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 17.3 Seconds @ 78MPH