The fastest road? Fiat 500C first drive, from London to Scotland and back

OK, the motorways of northern England and Scotland are mundane compared with Germany’s unrestricted autobahns, so perhaps "the fastest road" is a poor headline. Still, I gladly enjoyed flowing with the fastest-moving traffic I’ve ever personally experienced when I shared the M6 and M74 motorways with numerous drivers who traveled at speeds of well over 90 mph. (The speed limit is 70 mph, but there’s almost no traffic enforcement, aside from well-marked speed cameras.) A majority of these fast cars were BMWs or Mercedes-Benzes, but my ride—a diesel-powered Fiat 500C 1.3 16v MultiJet Pop—was very capable of holding its high-speed own on Britain’s smooth and hilly six-lane highways.

The 500 convertible is certainly no 150-plus-mph Mercedes C63 AMG (a car that left me in its wake pretty quickly somewhere south of Glasgow), but its 1248-cc turbo-diesel’s surprisingly broad power band made extralegal speeds easily attainable during my recent holiday—sorry, “vacation.” My wife and I were in Britain for a friend’s wedding in Carnoustie, which is on Scotland’s lovely east coast. We picked up the 500 at Fiat’s U.K. HQ not far from London Heathrow Airport—some 475 miles south of Carnoustie—and lived with the Fiat over six days and 1185 miles.

The Fiat 500 coupe is still a few months away from reaching Chrysler-y dealerships in the United States, but the 500C droptop isn’t due on our shores until spring of 2011. The continued delay is a shame, too, because the 500C is a very impressive automobile. To wit: it’s fun, affordable, economical, stylish, and versatile.

How fun is it? Very; it’s a small convertible, after all. The 500 is no Mini Cooper as far as go-kart-like handling goes, but it’s still tossable and nicely nimble, with very good steering for a front-wheel-drive vehicle. The fun factor is also ably assisted by a comfortable ride and a very rigid body (thanks largely to the fact that the convertible top is actually more of a glorified canvas sunroof than a chopped-pillar affair).

How affordable is it? Quite, actually. Our diesel-powered test car had a £16,045 price tag, which equates to about $25,000. The base 1.4-liter gasoline-fueled 500C, which is almost surely the only version that’ll come to the U.S., however, starts at £13,865 (about $21,500).

More noteworthy is how it compares with similar convertibles that are already sold in the States. In the United Kingdom, the 1.4-liter 500C in uplevel Sport or Lounge trims is more than £2000 cheaper than a Mini Cooper convertible like what we can currently buy in America and about £3500 less than a Mazda Miata like the base model offered here. Judging from the relative prices of these cars in the U.K. and the U.S., my guess is that the 500C will start right around $20,000 when it crosses the pond. Even if Fiat/Chrysler gets unadvisably greedy, we’d be shocked if the 500C fails to become the least expensive new four-seat convertible in the States. (The Mini currently holds that honor, at a hair over $25,000).

How economical is it? Very, as should be expected of a car that’s significantly smaller than a Mini Cooper (six inches shorter in length, more than two inches narrower, some 250 pounds lighter, but a useful three inches taller).

In the U.K.—where fuel economy figures are much different from our EPA ratings and Imperial gallons are twenty percent larger than ours—the 500C diesel gets shining ratings of 56.5 mpg in the city, 85.6 mpg on the highway, and 72.4 mpg combined, while the 1.4-liter gasoline car is rated at 39.2/56.5/48.7 mpg.

Settle down, though.

We observed “only” 41 miles per American gallon during our week with the electroclash grey 500C diesel—admittedly with two people and lots of luggage aboard and in a combination of stop-and-go city driving; high-speed motorway cruising; and heavy-footed, top-open, back-road blasting. Helping cut the consumption of our 500C was its stop/start technology, which is standard on all 500s in the U.K. and helps improve fuel economy by up to twelve percent.

The Mini Cooper convertible (which is EPA rated at 28/36/31 mpg in the States) posts very similar U.K. numbers to the 500C 1.4, so you should expect the Fiat 500C to score a very respectable, yet not amazing, 30 or 31 mpg combined on our scales.

How stylish is it? Just look at it; it’s pretty darn cool. And it should look extremely special once it’s finally on the ground in the New World. The interior is full of clever design details, too, although the cabin quality is more Mazda than Mini, which is to say very good but not great.

Fiat has borrowed a page from Mini’s playbook in making the 500 extremely customizable; the Italian firm claims that there are more than 500,000 possible configurations of the coupe alone. Not only are there three different roof colors for the droptop (black, tan, and a charming red, like on our test car), there are twelve available exterior hues and about a dozen sticker packages that can dress the 500 in graphics depicting zippers, city skylines, handprints, flowers, or butterflies.

On the flowers-and-butterflies note, any dude who wants a 500 had best be very careful in optioning his Fiat, because the cute car can quickly slip deep into “chick car” territory.

How versatile is it? Surprisingly so. The top is the most noteworthy example of the 500C’s versatility. As I said before, the retractable lid is more of a full-width sliding sunroof than a conventional soft top, much like that of the 1950s Fiat 500 convertible (pictured at right with a new open-top Cinquecento). In addition to the full-open position, the roof can be set to almost any spot along its travel, the most useful of which finds the canvas folded above the rear passengers' heads (see Italian seaside photo), leaving the small back window in place and preserving rearward visibility. This position can expose passengers to slightly annoying levels of wind turbulence, but you may as well be towing a horse trailer for as bad as rear visibility becomes with the top fully lowered. (It’s worth noting that the Mini convertible offers a sunrooflike partway-back position, too, but it doesn’t open nearly as much as the 500’s roof-back mode.) Wind noise with the top fully closed is very well managed, especially considering the roof’s lengthy longitudinal side seams. The top can be opened at speeds up to 37 mph, too, which is highly handy in Britain, where rainstorms sometimes approach as quickly as a Bimmer in the fast lane.

Interior space is tight, so it’s a good thing that my wife and I traveled without our year-and-a-half-old daughter and her requisite baby gear. Still, four adults can inhabit the 500C fairly comfortably—so long as some of them are shorter than five-foot six—and there’s more space than you’d expect from a car with such a compact footprint. Also, the grippy seats were extremely comfortable for long stints in the saddle and even a brief nap.

The trunk was big enough to hold one large suitcase, one large carry-on-size bag, a dozen one-liter bottles of water, and a couple other small items. We placed other luggage on the back seats, but they also fold down to enlarge the trunk compartment (pictured). In another accompanying photo, you can see how easily a bunch of small flowerpots (a last-minute purchase for the wedding reception) fit in the trunk. The boot measures 6.4 cubic feet by converted British measurements, which is smaller than what most Americans are used to but slightly bigger than a Mini convertible’s. And, unlike in the Mini, the Fiat’s cargo hold doesn’t shrink with the roof open. Also convenient is that, as in the Mini, the trunk remains accessible with the top down.

Other complaints? They’re all pretty minor, truthfully. The gearbox is a bit sloppy, the diesel engine is noisier than Volkswagen’s familiar TDI unit, the short wheelbase makes itself known over rough roads, inboard armrests would be greatly appreciated, a rear wiper is notably missing (coupes have them; convertibles do not), the three-speed windshield wipers leave much to be desired, and the lining for the fixed portions of the roof is remarkably similar to the material in some egg cartons.

Anyway … By the conclusion of our vacation (which admittedly lends a somewhat rose-colored tint to my review of the 500C), I found myself reluctant to end our time with the fun Fiat, which is quite objectively an excellent, inexpensive open-sky option, especially for those who might shy away from the extreme level of exposure—to the elements and to other people—that are part of the conventional convertible experience.

The 500C was a fabulous companion while we navigated supernarrow roads in a strange land (see photo of a large lorry on a small street), enjoyed the superior driving etiquette of most British drivers (especially once congested southern England is left behind), danced a traditional Scottish ceilidh at the wedding, and visited a charming castle ruin (Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven, Scotland, pictured) … and, of course, drove pretty damn fast on some great roads.

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