You’d think automakers would realize by now that you can’t make a cheap car appealing just by parking it in a cool place. Did anyone, for instance, ever go home from a Toronto Blue Jays game and decide to buy a Pontiac G5 just because GM had stuck one in the outfield wall? But as we crowd onto a sidewalk in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, we have to admit the Fiat 500 cabrio might just pull it off. Its teensy-cute Italian styling and cheap-chic pillared canvas top looks perfectly at home among the area’s trendy, expensive art galleries (one of which Fiat is presently renting). It even comes standard with ironic hipster facial hair in the form of Fiat’s classic “whiskers” grille openings. But is the 500C merely a European fashion accessory to be admired from afar, or is it a car we’d actually recommend owning in the US of A? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Cut it open again, Tony
The 500C, of course, pays tribute — more than tribute we might say — to the original 500. When the Italian runabout debuted in 1957, it featured a canvas top that rolled all the way back but left the door pillars in place. And it’s the same on this car, which looks identical in profile to the hardtop (it actually has a slightly taller windshield) but provides most of the open-air thrills of a softtop. Although the European 500C, which debuted two years ago, is available with a variety of gasoline and diesel engines, the Mexican-built North American version, like the hardtop, comes only with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder paired with either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. Buyers will still have plenty of other choices to make, however, with fourteen exterior colors and twelve different interior color combinations. Like the hardtop, our 500C features a revised interior and improved passive safety, with seven standard airbags.
Beating the taxis
A surprising number of early 500 hardtop buyers have opted for the five-speed manual transmission (40 percent!), so we feel justified in wrenching one of the few so equipped test cars from some Canadian Fiat representatives for our drive out of the city. Good choice. Although the clutch is a bit binary in its take-up, the quick and precise throws of the cue-ball-topped shifter bring to mind those in Japanese subcompacts like the Mazda 2.
The manual transmission is a perfect complement for the 101-hp 1.4-liter four-cylinder, which does its best work close to its 6900-rpm redline. It also enjoys a considerable fuel economy advantage, estimated at 30/38 mpg city/highway versus only 27/32 mpg for the automatic. Fiat owners will be able to see how they measure up to these numbers thanks to a Eco:Drive, a fancy name for a USB memory stick in the glove compartment that tracks driving habits, fuel economy, and CO2 emissions. Plug it into a computer, and an application offers helpful suggestions to improve fuel economy, such as shifting sooner and accelerating more gently. We’re pretty sure the USB stick has never driven in New York City, where redline shifting and threshold braking are what it takes to keep the cabs off your door handles. This is usually pretty aggravating, but not in the little Fiat.
Darting through midmorning traffic as if we’re jockeying for position in a stock car race, it’s easy to tell we’re in the 500C’s native environment, albeit with giant yellow Crown Victorias filling in for Roman Vespas. Not that you’d be able to see a Vespa behind you — or a Crown Vic, for that matter — as the cloth top folds into a pile that completely obscures the rear view. Unless you have small backseat passengers demanding direct sunlight, you’re better off retracting the top only partway, leaving the decent glass rear window in place. We’re also disappointed with the 500’s overboosted steering at low speeds, which feels more appropriate for a large sedan than a European subcompact.
Cruising along the Hudson
That large-car personality does have its advantages. We’re soon beyond the confines of the city and speeding along the rainy Palisades Parkway. Many subcompacts don’t do well cruising at 80 mph, and that’s before you take a can opener to their roofs. The 500C, though, couldn’t be happier. Even with the top fully retracted, it hustles along, completely unperturbed by crosswinds or tire spray. The variable effort steering, which is so lifeless in the urban logjam, is confidence-inspiring at speed, feeling direct and firm but never nervous.
With the top up, the 500C is incredibly quiet and solid for a convertible, mostly a tribute to the fact that it really isn’t so much a convertible as it’s a hardtop with a panoramic sunroof. Fiat added reinforcements to the windshield and door frames, as well as in the rear behind the package shelf. Over some serious road rash, one can hear a few rattles that may be caused by the top shifting in its tracks. The top design also allows us to take advantage of short bursts of dry weather on the fly. The top can be rolled part-way back at speeds up to 60 mph and reclines fully at 50 mph or less.
Predictably, there’s some wind noise in either position, but it’s not overwhelming and has little to no discernable effect on the car’s exceptional cruising character. The 500C also feels commendably spacious, with none of the top-up claustrophobia typical to convertibles. And since the roof just piles atop the decklid, it leaves plenty of room for a weekend’s worth of luggage — 23.4 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.
Thirty minutes outside the city, we ditch the highway for some back roads along the Hudson River. (We’re actually taking a route similar to the one senior editor Joe Lorio traversed in a MINI Cooper convertible a couple years ago.) Whereas the Mini loves blitzing such stretches, its back end nipping and tucking with every lift of the throttle, the 500C has a much more relaxed personality. That’s not to say it’s not a whole lot of fun. The steering loads up nicely entering corners, and the small footprint – several inches narrower and shorter than a Mini Cooper — lends itself to shifting about your lane in search of a good line. Push it too hard, and the front end gently washes out. Our only real wish for the 500C while driving on these roads is for thicker seat bolsters and, perhaps, a more intimidating grille, as plodding crossovers seem unfazed when we fill their rearview mirrors. Nevertheless, we reach our destination in good time and slip out before Fiat’s geek squad can plug our eco:Drive stick into a computer to see how much time we spent banging off the rev-limiter.
No doubt about it, the 500C offers about as much coolness as you’ll be able find for less than $20,000. We can almost hear the sales pitch back in the city’s most avant-garde neighborhoods: “Yeah, it’s an Italian convertible but not like the Italian convertibles you’ve heard of. Whatever, I really don’t care.” But even if the hipsters and fashionistas don’t go for it, there’s plenty of practicality, comfort, and value here for empty nesters, college students, and other ordinary folk. And although enthusiasts who measure their passion in autocross times will still do better with a Mini Cooper, the 500C serves up plenty of slow-car fun as well.