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.