Driven: 2012 Fiat 500C

When the Fiat 500 convertible made its debut, at the 2009 Geneva auto show, I must admit I was not smitten. The sliding canvas roof just didn't seem like a convertible. It still doesn't, but I've come around to think that, with a car this small, it might be preferable to a fully chopped top.

When you've dealing with a 1.4-liter engine that makes all of 101 hp, weight is the enemy. The sliding canvas top is simpler than a real convertible, and doesn't require the full metal frame of a folding top. With most of the car's original structure remaining, there's less need for major reinforcements (although Fiat does add bracing in the door frames, the windshield, and behind the package shelf). Still, the weight gain over the hardtop is just a shade over 50 pounds -- much less than is typically the case with a convertible.

Also, there's none of the cowl shake you sometimes get with real convertibles, and the ride and handling seem unaffected. It's surprising given the 500C's ultra-short wheelbase, but the Fiat's ride quality is actually quite good -- much better than a Mini Cooper's. On the other hand, a Mini will run rings around this thing, cornering-wise; the Fiat feels much taller, narrower, and more roll-happy. Note that the convertible comes only as the base Pop and fancier Lounge, not as the more firmly sprung Sport.

But what about the open-air aspect? Well, that's pretty subjective, but the sliding canvas roof provides much of the out-in-the-elements feeling of a true convertible -- certainly more than any sunroof, and it benefits both front- and rear-seat riders. The roof can open to two positions: most of the way (leaving the rearmost section, with the glass rear window, in place) or all the way (with the top stacking in a pile behind the rear seat). The former preserves rear visibility but unfortunately leads to a lot of buffeting -- it's good for low speeds only. The latter largely wipes out the view behind, but the breezes are not bothersome even at highway speeds. Conveniently, opening and closing the roof can be done on the move, at speeds up to 50 mph.

With the roof closed, outward visibility isn't much different than in the coupe -- meaning it's pretty good, except of the over-the-left-shoulder obstruction caused by the fat B-pillar. My test example was also pretty tight and rattle-free. And while a regular convertible usually loses its side curtain air bags when it loses its top, the 500C maintains its full count of seven air bags -- probably a good thing in a car this small.

If this car were mine, I might be tempted to keep the roof closed as much as possible, if only to lock in the interior aroma, which is like that of a good shoe store. That smell came courtesy of the luxury leather package ($1250). The seats are chair-high, but soft, and the space up front is good. The back seat is essentially the same as in the coupe, which means it can (just barely) accommodate a small adult or an older kid. The dash is attractive to look at, but some controls are annoying. What's with the prejudice against knobs? Instead, there are pushbuttons for everything. Sure, some functions lend themselves to pushbuttons, but temperature control? Fan speed? Radio volume? Uh, no.

A wholesale hacking off of everything above the beltline might have been a bit much for the diminutive Fiat. And while a sliding canvas roof may not provide the transformative style that a true convertible does, the Fiat 500 has plenty of style already.

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