In the auto world, the letters F.I.A.T. stand for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or Fiat, a company founded in 1899. But Fiat hasn’t sold cars in the United States since the mid-1980s, when spotty reliability issues had many owners thinking F.I.A.T. stood for “Fix It Again, Tony”. Now Fiats are making their way back into special boutique U.S. showrooms with the Fiat 500, a moniker that began just after World War II in Europe. It was a small, inexpensive, high mileage car that put Italians back on four wheels. If you couldn’t afford a Fiat 500, your next option was a Vespa motor scooter.
|1. Like the standard 500, the Cabrio is powered by a 101 hp 1.4L 4-cylinder.
2. Rather than a conventional convertible roof, the 500C retains the car frame but uses a sliding fabric top.
3. 500C models start at $19,500 for the Pop and $23,500 for the Lounge.
The current Fiat 500 has the same DNA and mission statement as the original and has captured dozens of awards in Europe, including the 2008 European Car of the Year, and the 2009 World Car Design of the Year, and we were anxious to get some seat time in this Italian midget.
CUTE OUTSIDE, EXCELLENT INSIDE
When you first look at the 500C, you might think the bubble top car was styled by Disney’s Pixar animators in Radiator Springs, rather than in Italy. The words little, cute, tiny, and really small come to mind. In fact the only car in America that is smaller is the Smart Fortwo, which is nothing more than a glorified golf cart. The Fiat is even smaller than a MINI or a Volkswagen Beetle. But like those two cars, the room inside for the driver and front seat passenger is quite acceptable. For the rear seats, only short-legged passengers will be comfortable, but at least they will have a rather easy access to get back there, as the whole front seat moves forward to offer a generous opening.
The interior styling is cool retro Italian, and it works visually. Our test car had a multi-colored interior with two shades for the seats and other trim, giving the 500C an interesting visual appeal, and making the car look far more expensive.
The main gauge is a large round affair with the outer ring for the speedometer and the inner ring for the tachometer. All controls are simple and easy to use – unlike the MINI. A nice touch is a fold down armrest on the driver’s seat, making it feel like a captain’s chair. The seats are comfortable, nicely bolstered, and even heated. The tilt steering wheel has controls for the radio and cruise control. The front side windows operate up and down, but the rear side windows are fixed.
The “C” in the cars name stands for Cabrio, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. What this Fiat has, in reality, is a very large sliding fabric sunroof, since the door frames and roof rails remain in position, while the rag top slides back until it bunches up on the rear hatch, which then blocks the view behind the driver. Fortunately, the car sits so low that the vehicles behind it can be seen, especially the looming grills of SUVs.
There’s a nice pop-up wind diffuser so one can drive with the top down and still have a quiet and windblast-free cabin. We’re sure many women will appreciate this feature and it goes without saying that the 500C will be more of a hit with the XX chromosome set. On the downside, the Cabrio also causes some loss of cargo space behind the rear seats – from 9.5 cubic feet to 5.4. But the rear seats fold down to accommodate longer items.
BETTER SUITED TO CITY STREETS THAN TWISTY ROADS
The Cabrio is equipped with the same motor that all 500’s come with – a 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder, which puts out 101 hp at 6500 rpm and 98 lb-ft of torque that reaches its peak at 4000 rpm. Despite a curb weight of just under 2,500lbs, you won’t be winning any drag races in the Fiat 500C, even if you’re trying to pull away from a school bus at the stop light.
Using the 6-speed manumatic and hitting the “sport” switch will help a bit with acceleration and aids in a sportier feeling, but with the skinny tires, soft suspension, and heavy front end weight bias, there are few sporting thrills to be had driving this car. This automatic transmission was made available just for the American market, and it isn’t as smooth shifting as it could be. It also reduces gas mileage significantly
The short wheelbase will upset the car over large bumps and broken pavement, but for the most part, the cars feels solid and sturdy, and there’s no cowl shake like you would find on true convertibles. It’s a bit top heavy on quick side-to-side maneuvers, and there’s plenty of body lean. The steering is on the light side, but not twitchy. The brakes work well, with decent feel. On the upside, the turning circle is tight and compact, and the Fiat will be a breeze to maneuver on tight city streets, and to parallel park.
We doubt that the Fiat 500C, or even the standard model for that matter, will be the car that brings Americans back to the brand in large numbers. Its clean exterior styling is pleasing, and the Italian chic interior will appeal to women, just as the Beetle and MINI do. Unfortunately, those looking for an economy car will be disappointed by the rather unimpressive 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway mileage figures from this Cabrio with the 6-speed automatic. Standard transmission models rate much higher at 30/38 mpg. Oh, and Fiat recommends Premium fuel.
Then there’s the price. The Fiat 500C Lounge starts at $23,500. (The base Pop version starts at $19,500). Our test car had the $1,250 Leather Luxury Package adding the heated leather seats, and auto dimming mirror, and $400 for the Tom-Tom Navigation system, and another $300 for the 15” aluminum wheels. With $500 destination charge the total came to $25,950. A MINI Cabrio starts at $25,600 and a Miata starts at $26,100. Both offer more performance and handling, a true convertible top, and better gas mileage.
Fiat sales have been well below company expectations and the 500C certainly isn’t going to bolster those figures. More of a novelty than a novel idea, putting Fiat on the map in America will take a more mainstream offering. Aside from the interior and the car’s originality, arguably the most attractive quality of the 500C is the cachet of the brand’s return to America.