More often than not, convertibles make a big deal out of being sporty.
|Engine: 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 101 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: 5 speed manual
Fuel Economy: 31 mpg city and 40 mpg highway
Price: Starts at $20,795. $26,100 as tested
The MX-5 may have friendly styling, but its front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout and low seating position aren’t for everyone.
What about the soon to be discontinued VW Eos? That too is a bit too “serious” thanks to its fast turbocharged four-cylinder engine, sharp dual-clutch transmission and stiff, European-tuned suspension.
For those looking for a more approachable drop-top, Fiat has the 500c. City-sized, the 500c makes a few compromises while offering an open-air experience and while the car isn’t nearly perfect, it does have an endearing quality to it that can bring a smile to your face – so long as you’re in the front two seats.
Sweet and Sour Interior
Yes, the 500c has rear seats, but no they’re not usable by any stretch of the imagination. Instead focus on the comfy front seats, done up in a coffee – ahem – Cappuccino-esque shade of brown, which is eye-catching and gives an air of luxury to the cabin. These heated thrones are the highlight of the interior. Unfortunately, the rest of the interior uses cheap hard plastics and other bargain bin materials. One noteworthy issue was the “leather” steering wheel. Just a few thousand miles in, hand grime was already leaving it looking old and used.
The 500c manages to make up for the rough materials with personality. The large shifter with its huge knob is amusing, though it’s unclear if that’s intentional. Another interesting touch is the tach-within-the-speedo cluster design.
Laissez-Faire Driving Style
The way the 500c drives is as polarizing as the interior. Steering is loose and light with little engagement. The car also features a soft suspension setup that results in quite a bit of body roll with the slightest of maneuvers. At least the doughy suspension results in a car that is comfortable over bumps and manhole covers. For city drivers, this is ideal. The light steering allows the car to zip in and out of tight traffic and parking spaces with ease, even better than some other small cars like the Chevy Spark. With disc-brakes at all four-corners the 500c can also stop with purpose when it needs to.
The 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine is peppy and rev-happy, especially when the sport mode is enabled. Toggling that mode also gives the steering a bit more weight, adding some confidence and engagement. The five-speed manual transmission is sloppy though forgiving, with a long clutch pedal and engagement point. The drivetrain as a whole is good enough to get the car up to speed without much stress though passing on the highway requires some patience with just 101 HP on tap.
At least the car managed to be extremely fuel efficient. Despite a hectic week of testing in unfavorable traffic the little Fiat returned 36 MPG. Sadly, Fiat recommends 91-octane fuel, which will cost you a few dollars more per fill-up.
Of course, the c in 500c stands for convertible, so of course we need to talk about the open-air experience when driving the car. For starters, the cloth roof can act like a sunroof, being opened only partially allowing less air or sun into the cabin. Or you can open it all the way. However, driving with the roof open was unbearable. Wind buffeting at higher speeds was the biggest issue. Wind smacks the bunched up cloth and the warbling sound that accompanies is torture for your ears. You can slide the cloth roof further back, which reduces the buffeting effect a bit, although another issue arises when you do that.
When you open the roof completely, you lose all rear-ward visibility. It doesn’t seem like a fair trade-off to get an open-air experience if you also get terrible wind noise and no way to see behind you. At least the pulling back the top doesn’t impact trunk space, as the 500c has to make do with just 5.4 cubic-feet of storage, barely big enough for a weekly of grocery (maybe those rear seats are meant more for cargo storage than people carrying).
The Bright Spots
There’s a balance though. The 500c can come with an impressive sound system that can help drown out the excess noises of the outside world. The Beats by Dre branded audio setup provides nice depth and volume and is easily one of the bright spots in this car.
The bubbly appearance is another positive in this car’s corner. Although the 500 isn’t as common as other small cars, it has great presence on the road thanks to its unique and cohesive design. The retro look works wonders here and the modern 500 is a fantastic homage to the original cinquecento. Add in the nice cloth roof, chrome bumper accents and side-view mirrors and it’s clear that the 500c is a more special vehicle than the Chevrolet Spark or smart fortwo.
Starting at $20,795 the 500c is cheap for a convertible, but expensive for a city car. Despite being one of the cheapest open-air experiences available, the car should come with some luxuries as a pricey city car, so fortunately our “Lounge” trimmed tester included a detachable navigation screen and those comfy leather seats for $26,100.
Every aspect of the 500c is a mix of ups and downs. Ultimately it’s a fun car to drive around town in and has some real personality in terms of design. Although its drop top design is a gimmick that won’t appeal to everyone, the 500 makes for an interesting, if compromised, convertible.