2012 Fiat 500 C

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I’ve already reviewed the Fiat 500 coupe (see here). Now it’s time to look at the 500C with the folding soft-top (similar to the one offered by VW on the old Beetle – and Fiat – a long time ago, but now fully electronic and it doesn’t leak, either). I tested what might just be the ultimate version, a Lounge with an automatic transmission, plus removable/portable TomTom GPS, plus two-tone leather, plus heated seats, plus, well – everything. This 500 C Lounge has the kitchen sink plus the soap dish, countertop and anything else nearby, too.

Price? Just over $25k

This is not far from twice the cost of a standard Fiat 500 coupe.  Well, about 75 percent more than the base 500’s price of $15,500.

Is it worth it?

Don’t ask me. Ask all the people who stopped me to ask about the thing.

They loved it.

WHAT IT IS

The 500 C is the convertible version of the Fiat 500 – but “convertible” isn’t really accurate. What happens when you push the button is the entire center section of the roof peels back – leaving the upper side (metal) panels in place, including the door glass frames and B pillar. It’s more like a huge panorama roof – and no one else has anything like it.

Prices start at $19,500 and run to $23,500 for the top-of-the-line Lounge version I tested.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012

A high-performance Abarth version of the 500 will be out by spring – and you can probably order one right now. It will be powered by a turbocharged version of the regular 500’s 1.4 liter engine, with output goosed to 160 hp. Base MSRP for this model is expected to be $22,000.

WHAT’S GOOD

About $5,000 less (500 C) to start than a Mini Cooper convertible ($24,950 to start).

Peel-back top can be peeled back while the car is moving – even if it’s moving at 70 MPH.

Much tinier on the outside than a Mini – but slightly more spacious on the inside than a Mini.

Cuter than a nest of just-born kittens.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Mileage merely mediocre (27 city, 32 highway).

Rearward visibility nonexistent with top folded.

Pray you don’t get T-boned by a Tahoe.

UNDER THE HOOD

Like the hardtop, the 500 C is powered by a 1.4 liter  four that produces 101 hp. It’s not much engine, but it’s sufficient … in the hardtop – which can get to 60 MPH in about 10.7 seconds with the standard five-speed manual transmission.

However, the convertible 500 C is about 120 pounds heavier (2,486 lbs. vs. 2,363 lbs.) and the 1.4 liter engine hasn’t got the reserves to hide it. The peel-top 500 C needs more than 12 seconds to reach 60 when equipped with the optional six-speed automatic transmission. It’s not uncomfortably slow (more on this below) but it is slower than just about any other new car – including the Slow Standard of the World, the Toyota Prius hybrid.

You’ll also notice another big drop – in gas mileage. While the hardtop 500 is capable of approaching 40 MPG on the highway, the heavier 500 C is closer to 30. That’s still good – but it ought to be better.

To be fair, though, the much more expensive Mini Cooper convertible is only slighter better at the pump (28 city, 35 highway) and not all that much quicker to 60 (about 11 seconds with the automatic).

ON THE ROAD

To elaborate a bit more on the above stuff: Don’t go just by the published 0-60 times. Like horsepower, these are relative numbers. Yes, relative to most other cars on the road, the 500 takes longer to get up to speed. But that assumes everyone else is flooring it – or even half-flooring it. Which of course they aren’t. Most people just dawdle along – even if their cars are capable of getting to 60 in 5 seconds. The 500 is more than capable of getting the drop on these dawdlers – and is very enjoyable to drive because it likes to be worked. This is typical of cars originally designed for the European market, where drivers still like to drive.  So, while the 500 may not win many drag races, it can and will readily pull away from the pack of addled slow-mo’s that one encounters on American roads. And once rolling, its so small and agile it easily threads the needle in traffic, allowing you to once again escape the sheetmetal cattle call.

The only real-world downside I discovered is that it can get a bit fidgety at higher speeds (70 or more) when the airstream begins to push at the tiny-tall body and the very short wheelbase (90.6 inches – 7 inches stubbier than the Mini’s) requires gentle – and slight– steering inputs. And when you’re among semis, keep both hands firmly on the wheel.

I liked the optional six-speed automatic – which includes a Sport mode that firms up the shifts (and holds gears longer) even if the car’s a little bit slower this way. Despite the low torque (98 lbs.-ft.) it did not feel sluggish, even coming off the line – which is often an issue for not-so-powerful cars fitted with automatics.

On the other hand, a car like this is best served with a manual. It lets you make the most of what’s available – and it’s just more fun.

It’s too bad, though, that it’s not a six speed manual.

AT THE CURB

Not since the mid-’90s, when I test drove one of the very first then-New Beetles, did I get a reception like I got in the 500C. People looked – and smiled. And when I showed them the peel-back soft top, the smiles got bigger.  It’s a unique layout – and it has several unique benefits, including that you can peel it back when the car’s moving instead of having to stop first – as is the case with conventional convertibles. There’s also much less (almost no) buffeting because the windstream slips over you, not all around you. This also lets you peel back the roof more often, if you live in areas where it gets cold in the winter. My test drive took place in late January – and even though we’re having a mild winter, it’s still not convertible warm yet. You need steady 60s for that. But in the 500C, you can risk exposure at much lower outside air temps because the air’s not hitting you in the face.

On the downside, you don’t get the full convertible experience – and some people will miss that. You’ll also miss being able to see much behind you, because when you peel back the roof all the way, it doesn’t fold entirely out of the way like a conventional convertible top does. Instead it kind of accordionizes on top of itself, stacking just high enough to almost completely obscure your direct rearward visibility, leaving you  to rely on your side mirrors – and luck.

A good driver will be ok. But not-so-good drivers may find it a bit unnerving.

Like the  Mini Cooper – which is renowned for being roomy enough inside for six-footers despite being not much longer, end to end – the 500 has plenty of space up front for even very large people. In fact it has just about the same front seat head and leg room as the Mini (38.6 inches and 40.7 inches vs. 38.4 inches and 41.7 inches respectively) despite being much smaller than the Mini, end to end. The back seats in both are Not For Humans, but usable for kids – and the 500 actually has about two inches more legroom than the Mini (31.7 inches vs. 28.1 inches) though about two inches less headroom (36.8 inches vs. 38.5 inches).

Regardless, the space efficiency in both cars is exceptional.

The 500 C Lounge I tested was also opulent. Rosso (red) leather for the seats offset by cream-colored leather for the steering wheel and door panels. The Metalflake Nero (charcoal black) exterior paint providing additional accenting inside. The peel-back soft top, dyed Boredeaux red, carries the theme back outside again.

I really liked the TomTom GPS unit. Unlike most factory GPS systems, which are fully integrated into the car, the 500’s is portable. You can plug it into the fitting on top of the dash – then take it with you, when it’s time to proceed on foot. You can also use it in other cars. Or on your motorcycle. Or whatever. It goes where you do. It’s also easier to update than factory systems – which run the risk of being yesterday’s news before the car’s even half paid-off.

THE REST

This is a lot of fun for $25k. Even with literally every option that Fiat offers, my test car 500 C came in only bout $600 above the base price of the 2012 Mini Cooper convertible. I love the Mini – but the price difference here is hard to overlook. A loaded version of the Mini will sticker out closer to $28k – and no matter how much money you offer the Mini dealer, he won’t be able to sell you a peel-back top. Plus, the Fiat’s new.  At least, to the U.S. market. The Mini has been around – and in pretty much the same form – for about ten years now. It’s still very cute, but it’s not the head-turner that the 500 is. If you want to make some new friends, you want the Fiat.

Some housekeeping: There are still some issues with spotty dealer presence. You may have to drive a while to find a Fiat store, depending on where you live. But, it is getting better – and as with other specialty cars, it’s part of the package.

No doubt some of you may be concerned about FIAT being shorthand for Fix It Again Tony. But the car has a solid track record in Europe, where Fiat-Alfa is a huge car combine on the order of GM here.

The thing I’d be more worried about is the possibility that Fiat might not stick around here.  The company stopped selling cars in the U.S. back in 1987 and if Chrysler – which Fiat bought mainly to get access to Chrysler’s dealer distribution network – doesn’t Stay Alive then Fiat might not stick around to go it alone. Chrysler seems to be back on track – and Fiat is pumping resources into the Pentastar – but you never know. If the government gets us into another war – this time with Iran – and gas prices surge to $5 per gallon – it will cripple Chrysler, which is heavy with gas-hungry models like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, 300 sedan, Charger and Challenger.

It’s just something to keep in mind.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Big fun can come in small packages – and for not much money, too.

Throw it in the Woods?

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30 COMMENTS

    • I picked up a brochure for the performance version at the auto show… 160hp now. If I were to have a small performance car I think I would prefer the 247hp focus though…

      • I’m wondering what the 160hp rig gets to the gallon driving 75mph on the highway. I’m guessing around 35mpg which would make it a good commuter car for me. My Yaris jacked up with 40psi in the tires gets 40mpg consistently.

  1. Hi,
    FIAT’s about to launch the L version, at least in Europe. 4.14 meters long, about 13 and a half feet, 5 actual seats, and built in Serbia, in the same plant where Zastava used to assemble the Yugo.

    • I like the as-it-sits base model 500. $15k sticker and so probably you could get one for around $13,500 after some haggling.

      The only thing I don’t like is the mileage – which while good compared to other new cars is disappointing given how small this car is. A Fiat 500-sized car ought to be solidly in the 50s on the highway. Unfortunately, it weighs too much – because it must comply with all the government BS.

    • Yup!

      I think they did a nice job, too. It’s not clumsy or overdone (as – in my opinion – the new Camaro is).

      The thing’s a fun little runabout. The fact that it’s pretty cheap, too, makes it even more appealing to me.

  2. Only 28K for the Mini? Such a deal. Seriously, people who buy them are crazed brats. The mint condition Beetle that I mentioned a while ago was less than 1/9th the cost. The 25K saved would pay for a whole lot of gas. No GPS, air, or heated cup holders though.

    • Yup! That’s why I like the 500 over the Mini. $15k sticker is not bad – though it’d be much better if it were closer to $10k, which it could be, if Fiat (and everyone else) could skip on things like air bags and the electronic “safety” stuff.

  3. I saw one of these at the Philadelphia Auto Show last weekend. I liked the interior more then I thought I would. The dash is very unique.

    I’m 6’2″ and I can’t imagine riding in this car for more then 2 hours. I couldn’t get comfortable no matter how many button and levers I pushed and pulled.

  4. Eric,
    Is there a site that compiles cost to repair different makes of vehicles? I would think that any Fiat is gonna cost a bundle to fix even the simplest of things.

    Thanks for the review. m

    • Consumer Reports does – but the 500’s so new (here) there’s very little feedback/data to go by. You’d need to check European sources. That said, the car (and Fiats generally) sell well over there and I doubt the Europeans are any more tolerant of crappy cars than we are here. The ’70s and ’80s stuff (last time Fiat was here) was often iffy – but that was 30 years ago and I wouldn’t judge current Fiats by what Fiats were like way back when.

      • How do you feel about CR car reviews? I read them but I always get the feeling that they are holding back out of fear of being sued or something. They seldom out and out pan a vehicle which makes me wonder about the cars on the margins of acceptability.

        • Most observers (me included) have noted a bias toward imports. It’s gotten better (become more even-handed) recently (past 5-8 years). The main criticism I have of CR is that many of their criticism are subjective but touted as definitive and objective. Bottom line, they are just one among many resources. The NHTSA defect/recall roster is another. With the Internet, it’s fairly easy to find out whether a given car is a “problem car” by searching message boards and so forth. Word gets out fast. If you find a bunch of complaints – especially if they are about something specific like a head gasket failure – then you know it’s probably a car to steer clear of.

    • Yes 32 mpg highway in a subcompact is poor. Many mid sized cars get that much or better. A car that size should be getting at least 40 mpg min.

        • I sure ought to! On the other hand, the 500’s mileage is about as good as it gets (not counting diesels and hybrids, which event hen aren’t much better).

          Mostly, it’s because of the weight. Even the 500 is pretty heavy for what it is. It ought to be closer to 1,500 pounds than 2,500 lbs…

          • My ’79 Citroen CX 2500D gets 41 mpg on the highway, and it’s a full-size diesel car. I’d buy another diesel in a heartbeat.

            • Hey Jim,

              Yup – and that’s with 30-plus-yer-old technology… imagine the same car/engine, with a few key updates here and there… I have no doubt it’d be capable of at least 55 MPG on the highway.

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