Fiat 500c Road Test Review
by Martha Hindes
2012 Compact Car Buyer's Guide - Top 10 Picks
Some autos just demand attention. Heads turn as you drive by. Thumbs-up gestures are offered in approval. And people go out of their way to check it out in shopping center parking lots. That's the reaction we got when we first took the wheel of the 2012 Fiat 500c, a cabriolet (or, in U.S.-speak, retractable ragtop roof panel) designed to be a sort of pint-sized smile on wheels.
The 2012 Fiat 500 isn't a new car by any means. Its Italian history goes back a half-century. But to American buyers for nearly three decades it's been something to drive during a trip to Italy, or to peruse with longing on colorful web pages. With Italy's Fiat now owning Chrysler, one of the original U.S. Big Three auto companies, it must have seemed a no brainer to bring the classic in its regenerated form to the states.
The Fiat 500 as a hatchback was a darling during its debuts at various American auto shows a year or so ago. For 2012, the new ragtop version takes center stage just in time for the approach of spring. We even had enough unusually balmy days to zip open the electrically-operated, three-stage canvas top on our test drives a few weeks ago and dream of Italian villas, the sun baked Mediterranean coast and other imaginings of la dolce vita.
The 2012 Fiat 500 provided to Road & Travel Magazine reviewers for testing was the top line Lounge edition, with a wealth of luxurious touches normally not expected on a sub-compact car. A Sport-tuned version and Italian-style "Pop" trim are available.
Visually the 500 is distinctively squat, as if someone had plopped a lump of clay on a potter's table and molded up a rather bubble-shaped car from it. The profile starts from a snubbed-nose, sweeps up a steep windshield slant then slopes down in the rear, interrupted only by a subtle rear spoiler. Styling forfeits any excess rear seat headroom. Standard 15" wheels are big enough to prevent a tot's toy look. But any auto that's commonly referred to as "cute" has to have some punchy features. Roundish headlamps that bear no resemblance to the current cats-eye trend on many autos fit that notch.
The light chocolate-toned exterior, dappled with highlights and depth, wore a color called Mocha Latte that looked delicious and made us crave a stop at the nearest cafe. Who would think a brown car could generate attention. But it did. Especially topped with a dark tan cloth top.
Once inside we were smitten by the effect of handsome two-toned leather seating, heated seats, and a sublime palette of techy entertainment electronics including "BLUE&ME" hands free communication, BOSE audio, eco drive, and a driver selectable information display.
However, one oversight, discovered by Road & Travel Magazine Publisher Courtney Caldwell, was a less-than-optimum key fob. It featured only touch sensitive functions without contrast printing which made it difficult to use at night when women especially want to be able to get in and out of a vehicle quickly, she said.
In a car this tiny (just over 11-feet in length) that seats four; real estate has to be used wisely. To accommodate this, the shifter is mounted low on the instrument panel in the style now adopted for many minivans. The sleek and contemporary interior even lacked the disruption of visible door locks. (It took a search to find that door handles push inward to lock.) The most curious adjunct, however, was a large "Tom Tom" navigation system pod that jutted up in front of the windshield that was removable when not used. Since it blocked a noticeable section of visibility, we removed it at times.
Rear seating, we learned, is best reserved for the young and the small. And we never quite mastered the ease of moving the front passenger seatback for rear seat access. Maybe it just takes practice.
The original Fiat 500 was rear-drive. Today's is front-drive, with a 101-horsepower, 1.4-liter inline four that can run on regular gasoline, but prefers 91 octane. Our six-speed automatic with auto stick (for interactive manual control) and sport mode is the only transmission available on the Lounge edition.
Fuel economy rates at 27 city/32 miles per gallon. (Manual 500 versions get 30/38.) Anyone concerned about the environment can upload data to a computer from a USB memory stick including hints about driving green. The eco:Drive application can show each trip's carbon dioxide emissions information and driving style recommendations. Safety equipment includes reactive head restraint to prevent whiplash, and an intelligent battery sensor.
Base pricing on the well-loaded, top-of-the line Lounge edition is $23,500 before such options as the Luxury Leather Package that includes heated front seats and auto dimming rear view mirror at $1,250.
While it's not a power performer, we found the 500c can scoot with the best of them, taking corners with small car flexibility and darting around with the kind of fun-to-drive abandon that seems indigenous to the downsized.
If you don't think the 500c has a continental flare, check the accessories. Both Pop and Lounge trims can accommodate optional "cigar" lighters and ash trays, now an extinct breed in most American market autos. We just hope the fog stogies can produce doesn't send such an oh-so-cute image up in smoke.
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