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BY Rory Carroll | autoweek.com
What is it?
Following the Mini and the Volkswagen Beetle, the 500 is the latest in a line of retro-styled small cars that trade heavily on the good name built by their forebears. In an automotive market dominated by banal transportation appliances, the few that truly are distinctive are a welcome diversion. The styling of the 500 is about as distinctive as is available anywhere, but it is definitely not for everyone.
The original, rear-engine Fiat 500 was produced from 1957 to 1975. In postwar Europe, it was practical, economical and popular. It has always been a cute car, but performance variants built by Abarth were fierce competitors on racetracks around the world. The original Cinquecento has serious cache among enlightened car lovers of all stripes. Noted Porsche collector Jerry Seinfeld has at least one Fiat 500 in his collection, a 1967 that he famously crashed in 2008.
And, though the new 500 is very small by modern standards, it positively dwarfs its classic counterpart. Despite the size disparity, Fiat has succeeded designing a modern 500 that bears a strong resemblance to the fondly remembered original. It is still a city car, it still fits in tight spaces and it still sips fuel. It’s a throwback to postwar Europe, but in cabriolet form it is less about basic mobility and more about the romance that many associate with that era.
What’s it like to live with?
Let’s first dispense with the obvious: this car’s lack of interior space limits its utility. It is comfortable enough to carry two adults and some luggage and, in a pinch, there is room for more. But additional cargo will come at the expense of comfort and performance. So for car shoppers who have a family, a large dog or the need to move anything larger than a few bags of groceries, the Fiat will serve best as a second car.
The 500 is at home in the city, and the cabrio’s whimsical nature will make it a welcome companion in quaint, beach-side communities. Where it is perhaps least at home is on a rainy highway commute over miles of backed-up interstate. Although, truth be told, it is much better there than expected, even in traffic. Compared with the often leaky and always noisy sliding convertible tops found in classic cars, the 500 C Pop cabrio’s fabric roof is incredible. Even in heavy rain, forward visibility is adequate, and the car goes down the road just as expected.
Generally performance is acceptable, though with the added weight of a passenger or heavy cargo, braking, turning and especially accelerating become more difficult. There is a button with the word “sport” written on it, but like many of the buttons you’ll find in the 500, it has no discernible function.
One unpleasant side effect of added weight is that the rear end of the car can shift around unexpectedly during really, really hard braking. The Fiat 500 is a front-heavy car, and the added weight of 2.5 grown men in the front seats exacerbates the problem. It is not at all unsafe, but if you’ve never driven a car that is as small and lightweight as the 500, it can be unsettling.
Once it gets up to speed, the car is a blast to drive. It changes direction eagerly and holds corners well. Personally, I imagine that the car would be more fun to drive if I dropped 100 pounds or so. As it stands, I am looking forward to driving the Abarth version.
The stereo sounds fantastic, but like many of the interior’s electronic accoutrements, getting it to work properly is far from intuitive.
Few reviewers reported success in mating various cell phones to the stereo, and almost no one figured out how to reset the trip odometer. These systems are reportedly improved in cars optioned with the Lounge trim level, but then you’re stuck with an automatic transmission which—especially in a car such as this—is unacceptable.
One interesting note for drivers who are new to a manual transmission: the Fiat seems unnaturally difficult to stall. There is a hill-hold feature that stops the car from rolling backward down an incline by automatically applying the brakes for a moment so that the driver can select a gear and get under way. With just less than 100 lb-ft of torque available from the 1.4-liter engine, the 500 should be harder to start off in, especially when hauling extra weight. Even when deliberately trying to stall the 500, it was hard to make it chug. As if it was a high-torque sports car, our tester was able to pull itself around a flat parking lot in fourth gear with no application of the clutch pedal or the gas pedal.
Who should consider this car?
The standard Fiat 500 is cute, but in a utilitarian, throwback-to-postwar-Europe sort of way. It is a smiling, cartoonish little transport, ever eager to tote self-assured, stylish city dwellers to that new artisanal mayonnaise shop.
The Fiat 500 C Pop cabrio is something different. The muted available colors, the sliding convertible top and the absence of any sporting pretense ratchet the cute factor up several notches. This may serve to further narrow the Fiat 500’s already narrow base of potential customers, but it seems that Fiat understands that and even embraces it.
During my time with the car, I saw other drivers and pedestrians unselfconsciously pointing at me and actually laughing. At six-foot-two and weighing about 250 pounds, I know I look silly in the 500.
In many ways, it’s the automotive equivalent of a brightly colored Marc Jacobs romper. It is unique, fun and stylish, but for many, if not most, it can be a hard “look” to execute properly. Like the romper, potential buyers will be well served by trying the thing on. If the potential buyer can conceive of a circumstance under which she would be embarrassed to be seen in it, the Fiat 500 C Pop cabrio is not the right car.
What similar cars should I consider?
There are not many automakers making these little retro beach buggies. But those that do make them do it very well. First, Mini has this segment more or less on lock, and it offers two convertibles. The Smart Fortwo cabriolet and maybe the Scion iQ could be considered if space, style and your personal happiness are not considerations. Shoppers looking for a convertible that is insanely fun to drive should look at Mazda’s excellent MX-5.
Vehicle: 2012 Fiat 500 C Pop Cabrio
Base price: $20,000; As-tested: $21,750
Engine: 1.4-liter, SOHC I4
Drivetrain: FWD, five-speed manual
EPA mileage (city/highway/combined): 30/38/33mpg
Curb weight: 2,416 lb
Horsepower: 101 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 98 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Options: Customer preferred package 21A including Bose premium audio package with one-year subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio, Rosso seats, bordeaux soft top ($1,250); 15-inch five-oval-spoke painted aluminum wheels ($500)
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