By Jim MacPherson
Take a quick look at the new 2012 Fiat 500.Look familiar?
While the new 500 is larger, more powerful, and more comfortable then the Fiat Cinquecento of fifty years ago, it still adheres to the look and spirit of the Cinquecento, which set standards for efficiency and sportiness.
Andy Vecellio, general manager at Gengras Fiat in East Hartford, notes that a surprising number of people remember that first 500 fondly. “Anyone who was associated with that car feels a strong bond to it,” he says.
It's ironic that Fiat’s introductory program for the Cabrio, the convertible version of the 500, was inundated by some of the heaviest rains of the year.
Initial drives during that New York City program demonstrated that even on pre-production models, the power top is weather tight. It is also handsomely lined, giving the interior the finished look and low noise levels of a coupe when closed.
Fortunately, our review Fiat 500c arrived just in time to take advantage of the perfect summer weather that graced early October. I was finally able to try the top’s unique power operation. This fabric roof can be opened as a sunroof, exposing all or part of the passenger compartment at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. If you want to open the top all the way, you can do so at speeds up to 50 miles per hour.
Now, it could be argued that the 500c is not a traditional convertible. It retains the coupe’s fully framed doors and metal surrounds for the rear side windows. A byproduct of this design is a feeling of structural integrity. The Fiat 500c is exceptionally solid, with no body shaking or quivering over bumps.
Two models of the Cabrio are offered: Pop and Lounge. The Pop is equipped with air conditioning, and all the expected power assists including a power top, and a decent audio system. The engine is a 1.4-liter four-cylinder with a clever multi air valve system for better economy and emissions performance. A five-speed manual is standard in the Pop. A six-speed automatic is an option here and standard in the Lounge model.
Acceleration is good enough to keep up with traffic, but it falls short of being truly inspired. Zero-to-60 took 9.8 seconds. A higher-performance version is expected soon.
“The Pop-Lounge split is about fifty-fifty,” Vecellio says. “The Pop draws in nostalgic buyers who want to enjoy the car and push through the gears.” So far, half of the Fiat 500s sold by Gengras have had a manual gearbox.
The ride is firm and but busy when encountering rough patches. Handling is crisp and nicely balanced despite the car showing a little more lean in brisk cornering than expected.
The front seats are surprisingly comfortable, even though the bottom cushions are short. The back seat is cramped and requires a little cooperation from the front seat crowd to be usable by adults. The trunk is small and cannot be accessed with the roof open all the way. However, a fully open roof automatically closes just enough to allow the trunk to open when the trunk lever is in use.
The Fiat 500c feels spunky. It is also solid, comfortable and thoroughly entertaining to drive.
“The Fiat 500 has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Vecellio says. “If you’re a car enthusiast, you have to try this car. It’s a subcompact that’s a complete car.”
Fiat 500: Starts at $15,500
Engine: 1,368 cc (1.4 liters)
98 lb-ft of torque
Coupe: 30/38 27/34
Convertible 30/38 27/32
EPA ratings for the coupe are 30/38 with 5-speed manual or 27/34 with 6-speed automatic transmission. Convertible ratings are 30/38 with the manual transmission; 27/32 with the automatic.