2012 Fiat 500c Pop
With the background of “Sopranos” shows and “Godfather” movies, Italian-Americans often gripe that they and their forbears are stereotyped as criminals.
In the automotive world, however, it’s a different story. Mention Italian and the mental picture is one of style, as exemplified by Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Alfa-Romeo and Fiat.
These always have been head-turners, never mind the volatile personality traits that drove Fiat out of the United States 27 years ago.
Now it’s back, though in a modest way so far with only the subcompact, inexpensive 500 models. But in keeping with its Italian heritage, Fiat arrives in style, especially as exemplified by the 2012 500c model.It’s a convertible version of the two-door hatchback introduced earlier, but with the same sassy styling, scoot-about small size and exemplary fuel economy.
Fiat doesn’t pretend that it is a convertible in the usual sense. It uses the fuzzier “cabrio” designation, which is apt because the 500c actually is more like a coupe with a giant fabric sunroof.
It has advantages and disadvantages. The main downside is you don’t get that true convertible look with both the top and side windows disappearing when the top is down.
With the 500c, there’s a full side structure. The top works something like opening an anchovy can, with the mechanism running inside the roof rails.
One advantage is that you can close or open the top fully at speeds up to 50 miles an hour. Up to 60, you can open it over the front and back seats with the rear window still up, like a giant sunroof. There’s also an open sunroof-style position over the front seats.
It’s a clever solution that mimics Fiat’s 1957 Nuovo Cinquecento. The Fiat engineers even thoughtfully included a wind blocker at the top of the windshield. It minimizes wind buffeting when the top is in one of the sunroof positions.
But it also locks down to minimize buffeting when the top is fully open. It works surprisingly well. With the windows up and the top down, a driver and front passenger can listen to music at a modest volume and converse without shouting.
Another advantage to the setup is that the body has a rigid structure that virtually eliminates that dreaded convertible bugaboo called “cowl shake,” which describes steering-wheel vibration over rough surfaces.
The biggest disadvantage is that, top down, vision through the inside rearview mirror is about seven-eighths blocked. The driver can barely see the tops of cars approaching from the rear. To improve the view, simply raise the top to the open-roof or “spoiler” position and peer out through the back window.
The top also automatically lifts to that position to make it easy to open the trunk, which offers 5.4 cubic feet of space with the top up or down. It’s small but useful.
With the top up, the 500c has nearly the ambiance of the coupe. The top is a double-layer affair augmented by a full headliner. There is little wind noise at highway speeds.
The 500c comes in two versions: Pop, at $20,000, which comes with a five-speed manual gearbox, seven air bags, traction and stability control, air conditioning, cruise control and an audio system with auxiliary inputs. Options include satellite radio, Bose premium audio, six-speed automatic transmission and 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels.
The other is the Lounge, at $24,000, which comes with the automatic transmission, alloy wheels, satellite radio, Bose audio, fog lights and automatic climate control. Its options include leather upholstery, heated seats and a navigation system.
With its 101 horsepower, 1.4-liter engine and a curb weight of just 2,416 pounds, the tested 500c Pop with the five-speed was a sprightly performer around town that also could hold its own on the freeways. It has an EPA city/highway fuel consumption rating of 30/38 miles to the gallon, which should appeal to the frugal.
But the guess here is that the style thing will be more important to potential buyers, especially when they can choose among color combinations like “bianco perla with Bordeaux top,” “rosso brillante,” “verde chiarro” and “mocha latte.”Fiat says customers can mix and match to produce up to 500,000 different combinations of interior and exterior colors and trim to personalize their rides. The expectation here is that the 500c will appeal to the same customers as the Mini Cooper convertible from Great Britain, especially because the Fiat is less expensive.
No car is perfect, of course, and the perky 500c has shortcomings. The clutch on the test car was grabby. The back seat is only useful for small humans if the folks up front jam their seats far forward, and getting back there requires a contortionist’s moves.
A person alone in back cannot reach the handle to open the door. Although the climate controls have knobs like those on washers and dryers, the radio only has buttons. And the sun visors are tiny and do not slide on their support rods, making them virtually useless.
The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope but the accommodations are so cozy it doesn’t matter. A nice touch is a right-elbow armrest for the driver.