Driven: 2012 Fiat 500C

By Brandon Turkus

May 24, 2011

—New York City, New York

We liked the hardtop Fiat 500 when we drove it a few months back. We aren’t the only ones, as the new Cinquecento has been subject of rave reviews across the internet and newsstands. So with the 500 Convertible, Fiat is aiming to keep the brand’s positive buzz going by creating the first true competitor to the Mini Cooper in the four-seat drop-top market. With the base 500C starting at $19,500 and the up-market Lounge model hitting dealerships at $23,500, there is certainly a value case for the convertible Fiat. But does it deliver the sort of experience we expect from a small droptop?

Aesthetically, the 500C shares much with the fixed-roof 500. The one major change is a longer windshield, which contributes to a greater forward view, and only subtly changes the car’s overall profile.

Sadly, the 500C won’t get the more driver-oriented Sport trim from the 500 coupe. That means no aggressive body kit, and only fifteen-inch wheel options. This hurts the Fiat in more than a few ways. The tight body control and excellent road holding abilities that came with the Sport trim are lessened on the Pop and Lounge models. There is more body roll, and the front/rear damping just isn’t as sharp as it could be. It turns the 500 from an agile, confident car into one that seems far more focused on style and comfort. This isn’t a condemnation of the 500C as a whole, as even the hardtop Pop and Lounge can’t deliver the same thrills as the Sport. It’s simply that the Sport suspension package takes an already fun car and turns things up to 11.
Another small problem that we saw with the 500C is that it isn’t really a convertible, at least not in the classic sense. It doesn’t expose you to the elements in the same way as a traditional droptop, thanks to the rails that extend from the A-pillar all the way to the back of the car. The dual-layered canvas top runs along these rails, similar to the way a sunroof retracts into the roof of a normal vehicle. Even with the top down, the doorframe constantly sits in your peripheral vision. To be fair, this is the same system that Fiat’s original Cinquecento used to great acclaim. 
There are practical advantages to this system, too. For starters, it allows raising and lowering of the roof at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. It also doesn’t require the same sort of structural reinforcement that most cars see in the transition from coupe to convertible, which means less weight and less complexity. From a performance standpoint, this setup also retains more of the cars natural structural rigidity, meaning better handling and less body roll. It also creates a more refined ride, with less cowl shake and wind noise, due to fewer connection points between the roof and the body.

Much like the Mini Cooper, the 500C is a small car that can still accommodate a lot of stuff. Fiat claims there is 76.2 cubic feet of space in the cabin overall. There is a surprising amount of legroom for both driver and passenger, although we did have some space issues in terms of the smallish pedal box on our manual-transmission 500. Ingress and egress to the driver’s seat was simple, requiring a slight ducking of the head to clear the frame rail that spans the A- and B-pillars. Getting into the back seat was more difficult, but then we can’t imagine there are a great number of 500 drivers who use the backseat for anything more than occasional trips. The seats themselves proved comfortable over our drive, although a bit more bolstering and support certainly wouldn’t hurt.

The most difficult thing to get used to in the 500 is the lack of visibility. Because of the way the top folds back, one’s rear view is almost completely obscured when the top is all the way down. The thick C-pillars and tiny rear windows don’t help either. Putting the top in Sunroof mode alleviated the problem to a certain extent, but the 500C still limits what you see around you.

We started our drive route with the top lowered, in our Argento/Bordeaux 500C Pop. To our surprise, the little Italian handled the rough city roads with ease. Cowl shake was simply not there, even as we bounced side-to-side on the well-worn Manhattan roads. We noticed this trait throughout our drive. With the top all the way up, there was only a hint of wind noise and vibration that entered the cabin.

While the 500 is plenty quiet with the top up, it’s just as impressive with the top lowered. A wind deflector mounts above the windshield, limiting the amount of buffeting in the cabin and allowing us to hold conversations without yelling, regardless of speed or top position.

As the roads got twistier, we were able to wring the 500 out. With the top down, we were able to take in the full sound of the 500’s throaty exhaust, making rev-matched downshifts through the hilly terrain.

That gutsy exhaust is coming from an engine that only produces 101 horsepower, but was more than enough to hurtle through the countryside. Despite an extra 53 pounds of weight, the 500C can scamper about with nearly as much vigor as the hardtop. Acceleration didn’t really produce much in the way of rear-end squat, and it took properly hard braking to get the front to dive. Side-to-side motions were also nicely progressive, giving the 500 a sedate, but still fun ride. Tackling twisty roads, we didn’t notice much of a difference in the way the steering behaved. We can’t help but feel the Sport trim would have sorted out these complaints.
The steering on the 500C didn’t really differ from the hardtop. There is plenty of feedback coming from the tiller, making it easy to judge what the front wheels are doing. We would still like a weightier rack, but other than that, we don’t have any complaints.

The 500C had proven to be a worthy travel companion across all manner of roadways. Although it lacks the beloved Sport trim, and we aren’t totally certain that it truly qualifies as a convertible, this is still a small car that enjoys being driven quickly, but is far more at home cruising up and down the nearest boulevard. The Fiat 500C is in dealerships, and with a 40-percent take rate for manual transmissions (a good sign there), expect to see this little Italian on a winding road near you.

VS: Mini Cooper Convertible

Dynamically, the Cooper is the more compelling car. In terms of refinement though, the 500C is simply miles ahead of it. The interior of the Fiat is a match even for the revised cabin of the Mini in terms of quality of materials and overall fit and finish. The real go ahead for the Italian comes in terms of noise. Simply, the Fiat is much quieter, and therefore more comfortable, over all manner of terrains.

The Mini suffers from quite a bit of cowl shake, and the completely open top results in a windier and louder driving experience for both passenger and driver. Although the Cooper is a lot of fun, and arguably more of a convertible, we have to give the nod to the Fiat for its excellent blend of driving dynamics and comfort.

VS: Smart Fortwo Cabriolet

Like the Fiat, the Smart is a convertible that isn’t really a convertible. With roof down, it retains the frame rails that connect the A- and B-pillars, meaning that it retains a stiff structure that is inherent in the coupe models. That’s really where the similarities end.

While the Smart has a 70-horsepower three-cylinder engine, the Fiat boasts a more powerful and better sounding, 1.4-liter I-4, with 101 horsepower. Throw in the superiority of Fiat’s six-speed auto over the recalcitrant five-speed sequential gearbox in the Smart, and this is really an open and shut case in favor of the 500.
The Smart’s small stature also works against it here, namely the lack of any sort of rear seat storage. You may not be able to put actual people in the back of the Fiat, but any extra room in cars of this size is a welcome feature.

2012 Fiat 500C Pop
Engine: I-4, 1.4 liters, 16v
Output: 101 hp/98 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 9.6 sec (est.)
Curb Weight: 2416 lbs
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 30/38 mpg
Base Price: $19,500
As Tested: $21,750