Cuter than your best friend’s puppy or Justin Bieber, legitimately retro without going over the top, and absolutely Italian. Pint-sized, but safe, and it drives like a real car.
By Matt Stone
THE BIG PICTURE
As a brand, Fiat returned to the US market in mid-2011 with the heritage-inspired 500. The original Fiat 500 was built from 1957 – 1975; think of it as Italy’s VW Beetle. Like the Bug, the original 500 was more than cheap transportation; it became a fashion piece, and the legend and lore surrounding it are extensive. Fiat repackaged and reinvented the car, bringing it back to market in Europe in 2007; with Fiat taking over partial ownership and management of Chrysler, it was only natural that the Fiat 500 would come here. And now it’s available in a groovy convertible (The “C” in 500C stands for Cabriolet, nee Convertible).
The interior is one of the Fiat 500’s great charms. It’s retro looking, but not antiquated in operation. The instruments are clear, and easy to read. Some of the dash and door panels are color keyed to match the exterior paint. If you’re tired of drowning in a sea of black plastic, as with so many of today’s small cars, you’ll appreciate the 500s contrasting finishes, and splashes of chrome and color inside. Cloth seats are standard, but our “Lounge” model 500C was equipped with the optional Luxury Leather Package; supple yet sturdy heated leather seats are supportive and comfortable. Ready to tan? Press the button just above the rear view mirror, and the richly finished cloth roof rolls all the way back (or just part way if you wish) to reveal sun or stars. It’s not a convertible in the purest sense, but more like a giant sunroof. This means there are doorframes that wrap around the side window glass, and there’s a few inches of roof structure left on either side, which increases rollover safety and shores up the chassis to prevent body wiggle over rough roads and railroad tracks, sometimes a problem in fully open convertibles. A little air dam at the front edge of the roof flips up to minimize wind buffeting. The top is drum tight, quiet when closed, and watertight as well. Most of the advantage of a full convertible, with none of the downside.
Not family friendly, really. Rear seat passengers need to be compact, with short legs, and friendly with each other. Best to think of the rear seats as an upholstered package shelf. The trunk will hold your overnight bag, little black dress, bottle of champagne, and not a lot more — but what else do you really need, right?
The Fiat 500 is as safe as any car its size can be. There are plenty of airbags, plus antilock brakes, sticky all-season tires, and stability/traction control system to keep you on the straight and narrow.
GIZMOS AND TECH
The Fiat 500 is a relatively gizmo free car, but all the basics are covered. The standard Bose audio system in our Lounge level test car sounded great, with clear strong highs and mid range, plus rich bass. And it’s got enough power so you can hear your tunes, top open or closed. It plays AM, FM, CDs and MP3s, plus Sirius XM satellite radio with the first year’s subscription included free. There’s also an Auxiliary Audio Input jack for your iGoodie of choice, but no nav system, so plan on bringing along your own Garmin or Tom-Tom.
The 500 (call it a cinquecento, pronounced “chink-way-chento” if you want to impress your friends with a spritz of Italian) is giggly fun to drive. The controls are light and easy, and the car handles and hugs the road reliably. The ride quality is pleasant too, with little road rumble or windnoise. Fast? Not hardly, what do you expect from 101 horsepower? It’s enough for on ramps and to be safe on the highway, but thrilling? No. Remember – speed costs money; how fast do you want to go? Mileage isn’t bad with EPA ratings of 27 city, 32 highway, and 29 combined, which is about what we averaged over several thousand miles of driving our test car. It would be 10% or so better in a Pop model with a manual transmission.
Looks and a cuddly nature that’ll make your lower lip quiver a little. Cool beyond words, has miles of style, is fun to drive, and with a terribly clever roof design.
Appears well made and well finished. Not just another bright red Mini Cooper like your girlfriend has.
A little shy on power. Expensive if you check every option box. Needs to be thought of as a two-seater. The view out from the rear view mirror is partially obscured when the top is all the way down – no biggie, just check your blindspot, and use the side mirrors carefully.