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Fiat 500C, 2012: Italian city car returns with convertible cuteness, driving fun

Three years ago in France I noticed the new Fiat 500 for the first time in the driveway of a country inn. Then I noticed Fiat 500s parked perpendicularly in big city parking lots and zipping along through traffic on congested city streets. What was not to like?

With a huge supply of unwavering cuteness, the new 500 hopes to rekindle all the good, clean fun driving traits of Fiat from yesteryear. Available in the United States for the first time in nearly three decades as a 2012 model, the new Fiat also seeks to have as little as possible to do with its split personality and the best definition ever among manufacturers with less-than-sterling reputations.

Of course, we mean “Fix It Again, Tony,” the infamous, harsh definition of FIAT.2012 Fiat 500cThe FIAT acronym actually stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, with Fiat as the largest automobile manufacturer in Italy and ninth largest globally. Throughout its tenure, Fiat owners have loved to complain about their vehicles but often bought more than one.

The Weekly Driver Test Drive

Like several other manufacturers in recent years that have debuted odd-looking models as attention grabbers (Nissan’s Cube and Kia’s Soul, as examples), the new Fiat attracts a lot of attention as a hardtop, which I drove a year ago.

But the Fiat’s return is based on a vehicle with more than a 100-year history — not as a novelty.  Regardless, wherever I drove the test vehicle for the week — the Fiat 500c (the C is for Cabrio) — it garnered even more attention.

All images © James Raia/2012

With the top up, the Fiat is a small, tight package. With the soft top down or partially down, the Fiat is the automotive equivalent of an old-style, rolled-backed can of sardines.

Its looks are unique because unlike traditional convertibles, the Fiat’s pillars remain in place when the top goes down. The top doesn’t disappear neatly into the trunk, making the space useless. Rather, the top folds into pleated sections behind the back of the rear seats. The trunk is small but useful (and sizable) considering the petite nature of the car.

Push the convertible mechanism button above the radio once and the top retracts into what Fiat defines the “spoiler” position. The rear most part of the top and the glass rear window remain up. Push the same button again, and the folded-up top, with the rear window folded up in it, sits behind the rear headrests.

Beyond its innovative ragtop, the Fiat has a good selection of other features: ABS brakes, traction control, antiskid system, curtain-side airbags, front-side airbags, and a driver-knee airbag. Air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, and cruise control are standard. There’s a “hidden” glove box under the front passenger’s seat, innovative circular cupholder on the floor and an oversized shift knob.

Like its predecessor, the new Fiat 500 features a small engine (1.4-liter, 4-cylinder and 101-horsepower) with a short-shifting, five-speed manual transmission. What the Fiat lacks in speed, the manufacturer has more than compensated for with a host of standard features and personality.

The trim levels have the unique names of Pop, Lounge and Sport. There’s also the Abarth sport edition with more horespower and a keen scorpion logo. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the Pop and Sport, with a six-speed automatic optional on those models and standard on the Lounge and the 500C.

Likes:

Spacious trunk. Three paper bags and eight plastic bags full of groceries fit fine. Really.

Smooth, tight shifting.

Two-position retractable top.

Comfortable seats.

Unexpected leg and headroom.

Great handling.

Attractive, retro styling with unusual color mixes (red, black and cream, for example) that surprisingly work.

Easy to park, small turning radius.

Dislikes:

Blind spot between driver’s side front and rear windows.

Tight rear seats.

Not ideal for highway driving.

Facts & Figures: 2012 Fiat 500C

Acceleration: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds.
Airbags (7): Front and rear head airbags, dual front side-mounted airbags, driver’s knee airbag
Fuel economy: 30 mpg (city), 38 mpg (highway), manual transmission.
Government Safety Ratings: (not tested).
Horsepower: 101.
Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price: $20,695.00
Manufacturer’s Web site: www.fiatusa.com
Price As tested: Not available.
Warranty: Bumper to bumper, 4 years/50,000 miles; Powertrain, 4 years/50,000 miles; Corrosion, 12 years/50,000; Roadside Assistance, 4 years/unlimited miles; Free Maintenance, 3 years/36,000 miles.

What Others Say:

“Fiat has built a legitimate Mini alternative for thousands less, and shoppers willing to trade absolute utility for creative styling and driving fun should give the car a try. For a brand looking to get back into a market it left 27 years ago, that could signal as good a start as any.” — Cars.com

“I found the car perfectly able, cleverly designed with fun touches, like the round headrests, and enjoyable to drive. It neither wowed me nor left me flat.” — Popular Mechanics

“On the road, the 2012 Fiat 500 drives much bigger than it looks. Each example we drove felt solid, with body motions that are well controlled and a suspension with a firm character.” — Autoblog

“Cute” is an unavoidable description, but the Fiat 500c has substance, too.”

What The Wife Says:

“It has a surprisingly large amount of trunk space for such a small car.”

The Weekly Driver’s Final Words:

“Strictly based on sheer fun, the Fiat 500c won me over easily. If all those other considerations like price, efficiency, practicality, etc., are added to the equation, the Fiat slips a few notches. But why bother with all those nuances when you’re having so much fun?”

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