2012 Fiat 500C Review: Introduction
The 2012 FIAT 500 not only marks the return of this Italian automaker to the U.S. for the first time since 1983, but it also gives the Chrysler Group a much-needed subcompact car. Just a few years ago, the subcompact market in the U.S. was pretty small and didn't offer that many exciting choices, but with subcompacts and micro cars now improving in both popularity and quality, the new FIAT 500 gives Chrysler dealerships a car for this growing segment. Even more promising, following Fiat's acquisition of Chrysler back in 2009, the Fiat 500 is expected to be just the first of many cars brought over to North America from the Fiat and Alfa Romeo brands. We recently had the chance to drive the drop-top version of Fiat's iconic hatchback, the Fiat 500C (also called the Fiat 500 Cabrio), which has to be the cutest car currently available in North America.
Assembled in Toluca, Mexico, the 2012 FIAT 500C is available in three trim levels (Pop, Lounge and Gucci) with a starting MSRP of $19,500. For this weeklong review, we drove the Fiat 500C Lounge which carried a steeper starting price of $23,500, and after factoring in options and destination charges, the as-tested price was $25,250. While that may seem like a high price for such a small convertible, keep in mind that a base MINI Cooper Convertible starts at $25,650. Taking the price into consideration, the Fiat 500C matches up quite well with another cute convertible on the market, the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
2012 Fiat 500C Review: Competition
In terms of true comparisons, the 2012 Fiat 500C is positioned squarely against the MINI Cooper Convertible, although the Smart fortwo Cabriolet is still another alternative in this niche drop-top, micro-car segment. Other fun-to-drive small cars include the Mazda Mazda2, Nissan Juke and the upcoming Scion iQ. Although Fiat initially hoped to sell around 50,000 500s per year, the car has only been able to sell 17,444 units through November 2011. It is likely that the addition of the factory-tuned 500 Abarth model next year and new front-office leadership (Timothy Kuniskis replaced Laura Soave as the Head of Fiat Brand North America last month) could help spark sales during the 2012 calendar year.
2012 Fiat 500C Review: Exterior
The 2012 Fiat 500C is one of the best examples of retro styling borrowing heavily from the design of the original 500 that was produced until 1975. Up front, the new 500 features the same offset circular headlights and turn signals, while the flat fascia displays Fiat's signature "whiskers and logo" treatment. Even the split chrome accents on the front fascia seem to mimic the narrow front bumpers early 500 models carried. The shape of the rear quarter windows and sloped rear end also pay homage to the classic 500, but one unique feature the new 500 can boast over its predecessor is the full-length, retractable canvas roof offered on the 500C. Older 500s had a canvas roof that could retract over the rear passengers, but the 500C's top can fold back all the way over the cargo area creating an open-top atmosphere for all four drivers. Even better, the 500C uses a unique sliding roof mechanism that allows door frames and side roof rails to remain intact even when the top is folded back which preserves driver visibility and chassis rigidity.
Depending on which interior and exterior color owners choose from, the Fiat 500C is available with a cloth top in three colors (black, Bordeaux [red] and beige) with this test vehicle coming in the Rossa red exterior paint paired with the beige top giving it a stylish, upscale appearance. The Fiat 500C look is finished off with standard 15-inch, seven-split-spoke aluminum wheels. While the size of this new Fiat has grown considerably compared to the original, the 2012 500's body lines and overall proportions keep it very true to the original and help to create a more practical interior for everyday use.
2012 Fiat 500C Review: Interior
To go along with the 14 available exterior colors buyers can choose from when building their 2012 Fiat 500C, there are also 12 interior color/material configurations making for an impressive number of build combinations. Our test car came with a four-toned cabin that showcased Marrone brown leather on the seats and door panel armrests against dark trim from the beltline down and lighter trim above the beltline (and on the upper edge of the seats). The 500's logo is embossed into the front seat backs, and the colorful interior is finished off with a body-colored accent across the middle of the instrument panel. Showing that small cars still make some sacrifices, the 500 is not offered with an in-dash navigation system, although it does come standard with the Microsoft-developed Blue&Me hands-free system which delivers Bluetooth phone connectivity, easy pairing of mobile devices through a USB port and the operation of a unique eco:Drive application. This application lets drivers track and change their driving habits to maximize fuel economy. An optional TomTom navigation system is also available which docks on top of the instrument panel and shows route directions on the gauge cluster's central LCD screen.
For as little as it is (just 11.5 feet in overall length), the Fiat 500C's cabin delivers plenty of interior room. Three 6-foot-tall adults can fit inside the 500C or two children can fit comfortably in the rear bench seat. The convertible top takes away from the 500's hatchback design by limiting cargo space and making the trunk harder to access, but the top-down driving afforded by this unique top is worth the minor compromise. The top can be set to a large sunroof sized opening that stops just behind the driver's seat or it can go all the way back creating an open-air environment for all occupants; when the top is closed, the cabin is surprisingly quiet.2012 Fiat 500C Review: Interior Packages and Options
This 2012 Fiat 500C test vehicle came with the optional ($1,250) Luxury Leather Package that adds leather seats, heated front seats and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. For those who don't want leather seats, the Convenience Group is offered for $800 less. On base 500C Pop models, the Bose Premium Audio Package adds in the six-speaker Bose audio system with Sirius Satellite Radio that is standard on the Lounge trim level. Other available options on the 500C include a compact spare tire for $350 and a set of premium painted aluminum wheels for $300.
2012 Fiat 500C Review: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
All 2012 Fiat 500 models are currently powered by 1.4-liter MultiAir inline-four that puts out 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque. That may not sound like a lot of power, but the 500C still feels pretty peppy thanks to a curb weight of just under 2,500 pounds. While the 500C Pop comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission and options up with a six-speed automatic, the Lounge trim level is only offered with the latter transmission which offers the added enjoyment of an Auto Stick manual shift mode or a Sport mode. As such, the 500C Lounge used for this review came with EPA fuel economy estimates of 27 miles per gallon in the city, 32 mpg on the highway and a combined rating of 29 mpg. Buyers who opt for the 500's five-speed manual transmission will see fuel economy rise significantly to 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway.2012 Fiat 500C Review: Driving Impressions
Subcompact and micro cars are generally intended with city commuting in mind, but the 2012 Fiat 500C is a surprisingly fun car to drive in just about all situations. Fiat's MultiAir engine and U.S.-specific automatic transmission give the car smooth and relatively quick acceleration, while the low curb weight and short wheelbase make it very agile and responsive. While the electric power steering isn't as sporty as a Mazda, the Fiat 500 never felt heavy at low speeds or twitchy at higher speeds. About the only complaint in terms of the 500's ride is that the short wheel base (just 17 inches bigger than the car's overall width) can make the car bounce while going over interstate expansion joints. Those looking for a sportier ride will want to check out the 500 Abarth coming next year, but it will likely make the car's "roadtripability" diminish even further with an even stiffer suspension setup.2012 Fiat 500C Review: Safety
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have crash tested the drop-top 2012 Fiat 500C, but each gave the hardtop version differing safety ratings. Earlier in the year, the Fiat 500 was named an IIHS Top Safety Pick for getting top ratings in all crash tests, but just recently, NHTSA gave the 500 a three-star overall safety rating as a result of its four-star frontal, two-star side and four-star rollover ratings. Convertible and hardtop versions of the 2012 Fiat 500 all come with plenty of standard safety features that include seven airbags, active front head restraints, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, electronic stability control, traction control and tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
2012 Fiat 500C Review: Final Thoughts
The subcompact and micro car segments are filling up quickly, but if you demand an open-air driving experience, it would be hard to overlook the 2012 Fiat 500C. While the drop-top version of the Smart Fortwo and MINI Cooper are being marketed as fuel-efficient or urban-centric cars, the Fiat 500's marketing approach seems to peg it as more of a fashion accessory. This pre-economic-crash thinking may not be the best way to sell cars, but it is the best way to distinguish this Fiat from more conventionally designed subcompacts that get much better fuel economy. It has still yet to be seen whether the Fiat 500 can be the mass-market small car that Chrysler badly needs in the U.S. or if it's a highly visible, niche vehicle, but either way, Chrysler dealers are finally getting a car that is more fun to drive (and be seen in) than a Fortwo and more affordable than a MINI.
2012 Fiat 500C Review: Pros and Cons
- unique convertible top design preserves visibility and chassis rigidity
- classic Fiat styling
- lots of fun to drive
- cars as fashion accessories is pre-2008 thinking
- small, hard-to-access trunk
Fiat provided the vehicle for this review
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross