Thumbs Up: Surprisingly fun to drive with the five speed manual.
Thumbs Down: Lack of footwell room is a deal-breaker for long trips.
Buy This Car If: You want a fuel-efficient commuter that delivers inexpensive topless fun.
Driving in Europe is a lot different than driving in the United States. To begin with, gasoline is roughly twice as expensive as in the U.S., and viable solutions for public transportation abound. We’d guess that, on average, Europeans live closer to work than their American counterparts, so those who do drive to work are content to drive smaller cars. Factor in narrower roads and limited parking, and anything larger than a MINI Cooper becomes a liability, not an asset.
When Fiat launched its retro-inspired Fiat 500 in Europe in 2007, it was an instant hit. Some 250,000 people attended the car’s launch party, and European sales have been brisk since. A large part of the car’s appeal is its retro-chic tie-in to the original Fiat 500, a car that never officially graced this side of the pond. Despite this, and despite Fiat’s somewhat dubious reputation for build quality in the 1970s, Fiat thought its new 500 could serve as a launching platform to reintroduce the brand to American consumers.
The first year didn’t go down as Fiat had hoped, thanks largely to an incomplete dealer network and ineffective advertising. Now, in year two, most major markets have dealerships open or under construction, and Fiat 500 sales are beginning to ramp up on this side of the pond. Last month, in fact, the car had record sales of over 3,700 units, and that doesn’t count the yet-to-be introduced Fiat 500 Abarth, which Fiat has promoted heavily. If gas prices remain high, it’s a safe bet that Fiat 500 sales in the United States will only increase from here.
One look at the car and it’s easy to see why. It’s got personality, and as we all learned from Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. Unlike the even-more-diminutive Smart ForTwo, the Fiat 500 is actually entertaining to drive (but better with the five-speed manual transmission), and a trip on the interstate isn’t nearly as puckering. To be clear, we wouldn’t want to drive either cross-country, but we could easily see the Fiat as a daily commuter for those who want to cut their fuel bills yet still like to drive.
Even for those of us who missed growing up with the original Fiat 500, the new car still presses all the right buttons. It carries an undeniable sense of style, in virtually any trim level. It’s functional, too, with more back seat room than you’d expect and even a decent-sized trunk for such a small car (though the coupe is more generous than the cabriolet). Opt for the 500C cabriolet version (as most buyers do), and you get a Fiat 500 that can go (mostly) topless at the press of a button. Yes, you still have the roof frame and C-pillars, but they really don’t detract from the car’s open-air feel.
As other outlets have pointed out, rear visibility is a problem with the top down, but properly adjusted side mirrors can eliminate most concern. Beside, retracting the roof halfway still gives most of the same topless feel, while retaining outward visibility through the rear window. Top in place, the Fiat 500 is impressively quiet, likely thanks to the retained roof frame (which undoubtedly increases rollover safety compared to a more traditional convertible, too).
Inside, buyers get a healthy dose of retro. The dash features a pebble-grain plastic top, offset by a panel painted in the body color. Contrasting plastic, in the color of the accent upholstery, wraps the instrument cluster and the switchgear for radio and HVAC controls. Unlike another retro favorite, the MINI Cooper, the Fiat 500’s interior yields no surprises: everything is where you expect it to be, laid out in a logical, orderly manner.
The instrument panel packs a lot of information into a very small space. A single pod contains the speedometer (in an outer ring), the tachometer (in a middle ring) and the LCD driver information display (in the center). The information display shows the fuel level, coolant temperature, time, outside temperature, odometer and wealth of other driver-chosen information, such as average fuel economy, average speed or distance to empty.
Front seats are surprisingly wide for such a small car, which makes them more comfortable than you’d expect them to be. Seats are wrapped in a stout, heavy-duty fabric, which breathes well and will likely stand up to years of use. Only the driver’s seat is height adjustable, and neither seat comes with adjustable lumbar support. Given the Fiat 500’s commuter-car mission, it’s neither needed nor missed. While headroom is generous, legroom is not; like the Ford Fiesta subcompact, a wide center console intrudes noticeably on driver legroom, and a test drive will quickly reveal whether or not this is a deal-breaker for you.
Given the Fiat 500’s diminutive size, rear seats are surprisingly spacious. To be clear, you should only think about carrying average-size adults back there for short trips. but children won’t complain a bit about the rear accommodations. Should you need more cargo room than the trunk offers up, both rear seats fold forward in a 50/50 split.
Under the hood, the Fiat 500 sports a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine good for 101 horsepower and 98 pound feet of torque. In Pop trim, like out press fleet tester, a five speed manual is the standard transmission offering, although a six-speed automatic is an available option. Save your money and stick with the better-than-expected manual, which has crisp throws and makes the car feel livelier than the numbers would indicate. Don’t expect stellar acceleration, but the manual transmission Fiat 500 still manages to run from 0-60 mph in under 11 seconds. The payback, however, is in fuel economy: the EPA rates the Fiat 500 at 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, and we achieved 32.7 mpg in mostly-city driving.
The Fiat 500 will likely surprise those who automatically write off front-wheel-drive cars as “ill handling.” Even in non-Sport or non-Abarth trim, the Fiat 500 is remarkably capable, thanks to its small size and light weight. It transitions from left to right like a go kart, and the trick to going fast in a Fiat 500 is preserving momentum. You can carry a lot more speed into a corner than you think, which makes up for the car’s leisurely acceleration. Brake feel is decent, and while the front rotors may look comically small, there isn’t much mass for them to slow down. Finally, steering is a bit on the light side, but those opting for non-sporting Fiat 500 models probably won’t notice.
2012 Fiat 500C Pop Cabrio
Fiat supplied the 500C Pop Cabrio for our evaluation. Base price was $20,000, including a destination charge of $500, and our press fleet tester came sans options.
For comparative purposes, a similarly equipped MINI Cooper convertible would sticker at $27,150, including White Silver Metallic paint and the two-tone interior.