Surprises come in small packages. The Fiat 500C Lounge Cabrio, priced at $22,495 fully loaded, drives like a kart racer and looks like an oversized ladybug. No other car in recent memory elicited quite so many smiles. People stopped, pointed, looked perplexed, and even laughed when we drove by, in a good way.
“Is that a Buick?” asked one confused bystander.
Not quite. One of the most popular European cars — the Italian automaker can’t piece the cars together fast enough — the Fiat 500 is a hard-top precursor with similar specs. On the 500C, the top folds back toward the boot with the press of a button. Curiously, you can fold most of the top back while driving but if you keep pushing the button the canvas will retract back behind the rear passengers. Once you pull it back that far, you can’t push the button again until you come to a stop.
Wide open, the 500C is a joy to drive. The open-air seating gives each passenger a little extra room to move around. Still, let’s be honest: you have to fold yourself into this bug. At just under 12 feet long and five feet tall (and wide), the 500C looks has a slight clown-car look, but one that gets attention. The styling is risky: No other car quite looks the same, and you will probably do a double take at first. Really? That small, that low, that narrow? There are several ornamental features: bulbous real taillights, 15-inch aluminum wheels, and 14 color choices. The 500C has a perky front with an angular bottom-to-top slant that’s highly unique.
Inside, the leather seats and cacophony of dials and buttons also suggest that a designer was throwing out the rulebook. Some of the interior controls are perplexing. When you connect an iPhone to the USB port in the glove box, you have to press a button on the under-side of the steering wheel on the left – something Chrysler (Fiat is a majority owner) obviously requested since it is a standard option on most of their cars. You scroll a few times to get to the USB options and then finally see the artist menu. Interestingly, there’s an option to play any random song that works the next time you start driving. Volume controls are on the right side behind the steering wheel, and most dash controls are a bit confusing at first.
Of course, few drivers will notice that awkwardness – this is a car that makes driving fun again. Unlike the Mini Cooper, you feel a sense of road abandonment – careening around corners at insanely high speeds, roaring up hillsides, zig-zagging through traffic. The Cooper provides a similar thrill, and so does the Volvo C30, but the Fiat 500C is closer to a kart-racing experience.
The good news is that you won’t feel every bump, and corners are not grueling. The vehicle is fun to drive, but provides a good highway experience as well; there’s none of the typical rattling on small cars, and taking a corner at 65 does not make you want to slow down. That’s quite an accomplishment right there.
The Fiat 500C weighs just 2,434 pounds, which is rather light even compared to other small cars. During a test on a windy day, the cruise control would actually disengage after a wind gust, or struggle to maintain a consistent speed. Uphill climbs were also a bit interesting, as the 101 horsepower, 1.4-liter engine, which has just under 100 lb-ft. of torque, struggled to make the ascent. No matter. This urban transport is still a blast, even if you won’t win any drag races.
Fuel economy is not a high point. We just recently drove the Chevy Cruz Eco and clocked in at about 42mpg on the highway over a long haul. There was plenty of room for suitcases and laptop bags. After the drive, we could still feel our legs.
The Fiat 500C gets just 27mpg city and 32mpg on the highway – not that spectacular for a car this small. While not exactly sipping fuel, we were impressed with the fact that the 500C gets good gas mileage in traffic and around a downtown area while the Cruz Eco, in similar conditions, would get only about 16 to 20mpg.
In terms of safety, the 500C is surprisingly safe. There are seven airbags and an electronic stability control system that reduces the likelihood of a roll. Passengers in the back are seated right next to the trunk (which can only carry a couple of small duffel bags) and the doors look quite thin. Still, Fiat used re-enforced metal for the rear compartment to gain a high 5-star crash test rating.
Tech features are here, but not plentiful. The 500C uses Fiat’s Blue&Me technology for handling calls – we had no problems connecting and using an iPhone 4. However, the Fiat 500C did not let us stream songs over Bluetooth.
The Bose sound system tested out better than expected for a small car with a good thumping bass and clear fidelity, even if it can’t compare to any of sound systems in recent Audi, Mercedes, or even Chevy vehicles. It’s not that loud, and the audio tends to bounce around in the small cab. We also had a hard time seeing the dash controls on sunny days trying to select songs. Some of the interior lights also looked a little dim, especially the one that indicates you have pressed the seat warmer button.
Most of the debate about this vehicle — and there is debate, almost any time there is anything written about the car — centers on the price. It’s fairly obvious that people have one of two opinions about the Fiat 500: It’s either too expensive or not expensive enough. The Mini Cooper Convertible costs about $3,000 more and has a 121-horsepower turbocharged engine . It’s punchy, fun, and gets better gas mileage. The Mini Cooper S Convertible costs $6,000 more than the 500C.
Is that a major problem? Not really. There are thousands of Mini Coopers on the road but not many Fiat 500C cabrios. This model is actually the cheapest convertible on the road. Handling was exceptional even if the acceleration was tame. The primary buyer for this car is someone looking for a unique small car design, who enjoys driving, and who wants to zip in and out of traffic. Sure, you won’t have room for any gear. True, the engine is a bit underpowered. Whether the price fits your budget depends mostly on how much you want to stand out.