Story and photographs by Benjamin Greene
Originally published by Dupont Registry: http://www.dupontregistry.com/autos/NewsCenter/NewsCenterDetails.aspx?mmysid=4071
Fiat is celebrating its return to North America with the 500 (preferred pronunciation is “Cinquecento”), a small city car that will compete directly with the Smart Fortwo and the Aston Martin Cygnet. It is the first Italian automobile offered in North America for less than six figures since Alfa Romeo left our shores in the 90s. The car pays homage to the original 500, which was mass produced from 1957 to 1975 with more than three million examples produced (For comparison, Chevy produced a similar number of Camaros in its first 18 years). Fiat revived the car in 2007, and it has celebrated success with more than 500,000 Fiat 500s sold in more than 80 countries. That’s everywhere in the world except North America, although that has changed with the 2012 Fiat 500 and 500C.
Our test vehicle was the 2012 Fiat 500C Lounge. The “C” stands for Cabrio and Lounge is the more upscale option next to the Pop submodel. Lounge adds, among other things, an automatic transmission as standard and items like chrome trim, side moldings, and 15-inch alloy wheels to better accentuate the exterior design. Not that the exterior design needs any help in grabbing people’s attentions; the Fiat 500C garnished stares and gawkers everywhere it went.
Part of the car's allure is the retractable dual-layer cloth top, which resides between two parallel beams that connect the A-, B-, and C-pillars. As the top retracts, it automatically forms stacks that end in one of two positions: at the top of the rear window or all the way down to the top of the trunk lid. With the top fully open, the stacked fabric blocks the rear view, making the partially retracted option more appealing because of the unobstructed view out the back window. Rear visibility aside, it is an innovative approach to creating an open-top car without sacrificing the structural strength and safety of such a small auto. The top lowers at speeds up to 60 mph but the button is not a one-touch operation and requires constant pressure.
The eccentric styling of the exterior turns to outright Italian flair inside. Our test car was equipped with the ivory and bright red interior that is only available with the Bordeaux convertible top on the 500C. It is an airy and quiet cabin with simple layout and well-organized controls. Compared to the Smart car, it is also better appointed, with premium leather lining the seats and steering wheel. Below the controls is a console-mounted shifter for both automatic- and manual-equipped vehicles.
The instrument cluster is a single large dial with the inside track dedicated to the rpms and the outside track dedicated to speed. Inside the dial is a screen that displays such pertinent information as the remaining fuel and coolant temperature and other secondary information like drive mode, gear, etc. With the top down and under the bright sun, the display is impossible to read, rendering it obsolete. We see this as a real problem if you are unknowingly running low on fuel.
The cabin features upright chairs to better hold four. The backseats can hold two adults; however, we do not recommend it. Not only is legroom at a premium, but once seated, we immediately noticed the rear headrests protrude too far in, causing it to stick into the backs of even our medium-height testers. The backseats do fold flat to provide extra space for luggage. You may need that extra space because the trunk is a small cavity at the back of the car that will get your groceries home but not much more.
The engine is a small 1.4-liter inline-four generating 101 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque. With 2,486 pounds to move, the engine felt wheezy. The benefit to the small engine is efficiency, which, along with maneuverability, is why many people would pluck down money on such a small automobile. Normally, the transmission has a slight impact on the fuel mileage and thus the purchasing decision is more about preference. This is not the case with the Fiat 500. The five-speed manual returns a solid 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway; meanwhile, and even with the extra gear, the automatic returns a less-exemplary 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. Our car was equipped with the automatic transmission, which would be our first choice without knowing the car. But, given the car’s lackluster performance and the difference in fuel economy, we have to think the manual transmission would be the more logical choice.
One thing we did not like was the steering, which required three turns lock-to-lock and felt overboosted and otherwise twitchy. However, its eagerness to turn does make it feel willing to enter corners and its low stance and decently sized tires (all-season 185/55R-15s) help it hug bends.
Mr. duPont, publisher of the duPont REGISTRY, who also owned or still owns (we aren’t sure if he even knows) a Fiat 600 “Jolly,” gave his approval. That may have as much to do with the historical impact of the new car as its quirky styling, unconventional folding top, and the quality of its build and materials. The Fiat 500 stands out for different reasons compared to the other two city cars from Smart and Aston Martin, but the market share is not large enough for a vast number of competitors. Keep in mind, Smart only sold 6,000 Fortwos last year. Asking Americans to limit themselves to such a small automobile is no easy task especially when other competitors, like the Ford Fiesta and Toyota Yaris, offer similar performance with more space for the same money.
101 hp @ 6,500 rpm
98 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
10 seconds (estimated)
110 mph (estimated)
Appealing design, unconventional folding top, and quality materials help it stand out
Will city cars become fashionable in America?