Saturday, July 16, 2011


Outside of football season, I rarely make predictions. I can kid myself that I may know something about picking winners of college football games, but I can’t convince myself I know enough about anything else to get a peek into the future.
But I am going to make an exception here.
I think the new model the Italian automaker Fiat is bringing to the U.S. market -- the 500 and 500 Cabrio (or 500c) -- is going to be one popular Italian export. Well, maybe not as big as pizza and Sophia Loren, but a hit nonetheless.
I base that opinion on the feedback I heard during the recent “Topless in Miami” event sponsored by the Southern Automotive Media Association. (Full disclosure here; I am the group’s president.)
Convertibles lined up at Topless in Miami
The members who gathered at the Ritz-Carlton resort on Key Biscayne to rate the best convertibles on the market today thought enough of the 2012 Fiat 500c to score it the winner of the Small Convertible competition, a class that included the popular Mini Cooper S and Mazda’s iconic MX-5 Miata.
They liked its styling and the fun one had getting behind its wheel, if even for just a few minutes. 
Later, I had the opportunity to drive it for a week, and that time confirmed their judgment. The Fiat 500c can add fun to many of  the daily driving chores we face every day, like commuting to work and back, making a grocery run, and simply popping out in the evening for dinner.
The new 500c (and its hatchback cousin, the plain-old 500) marks Fiat’s return to the U.S. market after an absence of over a quarter of a century. It is the first of three models Fiat plans to introduce to these shores since it acquired a controlling interest in Chrysler in 2009.
With its sub-compact lineup, Fiat will be a valuable asset for the company when it comes to meeting to meeting CAFE standards set down by a government that seems intent on raising fleet mileage requirements on a whim.
But let’s get back to the car.
This is a small vehicle -- on U.S. roads, only the Smart ForTwo is smaller -- and there are the customary drawbacks that come with diminutive size. The back seat is miniscule and probably is better used for cargo space as the there is only 5.4 cubic feet of stowage area behind it.
But the front seat has surprising legroom (though taller folks may find the headroom to be spare), and I didn’t get a cramped feeling or feel dwarfed by other vehicles on the road.
Even though it is less than 140 inches long with a wheelbase of under 91 inches, the 500c comes with a 1.4-cylinder four-cylinder engine. Frankly, I might have expected only three under the tiny hood.
That engine pumps out only 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, so even with its relatively light curb weight of under 2,500 pounds, it doesn’t provide a lot of pop in performance.
I was told the five-speed manual transmission provides a little more lively response, but both at the one-day “Topless” event and the following week I had only the six-speed automatic transmission at my disposal. You can select gears manually with the automatic, but really, what’s the point?
The mileage figures could be better. With the automatic, the 500c is rated at 27 miles per gallon city, 32 highway. The manual tranny improves those numbers to a more respectable 30/38.
Oh. And premium fuel is recommended, though 87 octane is acceptable, according to the company.
With the lack of power, much of the fun of the 500c lies in going al fresco. Push a button and the cloth top slides along the side arches of the roof support to the level of the rear spoiler. Push it again and the top continues to slide backward, folding behind the rear-seat headrests.
The top also can be stopped at any point along the way, making the exposure more of a moonroof (or sunroof, your pick) than a true convertible.
There is one problem when the top is completely retracted, however. The folds of the cloth completely block the view to the rear, meaning the driver has to rely completely on the side mirrors to monitor surrounding traffic.
There’s no problem when the top is closed. The glass backlight provides in the retractable soft top provides the same view as one gets with the rear window of the hatchback.
As distinctive as the 500c’s exterior profile is, its cabin also is unique. The dash has a lean and uncluttered look with no knobs protruding from the smooth surfaces. Everything in the way of audio and climate control is accomplished by pushing a button. Actually, you push only part of a large button that is sectioned off to denote various functions.
One thing I did find odd. When the car was delivered, the radio was off, which isn’t all that unusual. I found out why later. After my first drive, I didn’t find it unusual that the radio remained on after I turned off the ignition. Other models operate that way with the radio going off after a short time or when the driver’s side door is opened.
In the 500c’s case, however, I found the radio still going when I returned some time later. I made sure I turned it off after that. (I emailed the company with a question about this but am still awaiting the answer.)
Those idiosyncrasies aside, I had no other real issues. The 500c (or 500 hatchback, which has a base MSRP some $4,000 under the cabrio’s $19,500 starting point) is a must-see for someone in the market for a second family car, or it would serve equally well as basic transportation for a single person living in a crowded urban environment with its ability to slide into cramped spaces.

Wait. There is one more thing. That’s the matter of having to put up with comments from bystanders about how “cute” the 500c is. I can’t stand that.

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