2012 Fiat 500c

Photo Courtesy of Ian Merritt, Cars.com

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As fortune would have it, the 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio came to me for review one year to the day after I handed my vintage Fiat Spider convertible over to its new owner. That's right: I owned a Fiat, for 11 years. That might make me a Fiat expert. Or possibly just a moron.

Upon the hardtop 500's introduction, Kelsey Mays published a full review, which allows me to focus on the Cabrio convertible version and give my first impressions of the modern Fiat.

I have my doubts about the 2012 Fiat 500, but I have no doubt about the Cabrio version: It isn't worth the extra $4,000 you'd pay for it.

Not a True Convertible

First off, the Cabrio isn't a true convertible. All its pillars are fixed, and the powered soft-top slides back along the roof's side rails, fan-folding, leaving the glass rear window raised when in its default open position. As you'd expect, occupants aren't as exposed to the open air as they would be in a full convertible. Pressing the roof button a second time runs the top down between the C-pillars and drops the rear window flat. This opens things up further, but it's best appreciated by backseat passengers.

To provide some background, when I briefly drove a hardtop Fiat 500, I struggled with the seating position. The driver's seat's bottom cushion has an uptilt in the front that I found uncomfortable, and like most cars nowadays there's no means of adjusting its tilt. It was particularly problematic because that car was a manual, and the cushion fought back against my leg when I operated the clutch. I'd hoped the automatic Cabrio test car would be more accommodating.

The 500c's seat was equally oddly pitched and awkward, and the only way I could achieve marginal comfort was by jacking the seat height lever as high as it would go. Even then, I sat with my arms straight out in front of me because the steering wheel doesn't telescope and, though it tilts, it doesn't come down as far as I needed. Having done my best, I then looked up to find the rearview mirror blocking my forward view. Down the seat went, along with whatever concessions the 500 had made for my comfort. I was then sitting with my elbows locked and my arms extended and parallel to the ground. But at least I could see again. Sort of.

Even when the top is raised, the side and rear pillars are quite thick, frustrating attempts to check blind spots over either shoulder. When the roof is lowered to its bottommost position, the folded top sits so high it blocks the rear view, both in the rearview mirror and when looking back directly. Someone of my height (6 feet tall) is arguably in the best position to see over the folded top, but as I explained, I couldn't sit as high as I wanted to without blocking the forward view.

As if the problem couldn't get worse, our test car had an optional navigation system in the form of a portable TomTom, whose cradle mounted into a port atop the dashboard, powering it. I like the idea of portables as factory or dealer options as an alternative to in-dash systems. They're cheaper ($400 in this case, which includes the integration), they can be shared among other cars, and they're easily updated or replaced. (Expensive in-dash systems can receive map updates, but the technology itself ages quickly, and the feature consistently depreciates in the used-car market faster than its host vehicle.)

Having established that … for the love of all that's holy, did I really need another impediment to seeing out of this car? The TomTom is down low and the rearview mirror is up high, and it feels like the A-Team has plated the car with steel in anticipation of a barrage of gunfire, leaving me just a slot to look through. You're better off buying a portable navigation unit separately and positioning it someplace reasonable with a suction-cup mount.

Do I Hate This Car?

Let me interrupt this tirade to express some of the 500c's positive aspects: It's small, and I'm a fan of small. (To emphasize, my discomfort in the 500 isn't about its size; it's about the lack of two features: a seat-cushion adjustment and a telescoping steering wheel. One of our shorter editors had no complaints.) You can turn a tight circle and park in small spaces, and the higher seating position (visibility issues notwithstanding) makes it easier to navigate tight spaces than it is in the Mini Cooper. Speaking of its main competitor, the 500's ride is much softer and more livable than the Cooper's, though I find the Mini's handling superior. The 500's higher center of gravity doesn't give it the Cooper's grounded dynamics. The Cabrio's roof-and-pillar structure provide a rigidity you seldom find in a full convertible, but the 500c's dynamics and limited power make it irrelevant.

Oh, right, I was listing the positive. The optional leather in our test car — the higher trim level, called Lounge — was beautiful, elevating and possibly outclassing the entire interior, with which I had other issues … but right now we're praising.

Many people love the 500's look. Admirers on sidewalks and in other cars expressed their appreciation. I hesitate to draw long-term conclusions based on this, however, because I've witnessed the same phenomenon with lots of cars, and it doesn't always represent staying power.

Cabrio Compromises

Characteristic of convertibles, the Cabrio weighs more than the hardtop, but in this case it's only by 53 pounds — mainly because it's not a full convertible, so less roof hardware and structural reinforcement is required. All the same, our 500c was none too quick. Being the Lounge trim level, it came standard with a six-speed automatic transmission, which is optional on the base trim level, called Pop. The 500c's 1.4-liter four-cylinder has its work cut out for it. While the entry-level 500 is no rocket to begin with, the automatic Cabrio Lounge takes more than 11 seconds to hit 60 mph.

Even worse, the transmission shifts harder than I've come to expect from a modern, electronically controlled automatic. It behaves a bit better in Sport mode, but that's mainly because it shifts less frequently, not less harshly, in comparable driving cycles. The more efficient option is the default Drive mode, which delivers an EPA-estimated 27/32 mpg city/highway, sacrificing 2 mpg highway versus the hardtop 500 automatic. The five-speed manual, available in the Pop trim level, provides the same mileage in either body style: 30/38 mpg.

The Cabrio sacrifices almost no cabin space to the hardtop, with 0.3 inches less front-seat headroom and 0.6 inches less backseat hip room. It even exceeds the hardtop's backseat headroom by more than an inch, but legroom is far from generous. This also affects how the 500 accommodates child-safety seats.

The cargo space doesn't come away unscathed. The Cabrio's trunk is 5.4 cubic feet, and though it has folding rear seats, like the hardtop, it can't compare to the 9.5 cubic feet behind the hatchback's backseat and the usability of a full liftgate.

The Sum of Its Flaws

Sometimes lots of little problems add up to one big red light, and in time the 500 Cabrio had me seeing red. In addition to my earlier complaints, the audio ports are in the glove compartment. That's a reasonable place for a USB/iPod connection, but if you use the analog jack, you have to close the door on the cord because there's no provision for passing it out. The plastic at the center of the steering wheels of both test cars had begun to wear and fog up after too-few months and miles. And I had a heck of a time telling the difference among the three buttons on the keyless remote — not a common problem.

Not 'Feelin' It'

I'm obviously not "feelin' it" with this car, as the kids say. I'm willing to entertain the possibility that I'm suffering an unlikely collection of personal annoyances with the 500 in general, but I don't see the Cabrio version's value for any buyer. It costs $4,000 more than the hardtop for what is essentially a panoramic sunroof. One downside is it doesn't provide the light of a panoramic glass moonroof unless you open it. The Mini Cooper Convertible does the same trick, opening only a couple of feet, but it can also be lowered completely, like a conventional ragtop. It costs $5,450 more than the base Cooper. In Fiat's defense, however, the 500 Cabrio is priced the same as the hardtop 2012 Cooper: $19,500. Minis aren't the affordable runabouts they once were.

Safety

As of this writing, neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had crash-tested the 500 or 500c. Because it retains its roof rails, unlike a real convertible, the Cabrio has side curtain airbags just like the hardtop. There are seven airbags total, the odd one being a driver's knee airbag. Standard safety features include seven airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system.

Fiat 500 in the Market

The Cars.com reviewer's philosophy is, "You like, you buy." We help you decide if a car is right for you, and whether anyone else buys it or not is irrelevant. I hope I've done that. As a onetime owner of a Fiat from the company's earlier run at the U.S. market, I'm compelled to register my skepticism about whether the Italian company will make a significant dent this time around, regardless of its association with a resurgent Chrysler Group. In the current market, the allure is unclear.

International automotive executives get so caught up in romanticizing iconic cars that sometimes they forget icons are geographically specific. The Volkswagen New Beetle owes much of its success to having been an icon in the U.S. Unlike the original Beetle, the Mini Cooper and Fiat Cinquecento (500) were "people's car" icons only overseas. Without nostalgia to lean on, cars have to inspire on their own merit.

The Mini Cooper has done so — first with style and then with a singular drivability. It succeeded in doing what the initially intriguing but terribly flawed Smart ForTwo failed to do: make shoppers into believers during the test drive — shoppers including men who might have seen the Mini as a car for women. Can the Fiat 500 cross that same bridge?

The 500's edge over the Cooper is a base price of $15,500, a realm Mini abandoned years ago. But how about the rest of the market? I believe the demand for small, efficient cars is overestimated. But people who do want small cars can now pay less for a subcompact that provides more space than the 500 and has comparable or better gas mileage. The Hyundai Accent hatchback, for example, starts at $14,595 and gets 30/40 mpg.

What advantages does that leave a car like the Fiat 500? The ability to park in small spaces? The styling statement? Can these attributes carry a car model? Even here, I have my doubts. The Mini Cooper's newness has faded, but I still find it cute, like a bulldog. I thought our "Espresso" brown 500c was about as cute as a potato bug. But that's one man's opinion.

Apart from the never-ending repairs my 1979 Fiat Spider demanded, I'm surprised by how much I miss it. We don't have a read on the 2012 Fiat 500's reliability yet, but it must be better than a Spider's was, even when it was new. That's good. But now that this latter-day Fiat convertible has left my hands, I don't miss it at all.

Snapshot:

Starting MSRP $19,500–$23,500

MPG

City: 27 – 30

Highway: 32 – 38

Available Engines

101-hp, 1.4-liter I-4 (premium)

Transmissions

5-speed manual w/OD and auto-manual

6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual

5-speed manual w/OD

New or Notable

• Fiat's first U.S. model since the 1980s

• Two-door hatchback sold globally

• Available cloth-top 500c

• Seats four

• Sold at Chrysler dealerships

• Similar in size to Mini Cooper

What We Like

• Well-equipped base model

• Ride quality

• Braking

• City-friendly turning circle

• Distinctive styling

• Three years' complimentary maintenance

What We Don't

• Front-seat comfort

 
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