2012 Fiat 500C Cabrio: First Drive Page 2

May 20, 2011

Aside from a rear trunk-lid where there had been a full hatch, and the cloth roof covering--available in black, beige, or red--that wrapped down and around the glass rear window, there's little to identify the drop-top against the entire missing upper section of the Beetle and Mini.

The contrasting roof colors, if you spec your 500C that way, make the Cabrio distinctive. But if you get a black rollback roof on a black car, we bet virtually no one notices that it's a Cabrio. They'll just register that it's a 2012 Fiat 500.

And, boy, will they notice. And point.  And stare. And take photos.

Small engine, high revs

The main thing to know about driving the 2012 Fiat 500C is that you have to rev the 1.4-liter engine to get any power out of it. Italian engines stereotypically generate power only at the high end of their ranges, and this one doesn't put out any appreciable oomph until it's past 2500 rpm.

That's fine, if you know the drill and make sure to stay one gear lower than you might expect to be in another car. The five-speed manual transmission (offered only on the lower-line Pop model) lets you adjust the gears, and you'll soon learn to downshift if there's even a hint of a need for power.

2012 Fiat 500 live photos. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

2012 Fiat 500 live photos. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

Enlarge Photo

In the six-speed automatic, however, any demand a driver makes for rapid acceleration produces not one, but two downshifts before the little engine generates enough juice to move this minicar out of harm's way.

The handling is tight and sharp, though if you enter a turn too fast, the Fiat 500 behaves like a standard front-wheel-drive car, plowing through the corner until you lift off and let it correct its line.

Admirably, the soft-top model is only 53 pounds heavier than a comparably equipped hatchback, so there's little if any perceptible difference in the handling between the two body styles.

Feels wider than it is

The 500 is quite deceptive when you try to assess how big it is, or how much space it has inside. Somehow the shoulder room appears to be the widest part of the car, almost as if it's rowboat-shaped, with the front and rear narrowing behind the front passengers' seats.

The dashboard is deepest and tallest at the center, with the ends receding both vertically and in depth to meet the windshield pillars.

And it's not until you look at things like the sun visors (small), the hazard-warning light button (ornate, but tiny)--even the dash-top plastic molding--that you realize just how small the 500C really is.

Which is good, since it disguises the small size that may make many Americans reject it out of hand.

Well screwed-together

Our 500C prototypes were well screwed together, on the whole. One possibly had a flaky cruise control, and another had an early howling sound that went away as it warmed up. But we didn't experience any of the squeaks, creaks, or groans that even much pricier convertibles exhibit.

2012 Fiat 500

2012 Fiat 500

Enlarge Photo

And in terms of rigidity, the 2012 Fiat 500C is light-years away from the flexible 2011 Volvo C70 we tested earlier. That car's front and rear sections seemed to move in different directions going over angled railroad tracks, whereas the 500C felt rock-solid and all of a piece no matter what we did to it.

Fiat says the 500 Cabrio is 70 percent stiffer and 40 percent quieter than its nearest competitors, the Mini Cooper Convertible and VW Beetle Cabriolet. We don't doubt it.

It's also remarkably quiet with the top in the halfway rolled-down position, and hushed enough with the top up for a conference call on a mobile phone to be completed without any interference. And not every cloth-top car sold in the U.S. can say that.

Rear three-quarter vision: large blind spot

The Fiat 500C Cabrio has the same seven airbags as the hatchback, and its structure is relatively little changed.

To maintain structural stiffness, the 500C has reinforcements in the header rail above the windshield, the rear wheel wells, and the rear shelf area above the trunk--which is all new and replaces the wide opening offered by the hatchback in the same place.

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