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September 6, 2011 > Auto Review: Fiat 500 C: Move Over, MINI!

Auto Review: Fiat 500 C: Move Over, MINI!

By Steve Schaefer

I've waited a long time for a chance to drive the tiny Fiat 500 (cinquecento in Italian). With Fiat's control of Chrysler, the popular European brand returns to the U.S. for the first time in decades. After a week with a new 500C, I'm very happy to say it was worth the wait. (The C stands for Cabrio - convertible.)

The original 500's were popular in Europe from the 1950's until 1975. Like the VW Beetle and the Mini, it was one of the small cars; the only kind that most people could afford. And, diminutive cars naturally fit better driving on narrow, old streets of European cities. Now, all three of these famous models are enjoying new life in modern form.

Like the MINI, today's Fiat 500 dwarfs the old one, and its 1.4-liter, 101-horsepower engine is much more powerful than the .5 and .6 liter originals. But it's a different world now, and the American road is full of SUVs and midsize sedans. Luckily, the 500 doesn't feel as small as it is when you're behind the wheel, although you can easily reach over and touch the passenger door.

Tooling around in the 500 is lots of fun, especially with the five-speed manual transmission. The little engine (for which premium fuel is recommended) feels peppy off the line, and acceleration up to freeway speeds is fairly robust. I drove for a couple of hours on the freeway during one trip and it was quiet in the cabin and felt stable despite the short wheelbase.

Fuel economy for manual-equipped models is 30 City, 38 Highway-average 33. These are very good numbers for anything that's not a hybrid. The automatic gets about 10 percent lower numbers. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide awards it a score of 5 for Air Pollution but 8 for Greenhouse Gas, so it wins SmartWay designation.

The interior is awash in circles for everything from the gauges to the vents to the dials, knobs, speakers-and even the headrests. The big black ball shift knob has an old-fashioned inscribed gear pattern.

The design is retro but not slavishly so. The original car was pretty basic but this one has lots of style. People asked me for rides to check it out. Yesterday's rider, Rafi, noted that the styling may be better than the MINI's because it is less cartoonish while still being charming. I think he has a good point-and he remembers the look and feel of the original cars.

The 500C offers a convertible top that is essentially a giant cloth sunroof. You can open and close it at up to 50 miles per hour and let the light, sound and scents of the world in. Like all convertibles, this transforms the driving experience. It was a bit breezy on the freeway, but with the solid body sides intact, the car is fairly quiet and feels very solid.

The top opens in two steps, but closes in three. Before the top comes in contact with the windshield header, a button must be depressed-presumably a safety feature. There is no latch since the top is always attached to the sides of the car, open or closed.

The 500, as the standard hardtop or Cabrio, comes as the Pop, Sport or Lounge model; the 500C only as a Pop or Lounge. The Sport adds modified springs, shock tuning, steering calibration and exhaust tuning, as well as more convenience features. The Lounge is the top model, with a six-speed automatic, leather steering wheel, Bose audio system and Bluetooth. You can pick from 14 colors, some of them quite bright, such as Giallo (yellow) and Rosso Brillante (bright red). My tester was Grigio (gray) with a red stripe and Bordeaux top.

It's a small car, but has all the safety features you'd want-plenty of airbags, 4-wheel antilock brakes, and other helpful features, such as Electronic Stability Control, which uses the car's computer to keep all four wheels going where they're supposed to. It may be modeled on a car of the 1950s and 60s but it's a thoroughly modern 2012 model.

Prices start at about $16,000 for the basic Pop hardtop, but my Pop convertible, with a package that added many of the Lounge features, came to about $21,750 with shipping. There are some cheaper small cars but none of them are as much fun to drive or own.

500's, old and new, appeared this year in Cars 2. That, along with advertising and press reports, should help get the Fiat brand back into people's consciousness. Many of those who will be charmed by it will have no memory of either the original tiny cars or the later models' dubious reputation.

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