It was inevitable that once Fiat assumed control of Chrysler, we'd see Fiat products back in the U.S. market sooner or later.
It turned out to be sooner, as the tiny Fiat 500 showed up early this year not at Chrysler dealers, but at dedicated Fiat dealers -- some of which also happen to sell Chryslers. To get a Fiat franchise, dealers had to agree to open a separate showroom for the Fiat, with a dedicated sales staff. Most Fiat dealers are doing that now, and the others must eventually. (By the way, Fiat dealerships are called "studios," which seems a bit precious.)
Fiat was requiring dealers to make a substantial investment not so much for the opportunity to sell the 500, but to sell future Fiat products that will arrive in the next decade or so. Fiat turned away far more dealers than it accepted, so even in a down economy, there was plenty of interest.
That Fiat is back at all may seem mildly remarkable to those old enough to remember the last time Fiat was here, selling always-interesting but problematic sporty cars in the 1970s and early 1980s. Rust, electrical problems and traditionally complicated Italian mechanicals earned Fiat the unfortunate "Fix It Again, Tony" nickname. What would Fiat stand for this time around?
Judging from the 500, it could be something much more complimentary. The original 500 debuted in 1957, and like the British Mini Cooper, the 500 developed a loyal and vocal fan club. Essentially following in the Mini's footsteps in the United States, Fiat is hoping the 500 will capture younger buyers looking for something fun and frugal.
And now, Fiat sweetens the pot with the 500c, with "c" standing for cabriolet, or convertible. But rather than make the 500c a traditional convertible, Fiat retained a narrow portion of the roof above both doors, and the cloth top slides back at the touch of a button, folding just above the rear hatch like an accordion. Consequently it doesn't offer the entire, traditional top-down experience, but having the roof rails in place adds to safety and frame rigidity. And Fiat even beefed up the body to add even more stiffness. It all works very well.
Sliding the top back can be done in three stages -– just enough so the opening is like a sunroof; or a little more, so the back seat is also in the sun, or all the way, which means the accordion-fold entirely obscures the rear-view mirror, which is unnerving. When the top is all the way down it also prevents you from opening the small rear hatch, a problem Fiat solved by making the exterior access switch for the rear hatch also activate the top, which automatically moves up enough to let you open the hatch lid. Unfortunately, once you do, there's only 5.4 cubic feet of room back there. At least you can use the rear seat for cargo, because odds are no actual normal-sized human can fit back there.
The 500c comes in two models: The Pop, which starts at $19,500, and the Lounge, which offers a lot more standard equipment such as a six-speed automatic transmission, fog lights, a Bose sound system with Sirius satellite radio and an alarm for the starting price of $23,500. The test car was a Lounge, which was priced at $26,050 after the addition of leather upholstery, heated seats and a couple of other options.
The 500c is a great-looking car inside and out, and we received a startling number of positive comments at gas stations, toll booths and grocery stores, just as we did when the Mini was first re-introduced. But the more expensive Mini is a better car, and much more fun to drive. The Fiat has a tiny 1.4-liter, 101-horsepower four-cylinder engine, which is adequate but not much more, despite the hard-working automatic transmission's efforts to maximize the power that's there. Handling is a little stiff, the ride is choppy -– this car is, after all, seven inches shorter than a Mini Cooper convertible -– but it is never intolerable. Overall quality seems quite good. The 500c is built in the same Mexican plant that used to crank out Chrysler PT Cruisers, and the engine comes from a Chrysler plant in Michigan.
At under $20,000, the base 500c is the cheapest convertible on the market with four seats, and is well worth the money. Optioned out at over $26,000, our 500c is outclassed by the Mini convertible, which starts at about $25,500. That said, Fiat should sell a lot of its 500 and 500c models to customers looking for something a little different -- it's little, all right, and it's certainly different.
2012 Fiat 500c
Base price: $19,500
Price as tested: $26,050
EPA rating: 27 miles per gallon city driving, 32 mpg highway
Engine: 1.4-liter, 101-horsepower four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Length: 139.6 inches
Wheelbase: 90.6 inches
In a nutshell: Lots of fun to look at, less fun to drive
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