The idea of a European life suits me well: driving in an edgy, little Italian car though the Italian countryside to find the perfect spot for a picnic of meats, cheeses and olives. Gelato, pasta and fabulous shoes round out the imagery.
The tiny, fun-to-drive 2012 Fiat 500c fits my imaginary Italian life, even if only in my little south Denver burb. Magnifico!
The 500c (the c stands for cabrio) has a cloth rooftop that retracts with the push of a button. The car's pillars stay in place and the cloth top folds like a Roman shade. It's part convertible and part huge sunroof.
While the market of teensy cars is growing at a rapid pace, there are only a few I'd consider to be in direct competition with the Fiat. Well, actually make that one: the Mini Cooper. While the Mini was unique when it first came to the U.S., now every Jane, Dick and Harry owns one, making it much less fun to drive around in than the Fiat, which is new to the U.S. market.
The affordable four-seater — it has a starting MSRP of $19,500 and my test car, a Pop trim level, rang in at $21,750 — has a softer suspension than the Mini, making it tolerable for slightly longer drives. I still wouldn't want to road trip in this bambino, but scooting around town in it is a pleasure. The five-speed manual transmission shifted smoothly. The clutch had a good balance; it felt firm without feeling too heavy.
While driving to brunch one morning in the Fiat, I noticed two Harley-Davidson riders flash the peace sign as they passed each other. Moments later, in the parking lot of my favorite breakfast spot, a Tweety Bird yellow Fiat appeared on the horizon. The yellow Fiat quickly zipped to my Argento silver Fiat's side of the parking lot, with both the driver and passenger waving at me enthusiastically and frantically. It wasn't quite a cool peace-sign flash, but it was an equally welcoming greeting to the Fiat club.
Clearly, the Fiat 500c looks unique enough to be spotted from the far side of a parking lot. It's a nearly indescribable mix of small and adorable yet suave and Euro-chic. Its design appeals to me as well as my husband, meaning it's neither too feminine nor too masculine in the looks department.
The 500c's cloth top is great because it allows all the benefits of a convertible without all the pain. You can open it up by pressing the button and get the sun and fresh air streaming in, yet the kids in the back stay shaded. And everyone in the car also remains insulated from too much wind and accompanying wind noise. At low speeds around town it was nearly silent, but driving at more than 45 mph, I had to play around with the roof's position to limit wind buffeting.
The trunk is positively adorable. It's so cute that I finally understand why so many other cultures refer to it as "the boot." It's little, but it has enough space for a week's worth of groceries or two weekend bags. However, the funny lid opens up at just the right height to bang your head on if you're reaching inside it to get something toward the back.
The 500c has a 101-horsepower, 1.4-liter four-cylinder with a five-speed manual transmission that gets an EPA-estimated 30/38 mpg city/highway. A six-speed automatic transmission, which costs $1,000, is available and gets 27/34 mpg. The 500c uses premium gas.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Not Really
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove-On
The interior of my test Fiat 500c was a little much for me. I loved the Avorio ivory interior accents on the leather steering wheel, leather seating upholstery, and audio and air controls. However, throw in black and silver components to the dash and doors as well as red fabric upholstery and it starts to cross the line from Euro-chic to Euro-trash.
While I loved the look of the ivory-colored audio and air controls, they were plasticky and toylike. The sound quality of the optional Bose stereo system, which is part of the Bose Premium Audio Package ($1,250), made up for controls' cheap feel.
With such a tiny car, there's not much space leftover for storage room and compartments. There are two cupholders in the front row, but they're better used one at a time. Put two Starbucks cups in there at the same time and the lids butt up against one another, making it tough to get one out without the other spilling. There's a little cubby-like space in front of the cupholders to stash a cellphone or the like, and there are two more cupholders for rear passengers.
The driver's seat fit both my hubby and me, but the lack of a telescoping steering wheel mucked up the proportions a bit. It would have been a better fit for me if I could have pulled the steering wheel closer to me.
Small kids have no trouble climbing into the 500c and wiggling their way into the backseat, if an adult helps to fold the front seats forward. The lever to fold the front seat required a bit of muscle to operate. Once in the back, my kids hated this car. The one and only reason was the head restraints that sit in front of the seatback rather than being flush with it. This caused their heads to lean forward at an unnatural angle. After just a few minutes in the Fiat my daughter asked, "How long do have to keep this one?"
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Puny
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair
My only real problem with the 500c had to do with the rear head restraints. While my daughters found them uncomfortable, I found them to be frustrating because they're not removable. Installing a high-back booster seat was a no-go in the 500c. Installing a backless booster seat was an improvement, though the head restraint pushed my daughter's head forward. Is anyone in the house a chiropractor?
My daughter was able to buckle her seat belt easily, thanks to the seat belt buckles on stable bases.
I wouldn't want to install a child-safety seat using the 500c's lower Latch anchors because they were deeply recessed in the seat bight, where the back and bottom cushions meet. Our testers did install child-safety seats in the Fiat 500. See the results here.
The 500c has standard front-wheel drive, all-disc antilock brakes with brake assist, an electronic stability system with traction control, rear parking sensors and seven airbags, including side curtains for both rows and a driver's knee airbag.
Get more safety information about the 2012 Fiat 500c here.