Cruising along the highway, slightly above the speed limit, the 2012 Fiat 500c Cabriolet bounces around.
With the top fully down (it goes back like a never-ending moon roof), the wind pushes forward, filling your face with hair and forcing you to keep adjusting your sunglasses. The car feels a little unstable over 80 mph, as if every gust of wind wants to push you into a ditch.
So it's not the greatest ride on the open highway. Little cars rarely are. They lack the weight and substance and wheelbase to smooth out the ride.
But the world is changing. While there are plenty of cars ready to handle the open byways of America, few handle the city streets with as much fun as the 500c. It mixes agility, bursts of speed and one of the most friendly exteriors available. People will like you if you're in this car even if you're really not that likable.
So instead of riding against its nature, I decided to test the 500c in the environment for which it is most suited: the city.
It's then that you start to love the 500c. Around town, it's a ball, a touring runabout that would look just as good with a couple of door dings and parallel parking nicks and scratches the little city scars that add character to a vehicle.
The 500c, which many people refer to in Italian as the Cinquecento (and if you're not Italian, you sound like a pretentious imbecille), can zip into that impossible parking space at Eastern Market, make an easy U-turn along Woodward and still feel fun along the way.
Really, this car just makes you smile. People look at you as if you're an exhibit at the zoo, and they are instantly friendly welcoming the little fellow to America. (Though when you first see one, you're half expecting to see 18 clowns jump out of it.)
The 500c has about as distinctive a look as a car can have ? kind of like the "Heidelberg Project" I drove past in Detroit. Either you love its looks or you hate it; at least with the 500c, there are no stuffed animals nailed to it. The 500c only stretches 139.6 inches in length but packs more style per inch than any car available.
The big, round headlights designed to pay homage to the original 500 set the face, which includes a body colored grille that looks more like a crack on an egg shell.
The 500c keeps the shape of the 500 hatchback with that tall, rounded profile. But it adds a taller windshield, which improves visibility and keeps the wind out of your face if the roof is only partially open.
That doesn't take away from the car's open air ride, however. In fact, you can set the unique roof at three different settings. It can act like a wide sunroof, a roofless car or even as a big convertible.
The roof is well-insulated, so when the top is up, the car's ride is very quiet. The roof can be adjusted as the 500c drives down the road, at speeds up to 50 mph. That's another feature traditional convertibles don't offer.
Away with traditions
There just isn't that much about this car that is traditional.
The 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine offers some of the most ingenious technology available. Fiat's Multiair system creates a fully actuated variable valve system that can change individual cylinders intake for the most efficient combustion around.
The system, which will eventually make its way into other Chrysler Group LLC vehicles, provides about a 10 percent improvement in emissions and fuel economy. (Note that when people see this car, many ask if it gets 60 mpg. No, the 500c with a five-speed manual gets 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. The model with a six-speed automatic gets 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.)
But it's that six-speed automatic that deserves a lot of praise. It's excellent, providing a lot of pickup and a smooth ride. I would praise the manual transmission, which I've tested on the coupe, but so few people will buy that model, there's no reason to.
I found the best way to drive the 500c around town was to use the manual override on the automatic and force the car to stay in lower gears until the revs got to at least 5,000 rpm. This gave the 500c a very torquey ride and added the zip that makes this car fun. After the car gets up to good cruising speeds, just flick the gear shifter over to the right and let it do the rest of the driving automatically. It's that easy.
Overall, the ride is a little bumpy, in part because of the car's 90-inch wheelbase and light body it tips the scales at 2,416 pounds. And another feature I found very encouraging was that despite the small 101 horsepower engine, the car stayed peppy even with the air conditioner on full blast, something any convertible driver should be able to appreciate.
But the electric power steering feels nice and tight, and it has a turning circle of 30 feet. On most streets, you can do a U-turn just by turning the wheel. One night, when driving the 500c over to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I was able to turn around on Woodward so tightly, I didn't even go far enough to get into the opposing traffic lane.
Mostly though, I simply relished driving the 500c. Every time I got into it, I liked it a little bit more.
Party in the front
Another reason to like this car is the interior.
While technically people can sit in the second row, no one really wants to sit back there. There's hardly any leg room, the space is cramped, and the seat is uncomfortable. Yes, I fit back there. But I would rather call a cab than ride back there.
But up front, the 500c is fabulous. There is more than 40 inches of legroom and just lots of space. The body colored dash, while made with shiny plastic, looks extremely nice.
There's a toy-like quality to the dash, but it doesn't seem out of place. The lack of actual volume knobs on the stereo was annoying, especially when searching for radio stations, but it's a minor complaint. (Just find the stations you like and use the presets.)
The very top of the dash was the only area that looked and felt cheap, but everything else in the cabin was comfortable and easy to understand.
That's the thing about the 500c. It's certainly not for everyone; it may require a few compromises. You're not going to be able to toss your golf clubs in the trunk (though the seats fold down). And it may not make the best touring companion, but it doesn't have to.
It has a very European feel, but it's right at home in America.
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Overall: *** 1/2
Exterior: Excellent. New look is sleek and modern and pure Dodge.
Interior: Good. Great materials, well designed and intuitive. Lots of high-tech features and more space for everyone.
Performance: Excellent. Powerful engine and available all-wheel drive makes this a car for all seasons.
Pros: Beautiful look, low starting price and great interior make this car an affordable family sedan.
Cons: If you drive it like a race car instead of a family sedan, mileage numbers won?t come close to the EPA numbers.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor