Posted by Clifford Atiyeh at Boston.com
NEW YORK — Surprisingly few people noticed the flock of Fiat 500 Cabriolets buzzing through Manhattan’s SoHo district during the car’s media introduction this month. Blame it on the car-averse, seen-it-all nature of most New Yorkers. But take the cute 500 to any other American town and it’ll stick out like a fire hydrant in the middle of the Antarctic. It’s way out of its element, but you might end up wanting one.
Fiat thinks the 500 can lure a new generation of singles and young couples who lapped up Volkswagen New Beetles and Mini Coopers. After a 27-year absence, Fiat has barely carved a name here — the first of four Massachusetts dealers opened in March — but this stubby car has a good chance. While mammoth crossovers and SUVs pack our roads, Americans have always found a soft spot for European hatchbacks with mildly zany personalities, no matter the price of gas.
And before anyone gets smart on me, know that Fiat isn’t repeating the American failure of the ForTwo microcar. Despite being less than 12 feet long and as wide as my arm span, the 500 sports another cylinder, two more seatbelts, and the actual semblance of an automobile.
The 500 Cabriolet is identical to the new hardtop, save for a spiffy, folding curtain that slides along the side rails like the original 1957 “Cinquecento.” This design keeps the pillars and roof structure intact so the body doesn’t flex and rattle. With the top back and the windows lowered, the Fiat looks like a slim handbag with big grab handles. So it’s a safe idea not to bring the 500C within 500 feet of Fenway Park, or else you’ll find a bunch of drunks pitching it off the curb.
The electric top has preset stop points; two easy buttons above the rear view mirror let the driver open the roof as much or as little as desired. Where Porsche Boxster drivers panic and pull over for dark clouds, Fiat owners can seal the roof in seconds at up to 60 mph. Through the foggy, rain-soaked Taconic Parkway north of the city — and the patchy, unpredictable storms hitting the Northeast all May — this proved to be an incredible advantage no other convertible can match.
A folding deflector screen on the edge of the windshield — like the fancy metal flap on the Mercedes E Cabriolet — minimizes buffeting at higher speeds, and the thick, lined fabric quiets the interior without exposing any of the top’s bars and hinges. The only hard time you’ll have is seeing out back with the roof fully retracted, since the glass rear window has to fold accordion-style behind the seats.
That Fiat has nearly perfected this power top speaks volumes about the car’s value for its $20,000 base price. Bluetooth, rear parking sensors, trip computer, power windows, heated mirrors, and locks come standard. My Pop trim was fitted with 15-inch alloy wheels, red checkered body graphics, and a Bose audio system with satellite radio for $22,149 with destination. Sure, it’s a big price for a small car, but if that’s your game, I’ve got an ugly Nissan Versa hatch with your name on it.
While one of the lightest new vehicles on sale, the 500 packs the weight where it counts. Pillars are thick and doors slam with a reassuring “thump.” A driver’s knee airbag, as well as side curtain airbags, come standard. All the switchgear — and the five-speed manual shifter — feels substantial. Unfortunately, the fuel-efficient manual (rated at 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) isn’t available on the more expensive Lounge trim, which comes with a six-speed automatic and a draining 27/32 EPA rating.
The two-tone seats, with their circular headrests, are less fun to sit in than to look at. Even with a height adjustment for the driver, the seating position is too tall, and there is little side bolstering and no lumbar support. Hard plastics and the placement of window switches on the dash mar the attractive interior, and while some drivers may get confused with the concentric gauges (the tach is placed within the speedometer), it’s a far more livable style than the Mini’s Salvador Dali-inspired cockpit.
But the 500 is also unlike the Mini where it really counts: performance. There’s only 101 horsepower and 98 lb.-ft. under the Fiat’s belt, and while this is acceptable around the city, it’s a gear-changing prayer on the highway and on winding back roads. Any incline, no matter how slight, strains this 1.4-liter motor, so quite often it’s best to run in fourth gear and forget fuel economy. The skinny tires and slow steering don’t match the Fiat’s dart-like profile, either. A sportier Abarth version with about 170 horsepower is due next year. But all the 500 needs to feel safer on faster roads is about 30 more ponies.