Fiat’s little 500 hit the streets of America earlier this year, and the cute compact is already getting lots of buzz. With stylish looks, good fuel economy and a price around $20,000 or less, many people have already embraced it judging from the number of cars I’ve seen on the road.
Now, Fiat has upped the cuteness factor with the addition of the 500c, or Cabrio. Utilizing a folding center section, the push of a button slides the top back to let the sun and wind into the car. (You can even raise or lower it at speeds up to 65 miles per hour.)
It’s not a true convertible, as the sides of the roof are still solid metal and remain in place, but there are a couple of advantages to this. First, the folded top is smaller and less complex and therefore doesn’t take up trunk space.
Secondly, the roof surround serves to keep the body stiff and solid. Taking the entire roof off a car typically means that the body is more likely to flex. Auto makers will usually add structural braces to the floor to help in that regard, but even some of the best convertibles jiggle a little when you go over severe bumps.
The simpler, less costly mechanism works well in the Fiat. When the roof’s open you don’t much notice the roof sides still being there, as so much of the car is transformed into an open vehicle. You get lots of wind in the hair and rays shining down.
A little bit of the 500 coupe’s utility has been lost, since there’s no longer a hatch and cargo area. Still, the Cabrio’s trunk is just roomy enough for a weekend’s worth of luggage for two people.
And two people are really all this car is made for. Yes, there’s a back seat, but aside from small children or really small adults, I can’t image anyone riding back there comfortably, especially if tall people are in the front seats. (And yes, tall people fit just fine in those.)
My test of the 500 Cabrio also gave me a chance to sample Fiat’s automatic transmission. When I drove the regular 500 several months ago, it had the standard 5-speed manual gearbox. This 6-speed auto works very well, with no feelings of sluggishness from an engine that makes just a bit over 100 horsepower.
The other surprising thing about the Fiat in general is how smoothly it rides. Many would assume that a car this small would feel choppy when going down the road, but that’s not the case. The wheels are located at the far corners of the car, so the track and wheelbase are actually pretty good and contribute to a remarkably settled ride.
Handling is still very crisp, however. The 500 zips around corners with no drama, and has one of the tightest turning radiuses of any new car you can buy. I was able to easily u-turn on residential streets.
You’ll pay more for a 500 Cabrio than you will for the 500 coupe, obviously. While the latter offers three trim levels, the Cabrio give you a choice of just two. Base is called “Pop” and carries most of the basics for $19,500. The higher-end trim is the “Lounge” and includes the automatic transmission among other little niceties. For that model, base price is $23,500. The example I tested had heated leather seats and came in at just over $25,000.
California is certainly convertible country, and we tend to have the highest gas prices in the continental United States. Add in sometimes tight parking situations plus our desire for style and flair in our rides, and the Fiat 500 Cabrio should be a winner here.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 8 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz