In the last five years, the small-car market has become a hotly contested battlefield, with combatants such as the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, and Chevy Aveo each trying to gain an edge. But now an Italian enters the fray; the 2012 Fiat 500C comes out swinging, one fist titled style and the other panache.
But style and panache are about all the 500C brings to bear, as its other attributes, from engine to cabin tech, don't outgun the competition. However, its style is a potent weapon, as the car garnered more attention in San Francisco than Cher wearing sequins. People on the street smiled at it, while other drivers leaned over at stoplights to ask about the 500C.
The Fiat name also carries weight, as passersby would register dim memories going back to before the brand's 1984 exit from the U.S. market. A 27-year absence should be enough to erase most negative connotations for the public at large, and at the same time give a sense of longevity to the brand, something relative newcomers such as Kia have had to struggle for.
Fiat chose well with the 500C, and its hardtop compatriot the 500, for re-entering the U.S. market, as this car's retro styling evokes the company's past. As a modern remake of a classic car, the 500C invites comparisons with the modern Mini Cooper. But the similarities only go so far, as the Cooper is technically more advanced while the 500C is much less expensive.
With base prices well below $20,000, the various 500 models compete directly with a field of small cars often featuring boring, pedestrian design. Given equivalent prices, most people will go for the shiny, cool-looking 500 over a plain econo-box.
Take away its sheet-metal contours, and the 500C is really just another boring small car. But there's something brilliant about the curved bubble of the nose, the round inset headlights, and the ridge down the center of the hood, a subtle design that evokes the original 500, and with it, a romanticized, carefree view of Europe in the 1960s.
The 500C variant piles on the style with its roll-back cloth roof. Push a button and that roof pulls back to uncover the heads of the driver and front passenger. Another bump, and the rear-seat passengers can see daylight. One last hit makes the top fall all the way back, bunching up just above the trunk lid. The pillars and window frames remain up around the sides of the car, giving the 500C its retro hook.
With the top bunched up in back, the rearview mirror only shows large cars, such as SUVs. That's coupled with some large blind spots to the sides, only mitigated by the short wheelbase of the 500C.
Taking the Mini Cooper comparison further, the 500C has a unique instrument cluster. But instead of a pie plate in the middle of the dashboard, the car gets a single pod with nested gauges in front of the driver. The outer ring shows speed, the middle ring is the tachometer, and the center is a monochrome display with trip data and infotainment.
Just as Sync has been a success for Ford since its launch in 2007, Fiat's equivalent technology, called Blue&Me and also developed by Microsoft, should be a high point in the 500C. Similar to Sync, Blue&Me includes Bluetooth phone and MP3 player integration, using voice command to place calls and select music.
But for some reason, it did not work that well in the 500C. The phone integration was fine, easily pairing with an iPhone, downloading the phonebook, and allowing dialing by name through voice command. However, music control was much less successful.
Blue&Me is supposed to let you issue voice commands such as "Play artist Led Zeppelin" or "Play album Houses of the Holy," but it completely failed in testing with both an iPhone and a USB drive. It seemed to have difficulty indexing the music from these devices, as it frequently showed such helpful information as "Artist unavailable" on the radio display.
Trying to select music from either device using the car's radio controls was equally a mess. With the single-line radio display and minimal controls, the interface is completely inadequate. Most of the time it would play every song on the device randomly, although it occasionally got stuck on a particular album, and the various buttons on the radio faceplate offer little control.