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And while we kvetch about the poor music interface, let's throw in the fact that an actual volume knob is always preferable to buttons. The 500C may show cool retro style with metal door handles, but cars from the '60s generally used dials for volume control, not the plastic buttons on this car's radio faceplate.
As a pleasant surprise, a seven-speaker Bose audio system delivered robust sound inside the 500C. Although not up to audiophile quality, this sound system is very good, and not what you would expect in such a small, inexpensive car. Only available as an option in the high-trim Lounge version of the 500C is a TomTom navigation system, a portable unit integrated with the car interface.
As there seems to be an unwritten rule that all American cars must have more than 100 horsepower, the 500C comes to our shores with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine producing 101 horsepower. This Fiat MultiAir engine replaces the used on the 500 in Europe, which only produces 85 horsepower.
MultiAir engines use Fiat's variable valve timing technology. But the 500C's engine does not benefit from direct injection or other, newer efficiency technologies. As such, it doesn't hit the 40-mpg-highway mark that has become the target of so many other automakers, instead scoring 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway on EPA tests.
With this little engine, the 500C feels underpowered. Hitting the gas creates all the acceleration of a funeral procession. Sprightly is not a word that fits the 500C's performance. But in city traffic, its small amount of power can be mitigated somewhat by low gear work with the five-speed manual transmission.
A six-speed automatic is optionally available, but the five-speed manual feels more appropriate for the style of the car, with a big ball shifter contributing to the retro feel. The shift pattern feels loose, making it easy to find gears. And helping the 500C out immensely in a city such as San Francisco, the car has a hill hold feature, giving you time to put it in gear when stopped on an incline.
On the dashboard, a nicely designed button labeled Sport seems to have little effect, other than causing the word "Sport" to show up on the instrument cluster display.
Using an electric power-steering unit, the 500C's steering wheel feels reasonably engaged, not overboosted. But the car does not exhibit the go-kart handling of the Mini Cooper. Its height makes it feel a little bit tippy in the corners, although its short wheelbase gives it a quick turn-in capability.
The ride quality can feel a bit rough. With such an inexpensive car, the suspension is not going to exhibit much in the way of high-tech equipment. Fiat fits it with a stabilizer bar in front for better handling, but the rear suspension is a simple torsion beam.
The main strength of the 2012 Fiat 500C is its retro design with its power-retracting cloth roof. But its ergonomics are poor considering the ample blind spots and poor rear visibility with the top down. Likewise, the cabin tech interface is a complete mess and is very difficult to operate.
The engine, transmission, and suspension are all about average, although the car earns a boost for its hill hold feature. Electric power-steering is also reasonably well-tuned, and helps the 500C achieve its mid-30s fuel economy.
Cabin tech should be excellent because of Blue&Me, based on the same technology as Ford Sync, but for some reason it did not work as well as it should. Fiat has also not updated this technology as Ford has, so it lacks new audio sources such as Bluetooth audio streaming.
|Model||2012 Fiat 500C|
|Power train||1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||30 mpg city/38 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||30.8 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bose 7-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$21,750|