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.
The Fiat 500C leads to silly posing with espresso cups.
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.
The rear seat offers room for two, people or dogs.
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.
The radio interface isn't adequate for music selection, and voice command works poorly.
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.
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.
The instrument cluster display helps when operating a Bluetooth phone or MP3 player.
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.
This Sport button seemed to have little effect on the 500C's performance.
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|