Fiat 500 C
Keep your cool in Fiat's latest roof-less wonder
Sunday 05 July 2009
It's 29 degrees in the shade as I write this. All the windows are open and the family hounds are flaked out. But we British love the sun, presumably because we see less of it than more southerly-based Europeans who are more sensible than us about staying in the shade.
How fortuitous, then, that Fiat has chosen to launch the open version of its ultra-trendy 500 in the UK before anywhere else – even Italy. It's because British buyers like open cars more than any other buyers in Europe, and judging by my sunburn it has all worked out beautifully.
The new 500 C looks much like any other 500 from the front. Same from the side, with the standard car's doors and upper cabin framework and just a hint of fabric visible on top. Not so from the back, though; between the roof-sides and what is now a bootlid is a swathe of fabric and a small rear window. It's a faithful recreation of the roof architecture of an original, tiny 500 from 1957, in which the entire roof could be slid back until you were left with a pile of folded fabric and a direct connection to the sun.
So, history has played a part in the new 500 C's convertibility. So has expediency, because there has been no need to re-engineer the 500's structure. And that means the Fiat has been cheap to develop, is cheap to make, and is the lowest-cost route to open-top motoring currently available in a new car. Prices are around £3,000 more than for a 500 hatchback with the same engine and trim level, but part of this is accounted for by the 500 C's higher levels of standard equipment. You can still get into a 500 C for just £11,300.
As you would expect, the roof is more sophisticated than the original 500's. Its rear window is of glass, there's a little spoiler above it which contains the high-level brake light, and folding is achieved by electric motor rather than manual effort. You can open the roof as you approach the Fiat, using the remote control in the key; stop it in various positions; and you can even open or close it while driving, so long as you don't exceed 37mph. And once it's open, you can sense the rush of air without being blown about, thanks to those fixed upper side rails. As with many open cars, you can fit a wind-deflector to stop the backdraught, but here it fits behind the rear seat so its occupants can benefit. Space for people and luggage is virtually the same as in the hatchback, which means four bodies in fair comfort.
Fiat's UK marketing director, Elena Bernadelli, talks of the 500's "mass exclusivity", the paradox between the car's popularity and its individuality. The latter is indulged further in the 500 C, with three new colours, optional soft-leather trim and various new graphics and toys including a blackboard pad for the dash and a make-up holder.
That may be enough for many because, says Ms Bernadelli, so far 70 per cent of 500 owners have bought their cars purely for the way they look. But there's an unexpected discovery upon your first experience behind the wheel. The regular 500 has many charms but an ability to move along a typically broken British backroad with suppleness and decorum is not one of them, so I was prepared for an onslaught of shakes and shudders.
There are practically none. The 500 C rides along the road with a suppleness and ease alien to its steel-roofed sibling, yet it still steers accurately and scoots around corners keenly. It's a miracle and it makes you wonder why all 500s can't be like this. Actually the sporting Abarth version almost is, and so is the Ford Ka which is a cosmetically altered 500. Softer springs and the addition of a rear anti-roll bar are the common factors among the comfy 500s.
You can have bigger 16-inch wheels and a "sport" – that is, more resistant – steering setting, which I sampled in a Lounge model with a lively 100bhp, 1.4-litre engine, but I preferred the cheaper 1.2 in Pop trim. It's fast enough, more comfortable, steers more naturally and still has all the equipment you could need, including air-conditioning. A 1.3-litre diesel is also offered.
So, that's the excellent new Fiat 500 C, the cheapest and best-value convertible you can buy.
Time for an ice-cream now, I think.
Citroën C3 Pluriel 1.4 Côte d'Azur: £13,795
Shades of the CV, the roof resembles Fiat's but the side rails are removable, to the detriment of structural integrity. Intriguing, versatile but flawed.
Mini Cooper 1.6: from £15,995
Much more power than Fiat. Electric fabric roof, a hopeless view aft with the roof down. Feels like a little sports car but it's an expensive toy.
Nissan Micra C+C 1.4 Visia: £13,550
The cheapest coupé-cabriolet on the market. It has a folding metal roof, but the design necessitates a big bottom. Surprisingly good to drive.
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