Small cars are one of my weaknesses. I love how they tend to be light, fun to drive and usually look cool too. Convertibles are my other weakness. I’ve always said that if a car is available with a folding roof, that’s the version I’ll take. All this is good and well but we don’t really see a combination of the two that often. Well, besides the subject of this article.
A few years ago Fiat gave us their reincarnated cinquecento or 500, and it was an instant hit. I remember referring to it as a handbag. It’s small, cute and true to the original version. And recently, Fiat released the 500C; the soft-top version, and boy oh boy did this handbag just climb up a few notches on my cool list! Still staying true to the original, the 500C is available with ultra-retro finishes and a driving experience which takes you back a few decades and makes everything al fresco. I’ll start with the looks.
The 500C is almost a carbon copy of the 1957 original (think of Luigi in Cars), and in the same vein as the new MINI, the new 500 models are excellent replacements for their iconic parents, and not only because they look almost the same. The 500C I drove was painted in primer grey and had a maroon fabric top. And if I am honest, it was stunning! Inside, you get funky seats which are very comfortable, a pod-style instrument layout and a body-matching dashboard panel. Other panels and finishes are in a porcelain white colour and dark grey.
Sitting in the 500C was never boring. Switches are all easy to find and use, although the multifunction setup with integrated steering controls is a little weird and takes a lot of getting used to (it’s been developed with Microsoft, so that explains it). The steering wheel is a joy to stare at and is a great communication tool between your fingertips and the road. The audio system is really good, especially with the top down, and having USB integration means you can plug ‘n play ‘n go.
Rear-seat comfort is on the MINI side of cramped, although you will find some compromise for a short trip around town. Headroom all round with the roof up is fine, although extra-tall passengers, if they’ve actually managed to sit in the back, will probably mess up their hairdo on the roof. Speaking of which, the fabric and glass arrangement is very neatly done. Operated via two buttons above the rear-view mirror, one touch starts a completely silent folding exercise which takes the fabric all the way back, creating a full-length opening. Thankfully a wind deflector pops up when the roof is opened, and fiddling with this changes how the wind moves around the cabin.
Pushing the button again lowers the roof all the way down to the boot lid, like the MINI Cooper convertible. Not only does it stack neatly but the rear windows does a sort of back flip to store nicely “between the sheets”, and what was the roof-mounted third brake light now becomes a boot-mounted brake light. Boot space, which is decent for a car of this size, is not affected at all and although now your rear-view mirror is full of roof and a little more wind blows through your hair, I couldn’t fault the setup. Well, except when those rear passengers were also exposed to the elements – they didn’t like me much after a short drive (make sure to order the optional wind-stop). Operational up to 60km/h, the roof is easily this car’s best attribute and also my favourite bit.
I also fell in love with the 500C’s character. It may sound like I’ve lost my marbles and many people wouldn’t be able to do the same, but I really immersed myself in the whole concept and idea behind the 500C, both in terms of this modern version and its wheezy dad. You can actually hear and feel how the original has been incorporated into the new car. I could even hear the old car’s bubbly engine sound in the lively hum coming from the four-cylinder engine in the 500C, which is the same unit found in the Fiat Panda 100HP. That puts out a decent 74 kW of power and 131Nm of torque, which in a car that weighs around 970 kg, is fine.
The engine revs freely and power is right at the top (6000 rpm), so you really can wring its neck when you feel like a little fun and drama. Low-down torque is enough and I never had a problem with “not enough power” – the 500C cruises effortlessly. Sure, 11 seconds to 100 km/h isn’t something you shout about, but in a car like this, you never care. Top speed is a claimed 182 km/h.
A rather small 35-litre fuel tank (which is of course completely understandable) means you tend to fill up more often than usual, but that said I managed to get some more-than pleasing figures between tanks, with my average consumption hovering between 6- and 7 litres per hundred (remember, I like fun and drama). Service intervals on the engine are simply astounding, with your favourite greasy technician only needing a visit every 30 000km (and the first three are covered by a standard service plan). Fiat hasn’t enjoyed the best ratings in years gone by but I can promise you, things have changed!
Safety-wise, the 500C is touted as the first car in the world shorter than four metres to receive five Euro-NCAP safety stars. If you don’t know what I’m on about, it means it’s one of the safest cars in the world (size doesn’t count, for once). Seven airbags (there’s even one for your knee) are on standby along with the usual ABS and EBD, and there’s ESP traction control, too. “Boutique” cars like the 500C always tend to be overpriced. But for R200 080 at the time of writing, the 500C waddles into the park with a smirk like that of Luigi’s. Fiat even lowered its prices recently, and when last did anybody do that?
Similar funky competitors include the MINI Cooper convertible (for R80 000 more – forget about it), Citroen’s DS3 1.6 VTi (which as you know, I love), the VW CrossPolo, KIA’s Soul and the Renault Twingo RS. I would take the Citroen if the subject of my ramblings was a hardtop, but as the 500C is the only car in this paragraph with a soft-top, it wins for me, hands down! I absolutely love the idea, the looks, the feel and that roof. It’s a job extremely well done, and there’s a pumped-up Abarth version (Google it) on the way, so there’s no doubt that the giddy smile this car put on my face the second I started driving will just get bigger. Ciao!