In 1957 the post-war European market demanded a modern, economical and affordable small car. Italy’s answer was the Fiat Nuova (new) 500; a tiny but surprisingly roomy town car with an air-cooled 2-cylinder engine between the rear wheels. The concept was much like a miniaturised VW Beetle and it was a huge success.
Two years later BMC introduced the more advanced Mini but the 500 had already become a huge success in Italy and much of Europe. Racing and sports versions of the car produced by Abarth sealed the Fiat 500’s place in history and it remained on sale for nearly 20 years.
50 years after this car’s introduction the new new Fiat 500 was born. Dynamically it is a thoroughly modern small car with the latest safety features, a transverse front mounted engine and front wheel drive. Despite this, it still somehow manages to capture the same spirit as the original car; beyond the clever revival styling is a real personality.
It’s pretty too, and fashionable not just with trendy young people. The Fiat 500 is a car that has attracted owners from all walks of life who want a car that has good looks and is nippy around town. With its Italian chic, it does its best to out-cool the now ubiquitous Mini while coming in at a lower price point too. The Fiat 500C is the convertible version of this car and looks much the same as the 1950s original but like the rest of the car this retro facade hides modern technology.
The multi-layer lined roof rolls back electronically at the touch of a button and always keeps a water-tight seal. When up, the roof shuts out exterior noises and it really is hard to tell that you are inside a convertible car.
The design keeps the side of the car in place with only the centre part of the roof being convertible much like a huge sunroof. It folds back neatly into a choice of positions from a few inches to the whole roof including the rear window with the high-level brake light cleverly still operating in the folded position.
When open, the roof doesn’t feel quite a full convertible with a fairly thick roof pillar still in place above your ear. On the other hand, you do feel quite a bit more secure and when driving on uneven roads there are no tell-tale creaking or vibrating noises from the trim that would suggest a flexing chassis. You still get the wind-in-the-hair experience but it isn’t nearly as blowy as it can be in a ‘full convertible’. The power roof operates even when you are driving along at speeds up to 50mph and if you should run into problems with the electric system there is a method of manually closing the roof from inside the luggage compartment.
The Fiat 500C we tested had a red fabric roof which can also be ordered in cream or the more usual black. The colours look great but there is a reason that most convertible car roofs are black – they don’t show the dirt. With the large number of body colours and graphics available it would be tempting to opt for one of these but leave the car under a tree for a few days, outside a factory or near an oily garage mechanic and reality of permanent or at least difficult to remove stains and black seems a lot more appealing.
The build quality feels big-car good and should you opt for the Lounge trim level that we tried the equipment levels are impressive too. The interior continues the retro theme reflecting the classic car but in a much slicker way. Everything is lovingly designed from the seats embroidered with the 500 logo down to the chunky metal door handles.
Unlike the Seicento and Cinquecento that came before it the 500 hides mini MPV proportions that give it an airy feel inside the cabin. You sit surprisingly high up in the front seats and yet the is still plenty of head room. The short gear lever is well place close to the steering wheel and has a light but sporty feel. The handbrake however, is somewhere down near your ankles leaving you reaching down to operate it. Other than that the interior is a rather pleasant place to be and you can tell that as much effort has gone into its styling as the exterior. The seats are firm but comfortable and there is space in the back for two adults at least for short journeys.
Fiat have done their best to integrate the cars electronics with modern smart phones which allows you to play your music on the stereo and change track from the steering wheel while operating the phone to make calls through a bluetooth system called Blue&Me.
I can’t imagine anyone having any difficulty driving the Fiat 500C. The controls are so light and easy to operate that driving is almost effortless. The large wing mirrors make up for the restricted view through the rear window and the helpful rear parking sensors make it easy to manoeuvre into tight spaces. The 500C is entertaining to drive and while not as sporty as the Mini I don’t see Fiat’s target market being track-day enthusiasts.
The Fiat 500C being small and cute is going to appeal far more to female drivers that it will to men but it’s a pleasure to drive and I soon stopped caring what truck drivers thought of me. Being able to drop the roof without stopping or slowing to a crawl is very useful if you’re waiting to get out of the town before you let in the clean air and sunshine. I found there was less wind noise with the roof fully open than in the half way position and it is never too noisy not to hold a conversation even at high speeds. In full convertibles my wife has to manage her long hair from blowing everywhere; she found the 500C much more agreeable in this regard.
It is stable and assured on the open road but is most fun to drive around windy streets where it easily raises a smile. We drove the 1.2 litre petrol engined car the cheapest option, which is economical and still enjoyable to use. The charismatic 2 cylinder TwinAir engine is even better suited to town driving providing amazing economy while producing a characterful noise. The 1.4 is altogether more grown up and has the extra power to make long journeys more pleasurable. A clever start-stop system saves fuel by cutting the engine when you stop in traffic and take the car out of gear, restarting again as soon as you touch the clutch pedal. It can be switched off if you don’t like it but I found it to work without fault and didn’t hamper the driving experience.
There is ample interior storage however the 500C does lack a lockable glove box with only a shelf for the front seat passenger so there is nowhere to keep things safe if you want to leave the roof down in public. Unlike the classic 500 the luggage space is at the back and is plenty big enough for a trip to the shops. If you need more space then the rear seats also fold down.
If the roof is down and you want to get into the boot the 500 has a little party trick. Squeeze the handle once and the roof will raise out of the way to the point where the rear window is in position, then the boot opens up for you to get in.
Small cars have come a long way in the last 50 years. The Fiat 500C is a clear winner in the small car market right now, making many competitors look boring and soulless. It is also one of a shrinking group of small convertible cars available new. It comes at a premium over the hardtop 500 but the price still looks appealing, particularly when you look at how well they hold their value on the used market.
Like most small vehicles it is clearly a car best suited to shorter journeys and town/city driving where it is easy to nip around and park in tight spaces. The roof may not please everyone but it works extremely well and still provides the enjoyment of convertible driving.
The Fiat 500C has great appeal; of all the convertible cars I have reviewed this is not only the cheapest but also the one which got my neighbour’s curtains twitching the most.