America, you're about to find out what a European car is. Nope, it's not the functional Volkwagen Golf or the luxurious Mercedes S-Class or the performance-minded Ferrari Enzo. It's the Fiat 500, and thanks to the new Chrysler/Fiat partnership, it just hit your roads.
The Italian-made Fiat 500 embodies the classic European car, like the Renault Clio and the Seat 600. It is affordable, ultracompact, fuel efficient, fun to drive – and if you spend too much time in it, your back might need a readjustment.
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I just got the chance to drive the Fiat 500c, the convertible version of Chrysler's new compact. Here are some initial thoughts.
The Fiat 500c is small and cute. Heck, it might even be too cute, which could turn off buyers looking for something more neutral or for aggressive styling. On the upside, the 500 is retro-looking and is highly customizable. The 500c is available in 14 exterior colors, 12 seat colors and three soft-top colors. There will also be a bunch of different wheels, badges, decals and wraps to choose from.
The 500 and 500c are available with only a 1.4 liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 101 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque. That's more than enough to power the 2,400 pound convertible through city congestion or merging onto fast moving highway traffic. The small engine also has enough pep to easily go north of 80 mph.
The EPA estimates that both versions of the 500 will get 30 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway with the manual transmission.
Feel of the convertible
The 500c features a powered retractable cloth top which can be opened partially at speeds up to 60 mph and fully up to 50 mph. Pretty impressive, considering that most convertibles today with powered tops need the car to either be crawling or fully stopped for the tops to open.
Once the top is on, the Fiat 500c feels like a normal hardtop vehicle. The rain was coming down pretty hard during parts of my test drive and the softtop kept both the water and road noise out.
Driving around the city is fun. The 500c has plenty of low end torque to accelerate smoothly when needed and the steering is responsive enough that weaving through congestion is a breeze.
Although the 500c has no problem getting up to highway speeds and merging on traffic the engine does choke a bit when trying passing maneuvers or climbing modest hills. The 500 and 500c does come with a “Sport Mode” that somewhat sharpens the accelerator but I would exercise more than normal caution when trying to pull into a lane with a tractor trailer in the sideview mirror.
The 500 does excel with cornering. The car keeps its composure when navigating through tight s-bends, even through heavy rain and uneven roads.
Interior / comfort
The biggest disappointment of the 500 is the interior. The dashboard is a mess. It's bulking piece of plastic that eats away at the interior space, and more importantly, it gets in the way of driving comfortably.
The side of the panel that runs down the center of the dash actually protrudes a bit into the driver's area. So if you have a wide driving stance, your leg will actually rest and rub against the hard plastic. After a while, it gets annoying and bit numbing.
Chrysler should've also paid more attention to the seats if they are marketing the 500 as a commuter car. They are stiff and offer virtually no lumbar support. I constantly found myself adjusting my driving position to get some back relief.
Pricing starts at $15,500 for the Pop, $17,500 for the Sport, and $19,500 for the Lounge. Air conditioning, ABS, Bluetooth and keyless entry are standard throughout.
Where to buy / test drive
The Fiat 500 will be sold only in select Chrysler dealerships. There are currently two on Long Island, in Patchogue and Westbury. Below you'll find their info:
483 Route 112
Patchogue, N.Y. 11772
928 Jericho Tpke.
Westbury, N.Y. 11590
Check back next week for the full review of the 500c.