New Car Review: 2012 Fiat 500C

Rear view from above of 2012 Fiat 500C driving on a narrow road at dusk with the roof retracted
The 2012 Fiat 500C.

Regular TireKicker readers know I am hype-averse. The more something gets promoted, plugged, built-up, the more skeptical I am about it.

So, a dumb commercial featuring J. Lo and the Fiat 500C is a great way to turn me all the way off:

And, I'll admit...even before that started airing, I had my doubts about the Fiat 500. It looked like another super-sized re-creation (the original 500 could probably fit in the passenger space of the new one) of a cute car from 50 years ago that almost no one in North America has ever seen, much less driven. And the changes required by government regulation and consumer preferences in the intervening half-century insured that, despite a distinctive appearance, this would very likely be just another contemporary small car.

But, as Brock Yates once said about driving a Yugo for Car and Driver, "It's a car magazine. We drive the sunsabitches." So I did.

It went back to Fiat 24 hours ago after a week and 250 miles with me.

I miss it.

The 2012 Fiat 500C front and side view.

While still waiting for our time in a 2012 Volkswagen Beetle, I can tell you this: The Fiat 500 is a terrific little car. The styling is a mood elevator and conversation starter. You'll make a lot of friends just getting out of the car to run into the grocery store. Its 1.4 liter four-cylinder and 6-speed automatic provide a good blend of performance and fuel economy. It cruises at 80 on the freeway without the least bit of drama and with a surprising lack of noise and vibration.  You sit upright and tall in the car, aided by the arching roof. I'm six feet even, and I had headroom to spare. And the seats might be the most comfortable chairs we've been in since TireKicker launched more than three years ago.

It is, as I thought it might be, a contemporary small car...but in the best possible way.

The charm factor was amplified by the fact that our tester was the 500C...the convertible. Or giant canvas sunroof model. Whatever. Just look at the photo at the top of this review and know that it opens to three positions...just back of the front seats, just behind the rear seats, or all the way down. And since it doesn't raise into the air or fold, you can open or close it while driving.

In the first two positions, wind noise and the feeling of a breeze through the cabin are muted. This is a convertible you can drive without mussing your hair. All the way back, and you get the sensation of the breeze circulating through the cockpit, but you still can carry on a conversation without raising your voice.

Interior of the 2012 Fiat 500C.

Our tester was the top-of-the-line Fiat 500C Lounge. Base price of $23,500, bringing with it leather seats, the six-speed automatic, a full batch of airbags and reactive head restraints, along with a driver's side knee airbag. There's also electronic stability control, hill start assist, rear park assist (a good idea, since the rear window is smallish with the top up and with it folded, the resulting stack blocks some of your rearward view), four wheel antilock disc brakes, speed control, power door locks, a security alarm, remote keyless entry, tire pressure monitoring, intermittent wipers, automatic climate control with micron filter, driver seat memory, power windows, a Bose premium AM/FM/Sirius/CD/mp3 audio system with USB and auxilary jacks, Bluetooth, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, tilt steering column, and a vehicle information center.

Options? Our car had two...Customer Preferred Package 22J, the Luxury Leather Package...leather-trimmed heated front bucket seats and an auto-dimming rearview mirror for $1,250...and $300 to upgrade the 15-inch aluminum wheels. With destination charge of $500, the bottom line is $25,550.

No, that's not cheap for a small car...but the Fiat 500C isn't meant to be cheap (although you can buy a base hardtop with a manual transmission for $15,500 and a less lavishly-equipped convertible, the Fiat 500C Pop, for $19,500). It's a premium small car. A Mini Cooper convertible can't be had for less than $25,650 base...$100 more than our 500C's as-tested price. Yes, the Fiat has 20 horsepower less than the Mini...but it weighs 100 pounds less.

So does Fiat beat the Mini? Maybe. It's been years since BMW has sent a Mini our way (save the high-performance, high-pricetage Mini John Cooper Works Convertible we reviewed a year and a half ago),  so, as with the 2012 Beetle, we can't make a direct comparison yet. But we will say this much: The Fiat is a very strong contender. Underestimate it at your own risk.

2012 Fiat 500C Lounge

Base price: $23,500.

As tested: $25,550.

Likes: Interior room, 3-position convertible top, great seats.

Dislikes: Vehicle information center confusing. The trip computer in ours either didn't work or we couldn't understand it in a week. Neither of those is a good thing.

EPA estimates: 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway.