The Fiat 500 is one of the most stylish and desirable city cars there is, so you’d imagine that the convertible version – the 500C – would crank that desirability up even more. Well, it does to a degree, because you’ll feel the wind in your hair as you drive along. However, because the folding top amounts to little more than a big sunroof and the overall dimensions of the car stay identical whether the roof is up or down, it doesn’t have the glamour – or the true open-top thrills – of other convertibles. That said, buyers still love its cute, retro looks. The round headlights and front indicators are a direct evolution of those from the 1957 original, as is the bonnet shutline, which runs along the front wing rather than hidden on an angle. There’s plenty of scope to create a unique 500C, too, with a huge range of options and accessories to choose from.
Look past the glitzier bits of trim, and you’ll see less appealing plastics
With an exterior like a fashion show, anything less than retro chic inside would be a disappointment. Fortunately, Fiat has done a good job of making the cabin a really nice place to be. The retro Fiat badge on the steering wheel beams back at the driver, while the body-coloured panel on the dashboard that stretches from door to door is only interrupted by a Bakelite-effect panel full of buttons. That said, if you look past or below the glitzier bits of interior trim, you’ll see that most of the other plastics are a lot less appealing, with plenty of hard, scratchy surfaces on display. The instrument cluster features a rev counter around the outside, with a speedo inside it and the trip computer in the centre. On the move, it’s as though the speedo needle is chasing the rev counter, but it can make things a little hard to read. Digital dials are available as an option, and these are much clearer. High-end versions get a touch-screen infotainment system, but the small screen makes seeing and hitting the on-screen icons a little tricky, and the system doesn’t support navigation unless you pay extra. Finding a comfy driving position is a little tricky, too; the steering wheel only adjusts for height – not reach – and the seat height adjuster (which is only standard on high-end models) does little except change the angle of the seat base. Reversing the car is tricky with the roof down, too, because the rear view becomes severely impaired.
With many convertibles, you have to sacrifice a little bit of practicality compared with the hard-roofed car on which it’s based. That’s not the case with the 500C, but unfortunately, the 500 hatchback doesn’t offer a great deal of practicality to work with in the first place. Head- and legroom are no tighter in any of the four seats than they are in the hatchback, but those up front might still find themselves rubbing shoulders, and those in the back won’t be able to live with the tight space for anything longer than a quick dash to the shops. The 500C’s boot only loses three litres in volume compared with the hatchback, but the access to the space is much shallower and narrower, and the space itself is still smaller than that of most other city cars. The most basic models don’t have a split-folding rear seat, either.
Ride and handling
The wheels crash clumsily into potholes and the body bobbles and bounces on scruffy surfaces
Many small convertibles feel rather wobbly compared with the hatchback they’re based on, and while the 500C isn’t completely immune, the shakiness is less evident than in some rivals thanks to the solid beams that run over the cabin. Sadly, though, this rigidity doesn’t translate into a polished dynamic performance. The soft suspension is poorly controlled, so rather than giving a cosseting ride, you’ll find that the wheels crash clumsily into potholes and the body of the car bobbles and bounces on scruffy surfaces. This poor control doesn’t do the handling any favours, either, because the body leans over a fair bit in bends. Granted, the skinny tyres manage to give a decent amount of grip, but the steering feels rather vague. The DS 3 Cabrio is a sharper, more enjoyable car to drive, even if it’s no more comfortable. The Abarth hot hatch versions of the 500 have a much firmer suspension than the conventional models, but it’s uncomfortably firm and still allows a disconcerting amount of body movement.
Fiat offers mainstream 500Cs with a choice of three petrol engines, and our favourite is the most basic, the 1.2-litre petrol unit. Although it’s the slowest on paper, it’s well suited to the urban crawl, offering more low-down power than its 68bhp might suggest. Beyond that, it’s also up to sitting in the outside lane of a motorway for hours on end. There are two versions of Fiat’s 0.9-litre turbocharged two-cylinder Twinair engine, one with 84bhp and one with 103bhp, but so far, we’ve only driven the more powerful of the pair. There’s no doubt that it’s much nippier than the 1.2 provided you work it hard, but when you do, it gives off a lot of noise and vibration, and even when you don’t, the power delivery is rather stuttery. More critically, choosing the Twinair makes the 500C a lot more expensive to buy, and affordable style is the whole attraction of this car. The Abarth hot hatch versions have turbocharged 1.4 petrol engines, giving outputs ranging between 138 and 187bhp. We haven’t driven any of the fruitier versions, but even the standard Abarth is plenty quick enough.
Running costs should be fairly palatable; even the 1.2 returns more than 60mpg
The 500C doesn’t really have many direct rivals, the DS 3 Cabrio being the closest. Neither car is as cheap as you might expect it to be, but the Fiat is a little more affordable than the DS to buy, and its resale values are a little stronger as well, making it the sounder financial investment. Running costs should be fairly palatable, too; even the 1.2 – the dirtiest engine on offer – returns an official figure of more than 60mpg, while the Twinairs will return either 67mpg or 74mpg depending on which version you go for. The Abarths will drink fuel at a much greater rate, and they’ll also be much pricier to insure, but even the insurance groups for the conventional models aren’t particularly low by the standards of the city car class.
Fiat currently holds a solid mid-table position in the manufacturer rankings of Warranty Direct’s Reliability Index, and as an individual model, the 500 fares pretty well, too. It’s worth noting, though, that almost half the faults reported centre around axle and suspension problems. The car comes with a three-year/unlimited mileage warranty, which is competitive by class standards.
Stability control and tyre pressure monitoring are standard, but you can’t have autonomous city braking
The 500C hasn’t been crash tested by Euro NCAP, but the 500 hatchback has, and it achieved the full five-star rating. However, that test was carried out in 2007 and the tests have become much harder over time, so it’s possible that the car wouldn’t achieve such a high rating were it to be tested now. Standard safety kit includes front, side and curtain airbags, plus another ‘bag to protect the driver’s knees. Stability control and tyre pressure monitoring are also standard, but you can’t have an autonomous city braking system, even as an option.
The basic trim structure includes three levels; Pop, Pop Star and Lounge. In truth, the Pop will be a little sparse for most tastes. It provides powered front windows and remote locking, but that’s pretty much where the ‘luxury’ kit stops. The Pop Star is the one you want, because it gives you air-conditioning, alloy wheels and electrically adjusting door mirrors. The Lounge gives you rear parking sensors, the touch-screen system and a leather steering wheel, but it pushes the purchase price rather too high. If you do want to buy a 500C, keep your eye out for the various high-value special editions offered; you won’t exactly have to be eagle-eyed, as there seem to be dozens in the offing at any given time.
The Fiat 500C is as much of a chic fashion accessory as it is mode of transport. The funky looks, retro cabin and opening roof give it a very unique appeal, and the popularity of the car shows it has really struck a chord with buyers. However, it’s not the best car of its type to drive, and it’s not as cheap to buy as you might think, either.