2012 Fiat 500 Review

2012 Fiat 500 - Fiat 500 convertible lets the sun shine inside


Got a hankering for an open-top import but lack a high-flying Swiss Bank Account?The festive folks at Fiat have a quirky Italian dish to whet the appetites of those desiring a wind-in-your-hair driving experience.

"Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino" (a.k.a. Fiat) returns to the U.S. in the 2012 model year after a prolonged hiatus. Not since the mid '80s have new models of this Italian automaker graced showroom floors. The distinctly diminutive 500 signals the return.Available in three-door hatchback hardtop, nifty power-operated convertible and higher horsepower turbocharged Abarth, the 500's cuteness quotient is sky high. Its retro magnetism drew more than the usual number comments and ogles from a suburban Chicago subdivision accustomed to a rotisserie of test vehicles.

The strictly front-wheel-drive 500 brings to the U.S. something Europeans have lived with for decades:micro sized transportation designed for battle in the wilds of the urban jungle.The micro designation measures one notch below subcompact entries such as a Honda Fit or Ford Fiesta. Most opt for two side doors, a rear hatch, easy-to-park dimensions and smile-enhancing fuel numbers. At 139 inches in length, the 500 is seven inches shorter than a Mini Cooper (also available in a convertible body style).Scion's quirky, new-for-2012 iQ measures in with an even smaller 120.1 length.

The Fiat 500 has a long storied history in Europe appealing to cost and fuel conscious buyers dating back to late 1950s.In 2007, fifty years after the initial launch, Fiat remarketed the nimble nameplate to an eager, nostalgic-ready audience. The 2012 U.S.-specked version is an outgrowth of this retro redo. The 500 represented an inexpensive entry into the motor pool for generations of Europeans, casting a spell similar to that of the VW Beetle circa 1960 in America. Northeast Illinois has four Fiat franchise "Studios," three of which are ensconced in suburban Chicago: Zeigler Fiat, 208 W. Golf Road in Schaumburg; Fields Fiat of Highland Park, 250 Skokie Valle Road in Highland Park and Bettenhausen Fiat in the Tinley/Orland Park area. Fiat of Chicago at 659 W. Randolph is the lone in-city dealer.

The 2012 Fiat 500 C (C denoting convertible), our tester of the week is available in two trim choices:Pop and up-level Lounge. Hard-top editions add a third Sport trim. Fiat provided a 500 C Pop with standard five-speed manual and no factory options.Base price was $19,500 with a bottom line of $20,200 after factoring a $700 destination charge; one of the lowest-priced vehicles sporting a power convertible top. Standard nuances included air conditioning, compact disc/MP3 player, rear window defroster (a nice touch with the glass, not plastic back window), cruise control and power windows/door locks/outside mirrors. Satellite radio is optional, but standard in Limited. A hardtop Pop edition starts at $15,500.

As if non-conformist enough, the open-top design mimics that of a sardine can opening from front to back.The structure falls somewhere between a conventional top-down convertible and extended-length panoramic sunroof. With the simple touch of a top-side push button, the powercanvas roof slides back, while side window frame structures remain prone. Door windows can remain up or down during the process. Static, triangular back region windows, however, never move.The entire process takes about 12 seconds with no clamps to unlatch or handles to twist. When starting the power down process, the top slides back about three quarters of the way along the frame and stops, leaving the glass rear window in tack.A second touch of the power down button completes the task with the entire roof tucked and the rear window folded neatly out of sight. When motoring back up, the roof again pauses a quarter of the way with the rear window back in play. A second touch moves the canvas three-quarters forward, stopping above the driver's head, providing the ambiance of a traditional sunroof. The high-mounted brake light, built into the canvas roof, remains on duty (although positioned at different levels) no matter the roof's stage of openness.

Under the hood of convertibles and base hard-top 500s is a boisterous 1.4-liter inline, Multi-air four cylinder cranking out a ho-hum 101 horses. While this number ranks below most subcompacts, the 500's relatively svelte 2,363 poundage keeps a sluggish feel at bay. At times, the engine strained when pushed, but never failed to reach its desired destination.

As with the standard three-door hatchback, elevated cloth front bucket seats provide a nice command view without a low-to-the-ground go-cart-like experience. These manually siding seats smartly include large, underside grab handles projecting outward for ease of movement. Driver's seats include a flip-up arm rest absent from the passenger seat.   While marketing material indicates 500 as a four seater, the back is best left for family pets since leg room dwindles mightily with front buckets at comfortable lengths.The trunk's diminutive 5.4 cubic feet of cargo room remains constant with the top up or down. Fortunately, second row seatbacks incorporate a 50/50 spilt allowing a passing grade on the all-important golf club transport test.

The playful interior layout features a racing-inspired, huge single-circle instrument gauge inside arched housing with speedometer ringing the outside and tachometer tucked inward. The center bulls-eye includes a digital time display with bar-type fuel and temperature readings contouring the outside rim of the eye. The dashboard's center region, with an outline of outstretched bird wings, shares the same color palate as the car's exterior with black hues painting the rest of the dashboard and cloth seating Ian Ivory color interior is also available). The tilt (but non-telescoping) steering wheel includes cruise functions and fingertip operated volume and station preset controls on the backside, a useful nuance borrowed from Chrysler products.While teeny tiny power window controls are found on the driver's door, larger power window controls are found adjacent to the raised transmission shifter towards the bottom of the vertical center column.Four large dials control the single-zone ventilation functions.

Fuel mileage is decent with our manual tester checking in at 30 miles per gallon city and 38 highway. One caveat:premium unleaded gas is recommended for the 10.5-gallon tank. Lounge trims with standard six-speed automatic transmission register less impressive readings of 27 mpg city and 32 highway. The six-speed is optional in Pop trims.

Exterior wise, the 500 incorporates the silhouette of a baseball cap on wheels with its highly rounded canvas roof. The short hood (cap bill) gently curves down to the grille area flanked by two circular bug-eyed style head light housing. Strap-like door handles are chrome laden and the driver's side-view mirror housing includes a second, narrow, vertical mirror helping drivers overcome a left-side blind spot. With the top up, back and right-side sight lines are decent. With the top down, however, rear views get hampered by the folded roof.Small 15-inch tires contribute to a low-slung appearance.Fourteen exterior body colors are available along with three cloth roof hue choices: black bordeaux and beige.

Around town, the standard hill holder clutch included with the manual transmission prevents the vehicle from rolling back on inclines when shifting into first gear from a standing start; a welcome feature. This, combined with light-weight foot clutch makes this an ideal choice to learn the fine art of five-speed manual gear hunting.The short wheelbase promises a non-luxurious, bouncy suspension, but the target market most likely won't mind.

2012 Fiat 500C

Wheelbase: 90.6 inches

Overall length: 139.6 inches

Overall height: 59.8 inches

Overall width: 64.1 inches

Engine: 1.4-liter four cylinder


Price as tested:$20,200

Fuel economy:30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway

Powertrain warranty:Four years/50,000 miles

Curb weight: 2,363 pounds

Assembly: Tuluca, Mexico

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.