I drove the Fiat 500 hatchback when it debuted and was generally impressed. The hot rod Abarth version arrived later and was even more fun. But I didn't get a 500C "Pop" Cabrio model with its quasi-convertible sliding power soft top until late summer.
While small, the front-drive, two-door 500 is practical enough, although the rear seat area is hard to reach despite long doors. Moreover, the backseat is only suitable for children, pets or cargo that doesn't fit in the trunk. Rear seatbacks can be flipped forward to increase cargo space, although they don't sit perfectly flat when folded.
The 500 is fun to drive, and the 500C Cabrio model with its long sliding soft top should make it more so-although it would have been uncomfortable during the torrid 2012 Chicago summer with the top folded all the way back and the sun blazing.
The Fiat 500 "Pop" hatchback is the entry level 500, but is fairly well-equipped with comfort and convenience items and has plenty of safety features. It's the plainest looking 500, but turns heads because Italians have a way with auto styling.
There are plenty of options, and the 500C Cabrio soft top has only minor changes for 2013.
Although the 500's cabin is narrow, I felt as if I was driving a larger car because of such things as long front travel for the comfortable front seats and a large windshield.
The "Pop" 2012 hatchback lists at $15,500, followed by the "Sport," "Lounge" and "Abarth" models, which have more equipment. The price jumps to $19,500 for the 500C Pop Cabrio with its quasi-convertible power cloth top. The Lounge model with the sliding cloth top stickers at $22,500.
Convertibles always are costlier, and consider that just a sunroof on the 500 Pop and Lounge hardtops costs $950.
The 500C Pop Cabrio 's cloth top folds back quickly like a good power sunroof-all the way to the trunk. The drawback is that the fully retracted top obscures nearly all rear visibility.
Fortunately, an intermediate top setting makes the opening resemble a sunroof and allows full vision through the rear window. A two-thirds setting seems ideal.
Trunk space is decent for a small car, no matter what position the top is in.
The 500 is offered with a 6-speed automatic transmission, but this car is sporty enough to call for the standard 5-speed manual gearbox, which shifts swiftly and works with a light clutch. One drawback is that the clutch fully engages only near the top of its travel, which can make continual use of it annoying in congested traffic.
The standard 500 has a small-but-gutsy 1.4-liter 101-horsepower sophisticated engine that delivers lively performance. Note that the collectible 1949-52 Ford's V-8 only generated 100 horsepower. And the Ford weighed approximately 3,000 pounds, while the 500 only weighs about 2,400 pounds.
A downshift from fifth gear to third gear with my test 500C Pop Cabrio allowed brisk 65-75 passing times on highways. Even fourth gear allows acceptable passing above 65 mph if there's no urgency scooting past another vehicle.
Fifth is an overdrive open-road cruising gear that contributes to the 101-horsepower 500's estimated fuel economy rating of 38 miles per gallon on highways. The city figure with the manual is 30 miles per gallon. Figures with the automatic are 27 city and 34 highway.
The 500 has good steering and agile handling. But it also has noticeable body sway when streaking around curves because of its height and relatively narrow track. A long wheelbase for the 500 helps provide a nice ride on smooth roads, although the ride becomes choppy on rough roads.
Despite the road surface, my test 500C Pop Cabrio soft top felt solid and had no squeaks or rattles.
The combination speedometer and tachometer seems gimmicky, and there are many tiny radio buttons. However, most controls are large and easy to use. Not so the cupholders, which are at floor level, front and rear.
An offbeat feature is a small hood prop that fits in a hole in one of the hood hinges.
The 500 is still a relative newcomer to America. But, with the addition of new models, more dealers and better promotion, sales of 500 models in late 2012 have more than doubled, compared to the same previous-year figure.
No matter if it's a Ferrari or Fiat, there's something alluring about an Italian car.