The 500 has been an unprecedented success for Fiat. Last year the company’s revitalised UK dealer network shifted 15,148 500 models, and this year that number is expected to climb some 34% to 20,310. And this sales success will be bolstered by the arrival of the 500C convertible.
On sale from 2 July 2009, the dinky 500C echoes its 1957 predecessor with a simple folding fabric roof and winning character. Only 1500 are destined for the UK this year because of production constraints - from next year this should level out to annual sales of around 3000, around 15% of total 500 sales.
How different is the Fiat 500C compared to the standard car?
The 500C shares its key componentry with the tin-top version so you get the same range of 69bhp 1.2 and 100bhp 1.4 petrol and 75bhp diesel engines, five- and six-speed manual boxes, as well as the familiar Pop and Lounge trim levels. Prices range from £11,300 for the 1.2 Pop to a rather steep £14,100 for the 1.3 Lounge. That’s a full £3000 premium over the fixed-head version, although Fiat is quick to point out that the cabrio enjoys higher levels of standard spec, with seven airbags, central locking, unique alloys, a decent six-speaker audio system and air-con on all models. And its internal and external dimensions mirror those of the standard 500, save the 182-litre boot, which is now three whole litres smaller.
Tell me about the roof then…
Fiat opted for the sliding fabric roof rather than a full pillarless convertible or folding metal hard-top for two reasons – firstly, it created a neat and exploitable historic link with the original 500 of 1957 which started life as a convertible first, with a tin-top following three years later; and secondly it cut development time and saved on engineering costs, allowing Fiat to equip the cabrio with the same active and passive safety features of the hatch which posts a full five-star Euro NCAP rating.
Engineering mods are minimal – to compensate for the loss of roof, the 500C is fitted with a more robust front cross-member behind the dash; a rear strut on which the retracted roof sits; bolstered B-pillars; a smaller but stiffer header rail for the windscreen; and the rear suspension receives the anti-roll bar setup from the frisky Abarth. In total, they add 40kg to the car’s kerb weight.
>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Fiat 500C first drive
How well does the roof work?
Brilliantly, in a word. Refinement levels are pretty good, roof up or down. Punch the retract button and the roof slides silently back to a halfway-house position and opens up a vast sunroof. Hit the button again and the whole caboodle drops down neatly behind the rear seats, but with the fabric folded so that the third brake light is still visible. Clever. And you can do this at speeds up to 37mph.
You don’t have to fanny about with closing the roof to get into the boot either – touch the boot latch with the roof fully retracted and it slides forwards so you can open the boot on its trick hinges.
With the roof fully retracted, the cabin remains virtually buffet free up to motorway speeds and with it closed the two-layer fabric does a fine job of sealing out road and wind noise. The only drawback is it makes roof-down reversing a nightmare – the combination of thick C-pillars and stack roof make the optional reversing sensors a must-have.
Is it as wobbly as an unset blancmange?
Not at all. Sure, there’s the slightest of shimmies from the steering column over abrupt ridges and potholes, but it’s all pretty well controlled. The ride quality on the 1.4-litre model we drove was noticeably more relaxed and easy-going than the standard 500, the front strut and torsion beam rear soaking up intrusions with ease – although oddly enough when we switched to the 1.2-litre version, the ride quality deteriorated and felt far more fidgety and brittle.
I take it both petrol and diesel are pretty slow.
The 1.4 engine feels willing and keen, delivering decent acceleration along with a satisfyingly crisp exhaust note. The clutch and gearshift action are both light, the brakes strong and steering usefully heavier than that found on the hatchback, allowing you to zip the Fiat along smoothly.
After the bigger engine, the 1.2-litre feels weak-kneed – it’s still smooth and refined, but needs to be revved harder and longer. But to focus on power is to miss the 500C’s point. This car has nothing to do with outright doorhandle-scraping performance and everything to do with flowing along and immersing yourself in the car’s engaging character.
It’s impossible to not like this car. Its sheer vitality and brio is central to its charming appeal, turning even the most mundane of commutes into something far more attractive, a journey to be savoured, rather than endured.
Fiat should have no problems shifting its limited allotment of 500Cs this year - if anything, there will probably be a waiting list come year-end as demand outpaces supply. Yes, a £3000 premium over the standard car may seem steep, but when it transforms every trip into an event, that seems money well spent.
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