2012 FIAT 500 Cabrio First Drive

2012 FIAT 500 Cabrio First Drive

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2012 FIAT 500 Convertible

(1.4L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

That's Italian! In a Good Way

Even with the top up, in a blinding rainstorm, the 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio was still enjoyable during a recent drive through Manhattan and just north of New York City. And with its EPA estimated 38 mpg on the highway, or 32 mpg, with the optional automatic transmission, it was pretty efficient the whole way, too.

You'd expect that combination of fun and economical driving from the modern version of the Fiat 500, a real Italian icon. The original Fiat 500 was launched back in 1957. It wasn't a hardtop, either. It had a manually folding canvas top that's similar in concept to the power-folding version on the new 500 Cabrio.

What's unexpected is that the 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio avoids so many of the issues that plague most other convertibles. First, it's just about as much fun with the top up. Second, it's surprisingly practical. Third, it's affordable.

The base price of the Fiat 500 Cabrio is an even $20,000. That's a $4,000 premium over the hardtop model. Add extras like heated leather seats, navigation and a six-speed automatic transmission, it's possible to run the sticker price for the convertible up to around $26,000.

A Pleasant Surprise
Make no mistake; it's still really small, especially lengthwise. The Fiat 500 dwarfs a Smart car, but it's smaller than anything else you're likely to see on four wheels, at least on American roads. You might expect claustrophobia, but with the top up, overall comfort and interior room are good for the front-seat passengers.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, rear-seat passengers are at the mercy of those in front, who, if they push their seats all the way back, basically leave no legroom in the rear. To be fair, a lot of bigger "four-seaters" are the same way. Even trunk room is decent, with more than enough room for a couple of medium-size suitcases.

"We just launched the hardtop a couple of months ago," said Laura Soave, head of the Fiat brand for North America. The convertible's proper name is the Fiat 500 Cabrio, but the company also calls it the Fiat 500C, for short.

"The word we hear again and again about this car from people is surprise," she said. "Whenever people see it, get into it, drive it...people are amazed at the space."

The Downside of Top-Up Driving
Most convertibles, especially soft tops, are nowhere nearly as attractive with the top up, or as much fun to drive. That's too bad, considering chances are most people spend more time in a convertible with the top up than with the top down.

Some soft tops let in so much noise when they're up, acoustically it's as if there's no top at all. That's a big reason for the proliferation of folding hardtops, especially from luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. With the top up, they're just about identical to a hard top in terms of quiet.

Another problem is space. With the top down, most modern folding hard tops and soft-tops hide completely under a hard cover. That looks nice, but it takes up an awful lot of room in the trunk.

The Upside of the 500C
The 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio soft top doesn't lose nearly as much in the translation. Fabio DiMuro, chief engineer for the Fiat 500 hardtop and the Fiat 500 Cabrio, said his team put a lot of time and resources coming up with a soft top that would block out wind and road noise, in addition to blocking out the elements.

Actually, the soft top for the Fiat 500 Cabrio is more of a cross between a traditional convertible top and a giant sunroof. With one touch of a button above the driver seat, the top slides all the way back to the rear edge of the roof, folding itself into pleats as it goes.

The car's side pillars and the outside edges of the roof stay in place. Traditional convertibles don't have a B-pillar or a C-pillar, or any roof structure once the top is down, but the Fiat 500 Cabrio does. That's why the convertible doesn't need much reinforcing to keep it stiff, and doesn't weigh that much more than the hardtop.

The first push of the top-down button puts the top in what Fiat calls the "spoiler" position. The rearmost part of the top and the glass rear window remain up. A second push of the button folds the top all the way back, until the folded-up top, with the rear window folded up in it, sits behind the rear headrests.

DiMuro said the top-down operation takes 15 seconds, which he said is faster than the competition (read: the Mini Cooper Cabrio). Unlike most other convertibles, you can also open or close the top while driving. It's possible at up to 60 mph, as far as the "spoiler" position; at up to 50 mph to raise or lower the top all the way, he said. The Mini Cooper Cabrio top operates at up to 20 mph, according to Mini USA.

Peppy Yes, Quick No
Like the rest of the 500, the engine is small at just 1.4 liters, but with a heavy enough right foot, the 500 can cruise at highway speeds with plenty to spare for passing. Peak power is only 101 hp, which it reaches at a high 6,500 rpm.

With a manual transmission, the 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio weighs only 2,416 pounds. Most convertibles are considerably heavier than the same hardtop model, because removing the hardtop and the side pillars means the car has to be reinforced somewhere else, to keep it rigid.

DiMuro said in a press briefing in New York that the Fiat convertible weighs only 52 pounds more than the hardtop, including the weight of the electric motor that opens and closes the top. The light weight helps compensate for the small engine.

Thrifty for Sure
Rather than straight-line acceleration, the powertrain is optimized for better gas mileage and lower emissions. Fiat uses a system it calls MultiAir, which employs pressurized hydraulic fluid to control the precise timing and the volume of air going into the engine. DiMuro said the bottom line is, MultiAir produces about 10 percent better gas mileage.

For drivers who are really motivated to save gas, the 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio also comes with what Fiat calls its eco:Drive Application. The system allows drivers to download data from the car onto a memory stick, which can then be uploaded on a home computer or laptop.

The application analyzes the driver's performance in actual driving, and shows how the driver could be saving fuel. Hint: The answer is almost always going to be some variation of, "Don't accelerate so fast." It also provides an estimate of how much money the driver could save by achieving better fuel economy.

Trying Again
The launch of the 2012 Fiat 500C is part of the brand's re-launch in the United States after a 27-year absence. It's starting over, beginning with the newest generation of the Fiat 500. Fans call it the "Cinquecento," Italian for "500," or the "Topolino," the Italian equivalent of Mickey Mouse, because its circular headlights look like Mickey Mouse ears.

U.S. sales of the hardtop model began in March. We bought one and it's been good so far. Fiat is hoping Americans can forgive and forget the brand's terrible quality reputation from back in the day.

To reassure U.S. customers, Fiat provides all Fiat 500 models with three years/36,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance, exclusively for the U.S. market. That's in addition to a four-year/50,000-mile factory warranty.

Not for Everyone
Fiat dealerships could be a little hard to find, outside import-friendly markets on both U.S. coasts. The brand has only 58 U.S. dealerships, or "studios" as it like to call them, in 25 states.

Eventually, Fiat expects to have 130 U.S. dealers. By the end of this year, shoppers in the Sunbelt and the bigger East Coast markets shouldn't have much trouble finding a Fiat dealer.

That's roughly the same strategy as the Mini brand, which belongs to BMW. The Mini Cooper Convertible is the nearest logical competitor to the Fiat 500C. Even so, it's about 7 inches longer than the 2012 Fiat 500C.

It's also more expensive. The Mini Cooper Convertible starts at $26,050 suggested retail, around the top end of the 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio range.

The numbers help comparisons, but don't capture the personality of the Fiat 500 Cabrio. "Cute" is an unavoidable description, but the car has substance, too. Fiat's Soave said dealers reported a positive sign for the Fiat 500's acceptance in the U.S. market: Some owners are naming their cars. Now, that's cute.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.

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The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 FIAT 500 in VA is:

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