The original mid-century Fiat 500 Nuova holds a special place in many a car person's heart. From its suicide-open doors, to its woefully underpowered 21 horsepower engine, to its signature cloth top roof, it captured the imagination of post-war Europe—and to this day it remains legendary among the vehicled elite.
Is it even possible that its modern reincarnation could deliver that same type of emotional connection? As it turns out, no, but what the modern Fiat 500 lacks in unreliable, underpowered and legendary charm it more than makes up for in fun, fuel economy and surprising functionality.
This may sound like hyperbole, but the fact is I haven't driven a vehicle in the last five years that I had more fun driving—and I've driven a lot of vehicles in my line of work. Every moment in the 2012 Fiat 500C offered up a blend of lovable chic-ness and vehicular personality rarely found in the overly wind tunnel- and focus group-tested cars of our modern world.
For 2012 the Fiat 500 is available in three forms: the base 500, the 500C cloth-top semi-convertible, and the 500 Abarth performance version. With manual transmission both the 500 and 500C are EPA-rated at 30 city/38 highway mpg. Even the performance Abarth version comes in at a decent 28 city/34 highway mpg with the manual. Adding an automatic to the 500 and 500C drops mileage considerably to 27 city/34 highway mpg.
A week of driving our tester 500C (Pop trim with optional Bose Audio and 5-speed manual transmission for a total of $21,950) returned a bit higher fuel economy than this—even with a daily climb and descent of more than 1,000 vertical feet—averaging 36 city and 40 highway mpg. Before you accuse me of using my green driving mojo to massage these numbers you should know that I paid almost no attention to saving fuel because of the grin plastered on my face while racing about town with the top down (damn the 55° F spring temps). I said it was fun, didn't I?
As with all cars of small size and fewer material inputs, the Fiat 500's miniscule footprint means it will have a much lower embodied energy (the energy used in gathering raw materials, assembling them into a product and delivering that product to the consumer) than a larger vehicle such as an SUV.
Fun and Function
I think I've already mentioned elsewhere that the Fiat 500C is just about the most fun you can buy packed into this size of vehicle and in this price range. While the base 500 starts at just under $16,000, adding the cloth top and a better audio system will jump the price up to just under $22,000. Adding larger wheels, automatic climate control and an automatic transmission pops the price up to about $23,500. If you really want to chic-out, you can indulge in the top of the line Gucci-branded model which is loaded with goodies—but at more than $27,000, I think that trim misses the point.
Small wheelbases tend to produce choppy and jumpy rides, but the 500 never suffered terribly from this curse. It sometimes got a bit loose during hard cornering, but otherwise remained well-behaved. If you want to take it out to the track and push its limits it will come up short, but that's what the Abarth version is for—hell, the 500 Abarth even comes with a day of track instruction by a professional race instructor. Starting at about $22,000 you can't really beat it for a fun track car.
You won't find a fancy touchscreen in the Fiat 500. Even so I liked the Fiat's straightforward infotainment interface and it meshed perfectly well with my iPhone via either Bluetooth or hard wire every time I got into the car. Indeed, in seven days of daily driving I never had one glitch with that connection—something I can't even remotely say is true of the much fancier and high-tech systems of modern Fords, Chevys, Toyotas and the like.
Although the Fiat's trunk is small, I found it had more than enough space to hold the groceries for a family of four for a week. Adults will certainly feel cramped in the back seat, but my young kids had no issues—and when they started to get a bit cranky all I had to do was drop the top to produce instant smiles and mood changes.
Pros and Cons
Cost: No question here, the Fiat 500 is an affordable vehicle. When you throw in the fun, style and convertible top for less than $22,000 "winning" is the only word that comes to mind.
Looks: It's a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it look, for sure; kind of like a Mini made for women but also okay for guys to drive as long as they grunt really loud while doing it.
Fuel Economy: Given that you'll likely average around 37 mpg and the base 500 can be had for around $16,000, it's hard to argue that it's not a good deal. No, it's not the most fuel-miserly of subcompact vehicles, but if you want a car that will make you happy every time you set foot in it and deliver good fuel economy, this is your car. Avoid the automatic transmission to get your best fuel economy.
Everything Else: Even though it's a tiny car, the mounting of the stick shift at the base of the center console makes for more knee room than many full-size cars and SUVs on the market.
The 2012 Fiat 500C is a winner in almost every regard. As long as you don't need lots of cargo room or the ability to haul more than two adults for long distances you'll enjoy the crap out of the Fiat 500C and save tons of gas while doing it. It's got a clear mission and makes no apologies for it.