2012 Fiat’s 500C Lounge Cabrio High-Value Small Car

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The 500C Lounge Cabrio is the grown-up Fiat—more deluxe than economy, yet still cheap to run and a delight to drive.
The 500C Lounge Cabrio is the grown-up Fiat—more deluxe than economy, yet still cheap to run and a delight to drive.

When our first Fiat 500 arrived, last Thanksgiving, I got a bit overexcited in my review. Perhaps now the novelty has worn off, so I should be able to drive this soft-top version with more objectivity.

Nope, sorry. I can’t. Even after a long stint on the interstate, I still love this little roller skate, and I still think it’s a lot of car for the cash—in this case, $25,850.

That’s about the top of the price chart for a well-equipped “upscale-casual” Cabrio Lounge model that includes Preferred Package 22J: heated Rosso (red) leather seats, TomTom satnav, an auto-dimming rear mirror, a 6-speed automatic transmission (in lieu of the standard 5-speed manual) and that folding top.

A base-level 500 Cabrio is $19,500, while a Mini convertible–the car that this Fiat is always compared to–starts at 28 and goes up to nearly 40 grand. Sure, the Mini is more powerful, faster, and handles better, but hey, other than that?

Yes, the Mini has beaucoup joie de vivre as well, but it’s German joie de vivre, or Lebensfreude, which is almost ironic. The Fiat 500C comes with heapings of Italian gioia di vivere, which beats even the original French. In American, this translates to: It’s a hoot.

At this price, you might expect the Fiat’s convertible top to be an old-fashioned affair, something that breaks fingernails and has to be folded away by hand like a balky pup tent. Not so. Not only is it pushbutton electric, it’s a convertible convertible top. It can be a small sunroof or a large sunroof, depending on how far back it’s slid, and then one more touch of the switch drops the glass backlight (with defrosters) behind the rear seats and lets the top accordion all the way back and down to the trunklid. The side rails and window pillars stay, so the chassis doesn’t go all floppy.

The roof itself is multiple layers of fabric with steel crossbeams within, so it is rugged, stiff and quiet. When the top is retracted all the way, the piled-up folds block visibility to the rear. If Ford or VW did this, we’d jump all over them for it. But instead we think, Oh, those Italians—flair over function!

But there’s plenty of function here too. The 500 has a 1.4-liter 4-cylinder motor, with which the automatic transmission works well, either by itself or shifted manually. With only 101 horsepower underfoot, we can revisit the sensation of driving flat out without going ballistic or to jail. (Although when it’s wound up all the way, the 500 should be good for 120 MPH.) The Fiat feels quicker than it really is because it’s so nimble. Engage the Sport button on the dash, and the shifting and steering sharpen up and the car becomes livelier still. Get on the throttle and the civil exhaust tone becomes a raspy bark.

The 500C Lounge has enough extras—leather, wood, carpeting, possibly extra insulation—to feel more grown-up than the basic 500. Nothing’s tinny or lightweight here, and there’s no buzzing or empty-box echo at speed. In fact, with its handsome cream, dark chocolate and black interior set off by the red leather seats, plus an unexpectedly supple ride and spotless build quality, the 500C Lounge feels more luxury than economy. Even rear-seat passengers will agree, so long as they don’t play for the NBA.

This car punches above its weight just about everywhere. It’s stable and confident on the highway, where it goes 35 to 40 miles on a gallon of regular. It doesn’t feel undergunned in traffic. In the city it takes no guff from taxicabs and it slips easily into the tightest parking spaces. Winter? Front-wheel drive saw us nicely through last Thanksgiving’s snowstorm.

I’m still looking for excuses to drive this little jewel. Furthermore, the Fiat no longer feels oddly small. Instead, I look at other vehicles around me and wonder why they’re all so big and ungainly.