Looking at the new Fiat 500 cabriolet's main rivals, Mini and Smart chief among them, all of them have a unique European je ne sais quoi. But the new Italian convertible looks like the hot four-wheel automotive accessory this summer.
Most impressive about the Fiat 500c is that its cheeky Euro-chic style comes with something very un-European: a reasonable price. It is now the least-expensive new convertible sold in Canada, starting at $19,995, with a lower MSRP than even base Jeep Wranglers as well as topless Minis and Smarts.
Of course, that's only looking at list prices: as the ads always say, dealers may sell for less, and in some cases with hot cars available in limited quantities, dealers may sell for more as well.
The 500c continues the rebirth of Fiat in North America; inspired by the 1957 Fiat Cinquecento convertible, there's a sense of history and romance to its lines.
The brand may be Italian, or Italian-American now that it has taken over an official controlling interest in Chrysler, but all of the 500s sold on this continent are built in Toluca, Mexico. Even European 500s are not built in Italy any more, but in Tychy, Poland.
The small three-door hatchback first went on sale on the continent in 2007, but there's no evidence of datedness inside the 2012 model - the 500c offers playful colours on base Pop models, and surprisingly luxurious textures and colours on up-level Lounge ones.
With two comfortable seats up front and another plus-two jumpers in back, the four-seat interior is surprisingly roomy inside, especially compared with a 1962 version I folded myself into recently. That older model did have cooler suicide doors, though.
It also retains the roof of the original Cinquecento, featuring unique fixed B and C-pillars, unlike most convertibles, which allows the safety structure to remain largely intact, and the body does not need heavy reinforcements to keep its solid feel on the road.
With one touch, the top moves to uncover the front seats, but keeps the rear window in place behind you. Touch it again, and the rear window does an artful disappearing act, somehow keeping the high roof-mounted brake light visible in the centre of the folded fabric top.
Another advantage of this top is that the roof can be adjusted at anything outside of highway speeds. It can be retracted to behind the front passengers at up to 96 km/h, while the complete al fresco mode is attainable at up to 80. Unfortunately, it's still missing a clear panel to let in some sunshine such as the VW Eos offers when it's too chilly (or loud) to open.
All 500c owners should thank Fiat marketing folks for making rear parking sensors standard, because with the height of the top folded all the way down, you won't see much directly behind you. Even with the top up, it's a small rear window, so a back-up camera would be the ideal safety solution here.
Our fully loaded 500 Lounge tester greeted us with swanky two-tone chocolate brown and cream leather seats, complete with matching cream dash and chrome accents. Its rosso red colour was repeated inside with large glossy stretches of rosso red fascias, which may remind some of Chrysler's recently departed PT Cruiser insides, but in a much more sophisticated way.
With only 101 hp, it's a good thing that the 500c only carries 24 extra kilos compared to the hardtop, as its small 1.4-litre four is at the struggling side of slow in most instances. A five-speed manual is standard on all models, while a relatively sophisticated six-speed automatic is optional ($1,300), though with no shift paddles.
The manual's pedals are nicely spaced for heel and toe shifting, but with the super light clutch, slower steering and somewhat sloppy shifter, the Mini cabrio is still by far the athlete in this group, being wider and more responsive. That title may be better challenged by Abarth versions of the Fiat 500 scheduled to arrive next year.
The 500c owners' reward for this slightly damped steering and handling response is a mature, sophisticated driving feel, especially for such a small car. And it's a personality trait strengthened by its upscale interior and classic Italian style-looks. It even offers reasonable prices close to those asked in the U.S., within hundreds of dollars at each trim level, although we receive less equipment in ours, and Americans enjoy a no-charge maintenance warranty.
Still, the Fiat 500 cabriolet oozes a new twist on a recipe that cost-conscious Canadians can certainly appreciate: small, chic and cheap.
2012 Fiat 500c Cabriolet
Type: Subcompact convertible hatchback
Base Price: $19,995, as tested: $24,995 (estimated)
Engine: 1.4-litre, inline-four
Horsepower/Torque: 101 hp/98 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual/six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/highway (manual); regular gas
Alternatives: Mazda MX-5, Mini Cooper cabriolet, Smart fortwo cabriolet, Volkswagen Eos