The open-topped Fiat 500C is much more costly than its hatchback sibling. Is it worth the premium?

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Just when you thought the Fiat 500 couldn’t get any cuter, along comes this 500C ‘cabriolet’ version to make you think again.

For reasons of historical accuracy, ease of use and, no doubt, expediency the 500C is not a full cabriolet in the conventional sense where the entire top of the car can be folded away out of sight.

Even entry-level cars are rather costly

Indeed rival manufacturers may of sniffed that ‘it’s just a big sunroof, not a proper convertible', but judging by the DS 3, Citroën and Peugeot following suit, there must be some logic to this apparent madness. Rather more likely to dent its chances of becoming as wildly popular as its hyper-achieving tin-top sister is Fiat’s decision to charge a bigger premium for its convertible than Mini does.

As we shall see, a roll-back roof isn't quite all you get for the extra money, but with even entry-level cars being rather costly, the breadth of customers both able and inclined to buy one will naturally be somewhat reduced.

The Fiat has been faclifted since we first tested the 500C, but fear not, the recipe hasn't been tampered all that much, with revised lighting, bumpers and streamlined trim levels chief among the changes witnessed.

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Fiat 500C rear

It is easy to become bogged down in an ‘is it or is it not a convertible’ argument with the 500C. On the one hand, the roof opens as far as any normal convertible; on the other, the Fiat retains its B-pillars, door frames and immobile rear side windows, so you cannot possibly ever feel as truly exposed to the elements as you would in a normal convertible.

Then again, in this approach there are advantages to the owner in terms of torsional rigidity, reduced weight gain and the maintenance of the original’s gorgeous lines and, to Fiat, doubtless a massive cost saving.

You can't feel as exposed to the elements as in a normal convertible

The good news is that, unlike conventional convertibles, the 500C’s weight has not ballooned by a substantial three-figure number of kilos; even with its additional cross-bracing it’s a mere 40kg heavier, providing the hope of all but unaffected performance and economy, while Fiat already claims its CO2 output is near identical to that of the standard car.

The other substantial change to the 500C sits unseen between the rear wheels, where an anti-roll bar has now been fitted. This is a modification first seen on the Ford Ka (whose platform it shares with the 500) and follows the widespread view that Ford achieved a somewhat more optimal ride/handling balance than Fiat.

Fiat does not say whether the 500C also inherits the Ka’s softer rear springs, but such is the change in its dynamic behaviour that we would be surprised if it does not.

The mid-life facelift saw Fiat reluctant to tamper too much with its winning formula, and as a result kept changes to the exterior to a minimum with restyled lights and bumpers leading the way, while the engine line-up lost the diesel unit which punctuated the relaunched Fiat 500's range. So now Fiat's retro throwback returns to petrol power the way it should be.


Fiat 500C interior

First the bad news. When you sit inside the Fiat 500C and peel the roof as far back as it will go, the result neither looks nor feels like a full convertible. You notice the doorframes to your side and the structural components of the roof above you.

Make no mistake: this is a fantastically airy environment, but that sense of spatial freedom derived from driving a full convertible with the roof and windows down, where the A-pillars and windscreen are the only things between you and the world outside, is missing.

The cabin is the same old triumph of style over substance

For those travelling in the back, with small, fixed panes of glass to their sides, it feels even more like a hatchback with a hole in the roof.

The better news is that to many – particularly that sizeable constituency of purchasers who buy convertibles because they are more interested in the admiration of their peers than the wind in their hair – the 500C will still prove mighty appealing, not least because the gorgeous lines of the 500 are unaffected.

It’s all a question of perspective. Look at the hood as a large sunroof and you will find it profoundly annoying that you have to slow to 37mph every time you want to move it. But view it as a convertible and it’s an unheard-of bonus to be able to open and close it without needing to crawl at walking pace or stop altogether.

What few will welcome, however, is the almost total obliteration of rearward vision once it’s folded in its fully down position, leaving the impression that you’re driving the world’s most compact, fashion-conscious van. Of course, you don’t have to have the hood so far back, but if you keep the roof in an intermediate position the wind can make its folds thrum annoyingly at speed.

Otherwise, the cabin is the same old triumph of style over substance. The dash is a wonderful piece of artwork and the dial-within-a-dial instrument solution is smart and clever. But we still don’t see why the driving position needs to be so poor, with the pedals set too high and the steering wheel so far away from the driver. Clearer ergonomics would not go amiss either.

So far as interior space is concerned, the package remains the same as the 500, which is to say there’s more than enough room in the front for adults of almost all sizes but while rear headroom is excellent for the car’s size, leg room is severely restricted.

Impressively the boot has suffered hardly at all despite the proximity of the roof, boasting a still modest 182 litre capacity, just three less than that of the 500, but a split rear seat is an option.

As for the trim levels, there are three to choose from - Pop, Pop Star and Lounge. The entry-level Pop trim comes with 14in steel wheels complete with vintage styled hub caps, a adjustable driver's seat, LED day-running-lights, and Fiat's Uconnect infotainment system, with USB connectivity. Upgrade to the Pop Star trim and the key additions are 15in alloy wheels and air conditioning.

The range-topping Lounge model gets far more luxury, with rear parking sensors, front foglights, a 5.0in touchscreen display, DAB radio and Bluetooth. We would recommend upgrading the infotainment system to the optional 7in touchscreen system, which we tried on the Tipo, as it has a better resolution and can be specced with sat nav too.


Fiat 500C side profile

You don’t expect much with the entry-level 1.2-litre model developing just 69bhp doing the talking and, in this regard, the 500C springs no surprises: its performance is as modest as its 13.2sec 0-60mph time suggests. Away from the test track it’s slower still thanks to Fiat’s decision to fit courageously high gearing. Despite a top speed of just 99mph, this is a car that will comfortably reach over 80mph in just the third of its five gears.

The more entertaining choice is the two-cylinder, 875cc TwinAir engine. What it lacks in power - 84bhp arrives at 5500rpm, torque peaks at 106lb ft at 1900rpm - it makes up for with character. The fizzy, raspy engine loves to rev and it despite a lack of pace - 0-62mph takes 11sec - it's hard not to give the engine death. It loves to be worked hard. But if you want a tad more power to go with this peppy character then ther is the range-topping 103bhp version of the TwinAir unit.

The top speed is just 99mph

In other cars this paucity of performance might prove irksome but in the 500C it seems adequate for the car’s character. Partly this is down to the engine’s enthusiasm and its consequent ability to make you feel you’re going faster than you are, but in the main the fact is the 500C has not one sporting bone in its body and it’s easier and more pleasant just to cruise along feeling good about what you’re in rather than how fast you’re going.

Besides, the slower you go the more time there is for people to look at you, and judging from the looks we received, you’d need to be in an orange Murcielago to attract much more attention than when pedalling the 500C with the roof down.

No model is so slow that it turns long journeys into hard labour. There’s enough pep from the engine to allow the 500’s slippery shape to more than stay the pace of typical outside lane traffic, the only annoyance being that gentle gradients can see you reaching for the gear lever to maintain momentum: it’s that high gearing again.

The gearbox itself is pleasant and offers up it five forward ratios without hesitation. Less impressive are the brakes which, while perfectly capable of stopping the car in an emergency, feel rather light and spongy underfoot.


Fiat 500C cornering

After the Alfa 8C Spider, the Fiat 500C is another Italian convertible that handles better than the hard-top version from which it is derived. 

This, of course, has nothing to do with the conversion process, which has clearly (and inevitably) compromised the car’s rigidity, as shown by the slight but detectable shimmies that can eddy through the car’s structure if you drop a wheel into a pothole or just drive down a poorly surfaced B-road at speed.

You’d need to live on a freshly frozen lake before you’d call the ride smooth

The gain comes from the modifications to the rear suspension and have improved both the ride and handling of the 500C. It feels more compliant, less likely to trip over ridges and be deflected by mid-corner bumps, yet no less sharp when you turn into corners and a good deal more fluid through them.

Even so, you’d need to live on a freshly frozen lake before you’d call the ride smooth. Annoying jiggles of a kind you’d never find in, say, a Ford Fiesta pepper your progress and fuel the suggestion that Fiat spent rather more time on how the car looks than how it drives.

The test car came with optional ESP which postponed its activation until it was really needed but even if you switched it off there is nothing remotely tricky about the way the 500C handles at speed.

On optional 185 section tyres grip on wet and dry roads was impressive and there’s even a useful level of correction available by lifting the throttle to those find themselves needing to refine their line through the corner.


Fiat 500C

The 500C only seems unreasonably expensive when seen in the context of the Fiat 500; compare it instead with the loosely assembled collection of oddball others you might want to describe as rivals and suddenly it doesn’t seem so pricey after all.

Nevertheless, Fiat dealers up and down the country will have been deluged by customers asking to explain why they’re being asked to pay a large premium for a piece of folding fabric, even if it can be chosen in three different colours.

The 500 suffers from a tiny 35-litre fuel tank

The answer is air-conditioning as standard (it’s an option on the 500 Pop) and body coloured bumpers. It’s not a long list, particularly to those who bought the car specifically so they can open the roof on a warm day because they prefer their air be fresh rather than conditioned. To Fiat the cost of engineering a sliding fabric roof must be a very small fraction of what rivals must have stumped up designing and packaging a true convertible roof.

In answer to this some might simply say well done Fiat. And there’s no doubting its roof solution has merits beyond its simplicity. It poses no great air management problems for Fiat and even if you forget to flip up the little front air-dam on top of the windscreen, you can cruise all day without being buffeted by the air. Put the roof up and refinement levels are such that you might as well be in the hatchback.

It’s a frugal way of getting about too with the 1.2 offering a 55.4mpg combined consumption figure. It should be said now that a Mini Cooper Mini Convertible still gets within a whiff of 50mpg despite an engine producing nearly twice the power. The TwinAir records a 68.9mpg average, but few have got close to this impressive sounding figure. The diesel claims 72.4mpg on the combined cycle.

The 500 also suffers from a tiny 35 litre fuel tank, which is only a couple of litres more than you get in a Smart, so at the 37.8mpg we averaged on test, that restricts your realistic driving range to around 290 miles.

If the hatchback is any guide, the 500C is going to cling to its second-hand value like a ship-wrecked sailor to a passing plank. In fact because that roof will make the 500C even more desirable, we wouldn’t be surprised if, combined with its comparative scarcity, it wasn’t an even better performer on the second-hand market. 

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4 star Fiat 500C

Given the success of the Fiat 500, there seem to be few certainties more racing than that the 500C will go the same way. Indeed if you like the 500, it’s hard to see why you would not like the 500C even more.

Unlike so many converted hatches, it has lost none of the charm or style of its parent, and far from being worse to drive, it’s actually a tangibly better steer. You get all the pleasure and none of the pain.

Its not just our favourite budget rag top, it is by a mile

Apart, that is, from the price. Whether the extra is a genuine reflection of what Fiat needs to charge to maintain a sensible margin or blatant profiteering we cannot say.

What we can say is that there are few cars of a comparable price that have more charm and none that is a convertible. Its not just our favourite budget rag top, it is by a mile, neither the Peugeot 108 Top or Citroën C1 Airscape have the character, allure or ability as the little Fiat.

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Fiat 500C First drives