2012 Fiat 500: Reincarnated

I wrestle with the idea of convertibles for the same reason I get cranky with my kids for wanting a swimming pool. We may have the room (if not the money), but it’s hard to drum up the inclination for something that will get so little use in our abbreviated Canadian summer. Convertibles leave me yearning for the top down, which is something I can rarely have.

Most manufacturers lunge to the rescue of convertibles by just hacking off the top of their cars. Top up, many convertibles look like afterthoughts, as if designers did all they could, then threw up their hands and said “never run an ad with the top up!” There are many contestants in this category, but the PT Cruiser will take home the ugly crown, hands down.

The way around this, of course, is to head to the sports sector. Oh, how they get the sporty ones right. Mercedes, BMW, Mazda, Mini — all have entries in this category that look darling top up or down.

So what’s so different with the Fiat 500 Cabrio? Start with the price. The cabrio comes in two models—The Pop starts at $19,995, the Lounge at $22,995. The $3,000 boost covers, among other things, leather instead of cloth, aluminum wheels, hands-free communication system, steering wheel audio controls, better speakers and fog lights. What if you could get the fun and the sun without paying the premium?

Marketed as a convertible, the 500c is arguably not. With rigid door frames remaining in place, it occupies a self-created gap between sunroof and convertible.

There is more than a passing nod to the original Fiat, one of which was on hand for comparison. Turning the suicide doors around and tucking the hinges to the inside, there is still a fun, common touch that remains. Intended as a car for the masses, it has been forwarded almost three decades by Chrysler, and positioned to occupy a near-mystery niche: Male? Female? Younger? Older? Upscale? Cost conscious? How about all of the above?

At first glance, it’s the Mini convertible that springs to mind. But with Minis starting about $10,000 higher, it will be interesting to see if buyers will sacrifice some of the sportier drive of the Mini. Cargo space is weekend excursion friendly; the Fiat 500c boasts better rear leg room than the Mini, but it’s splitting hairs. It’s strictly for the smaller set. The Smart car might be a more obvious competitor, except the Fiat again harkens back to its roots and would let you haul a couple of kids to the beach.

The soft cloth top comes in three colours – red, black and tan. Pair that with 14 paint choices and 10 interior options, and you can really individualize this car. Well, mostly. I’m sure they’ll save you from yourself — that red roof might have some clashing considerations, though it is a fun variation from most softtops.

The tiny size of the Fiat 500c is a no-brainer for the tightly packed SoHo streets where we were parked. The skies threatened rain, though, and I figured we’d only be driving with the top up, anyway, listening for the noise that you can’t avoid in most convertibles. But when we reached the faster roads of the New Jersey countryside, there was no noise — one of the advantages of this roof design.

It’s really more like a full length sunroof than a convertible. It’s the same affordable solution that Citroen found years ago for sun-loving, cash-strapped Europeans with the venerable 2CV.

As with the Mini and the Smart, push a button, and it folds back on itself in two stages. Unlike the Mini, and not unlike opening a can of sardines, the side frame of the car stays intact with its C-pillar still in place and attached to the window frames. The Smart offers the choice of snapping out those window frames or leaving them intact.

In fact, you’ll notice most promotional pictures are taken from overhead — the side angle, a classic for most convertibles, doesn’t reveal much of a difference from the Fiat 500 hatchback. That’s because there isn’t one.

I love this idea. You might not. If you like your convertibles pure and turbulent, open to the sides and the sky, the Fiat 500c might be too composed for you.

But this top takes up no room when folded, allowing unchanged space for bags, and adds only negligible weight (24kg) to the car. It also lets me forget I’m in a convertible when the top is up, and it starts at $20,000.

So is this really a convertible, deserving of its exotic cabriolet name? Who cares?

I’m never going to rethink the pool. But this idea from another time might make me rethink top-down driving.