When auto writers vie to be the first to drive a car finished in metallic brown, with a matching brown interior, you know the manufacturer is onto something. At its nostalgic best, that's a color combination befitting a decades-old American luxury barge, complete with opera windows, whitewall tires and pillow-soft suspension. My father's Pontiac Parisienne comes to mind.
That said, as we all know, everything sounds better in Italian. The brown car in question was the 2012 Fiat 500C, finished in an Espresso paint job with Marrone leather seats that looked as comfortable as a well-worn catcher's mitt.
The 500C is the drop-top version of the 500 hatchback, a small and exceptionally cute car that's big on style and economy, though rather short on rear legroom.
2012 Fiat 500C
- What is it? An open-top version of the Mexican-made Italian minicar that went on sale in the U.S. this year.
- How much? $20,000 base (including $500 shipping fee); $21,750 as tested for Pop trim level with options including Bose premium audio system, 15-inch alloy wheels. The upmarket Lounge version starts at $24,000.
- What makes it run? 1.4-liter MultiAir in-line 4-cylinder (101 horsepower, 98 pound-feet of peak torque) with a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive.
- Is it quick? The 500C is slightly slower than the 500 hardtop, which is itself no speed demon. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph takes about 10 seconds.
- Is it thirsty? The EPA economy rating is 30 mpg in town, 38 on the highway with the manual transmission, and 27/32 with the automatic.
- Alternatives? Mini Cooper convertible, $25,550; Smart Fortwo Cabrio, $18,440
Alas, performance is not a priority, at least not until the sportier Abarth version arrives early next year. Acceleration is leisurely. Passing slower vehicles on two-lane roads requires the kind of planning you expect of Navy Seal teams.
After spending time with both the manual and automatic gearboxes, I'd counter the conventional wisdom and recommend the automatic. The shift quality was smooth and the gearbox matched the easy-going nature of the Fiat as I meandered along winding roads in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.
Of course, if you prefer better gas mileage — and the idea of holding onto the extra grand that Fiat charges for the automatic — the 5-speed manual is perfectly fine and easy to use.
During my time behind the wheel, the near-constant threat of rain meant keeping one eye on the sky when the top was down. With the push of a button, the two-layer cloth top slides back from the windshield. The magic stops momentarily at what Fiat refers to as the "spoiler" position, where the glass rear window stays upright. Press the button again, and the entire top folds into a tidy stack behind the rear headrests. The full disappearing act can be done on the go, at speeds up to 50 mph.
Rear visibility suffers when you roll back the roof, because the retracted top takes up much of the space where the rear window had been. Luggage space also shrinks, from a modest 9.5 cubic feet in the 500 hatch to a puny 5.4 in the 500C.
The roof rails stay in place too, which undoubtedly helps to maintain the car's structural rigidity. Yet I wish Fiat's engineers had given them the heave-ho, and provided a way to roll down the fixed rear side windows, so the 500C would have the open-air look and feel of a real convertible.
All 500Cs come with anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, traction control and enough air bags (seven altogether) to turn the Fiat into a four-wheel flotation device.
The 500C is often compared to the similarly adorable Mini convertible. But the 500C, which is seven inches shorter than the Mini, feels softer. The steering is considerably less crisp, and the Fiat leans more in the corners than its BMW-owned competitor. But the Fiat is quieter over every type of road.
Overall, the Mini feels more like an economical sports car, whereas the 500C feels more like a sporty economy car.
In addition, compared with the low-slung driving position of the Mini, the Fiat 500C's is noticeably loftier, like being perched on a sofa. Then again, Americans tend to enjoy sofas, which might explain Fiat's decision to equip American-bound 500s with wider front seats than models sold in Europe.