Monday, March 5, 2012

Fashion it Again, Tony: The 2012 Fiat 500c

The new Fiat 500 is a solid update of the late-Fifties Fiat Cinquecento -- that 18-year exercise in mouse-eyed adorability that once served Americans as a source of low-cost transport, and -- in the case of its larger sibling, the Fiat 600 -- ruinous fan-belt consumption.

As one delivered intact through the 1960s in a rosso 600, I ought to know. Wherever this little runabout ran about, it left behind bits of fan-belt like so many mouse droppings. Thus, I couldn't get my kicks on 66 or anywhere else along the vast Aquarian Plane unless equipped with new belts with which to repair the Fiat's 633-cc motor. This parts-changing ritual yielded nothing in the way of sublime insight. It wasn't Zen and the Art of Incline-four Maintenance or anything like that. In fact, it shred knuckles like the belts they labored to replace. Still, it was a small price to pay for a car that your standard hippie gamine could just hug to death.

The Fiat 600

Not that I was any less affected by the charms of the 600’s bodywork. One sight of it peering up at me from a storm-soaked Bronx street -- it’s baby-faced fascia beaming through the torrent -- and I’d forgive it anything. 

Ah, but all that automotive anthromorphism  disappeared with the Maharishi’s last discomfiting giggle. Once a tie-dyed fellow who'd see the world remade into a tranquil Arcadia, your humble correspondent is now a hard-bitten car writer who'll be glad to see the year pass without hitting a sudden afternoon high of 2,000 degrees. Sure, the new Fiat 500’s lines still appeal in their Fellini-compatible charm -- but only as an unromantic means to an end. After all, this little car is out there having to compete with the Mini Cooper.

And compete it does – albeit unevenly.

The New Fiat 500
The new Fiat 500 first appeared in 2007 based on the earlier Fiat Trepiuno concept. Just as with the old Cinquecento when introduced in 1957, the new incarnation is taking on both the Volkswagen Beetle and aforementioned Mini (stateside, the Renault Dauphine was also in the original mix, but let's not go there). While all now famously sport retro styling, the Fiat does so at a generally lower price-point.

Listing nonetheless for more than $25,000, the 500c tester was a Lounge Cabrio 2-plus (Pop and Sport models are also available) representing the penultimate in trim-lines now that the sport-tuned Abarth model has hit showrooms. As such, its Pepito-the-Little-Mouse aspect is a burnished one, incorporating seven-spoke aluminum wheels, chromium heated side-mirrors and a wine-colored canvas top, this last representing the reprise of another of the old Cinquecento's iconic features.

The 500c’s (the “c” is for convertible) interior is upscale for its class and offers such Lounge Cabrio amenities as automatic temperature controls, Sirius XM satellite radio and a leather-wrapped wheel. It may not provide the best ergonomics, but is tasteful in a way that only enhances the sense of fun the car imparts. The well-bolstered red-leather-trimmed bucket front seats; the simple dash with its cartoon-car instrument binnacle incorporating speedometer, tachometer, and various electronic readouts in a concentric array; all seem designed with the right amount of whimsy in mind. This car is La Dolce Vida without the surreal ironies something for which Jennifer Lopez should’ve returned to her hometown Bronx to drive instead of leaving the job to what must've been a sultry male body double.

Whether J-Lo or not, the Fiat’s driver is perched on high with arms that address the wheel in the outstretched manner Italians favor. It’s a command position that seems more ciao, tutti than anything really commanding, and reflects the Fiat’s high-greenhouse-over-short-(90.6-inch)-wheelbase profile. When two or more of these subcompacts come upon one another, their drivers wave in happy cult-car recognition. Bene. But when Mini Coopers are encountered, the little BMWs scurry off. It’s not that the Minis fear the looming 500s, it’s just that with their superior handling and acceleration, they’re just better at that sort of thing.

But don’t get me wrong, the Lounge Cabrio could scurry. Well, after a fashion anyway. A real mouse surely does better. With its lack of grunt and continuous call down to the engine room for more torque, the Fiat’s aluminum 1.4-liter four produces 101 brake horsepower at 6500 rpm. And while the car’s electro-hydraulic actuated intake valves offer an advance in valve timing, all this technology just seems to give the 500 the heart-meat of an asthmatic hamster. We felt sorry for the thing and wanted to get some country air into those little combustion chambers, so we drove it out to a place on the Piedmont and off the map called Mousetown.

Mousetown bound, the 500c had to first contend with the Interstate, where its lackluster acceleration made entering highways and passing their trucks the stuff of deliberate planning and execution (the car’s upright profile helped it produce the wind roar of a faster vehicle – so there’s that). Here, as elsewhere, the subcompact’s center-console-mounted sport button – which aids in kick-down, road-feel and steering – proved helpful, but at what cost to its 27/32 mpg (of high test) rating could not be determined. Even without use of the sport setting however, the 500C’s steering is responsive, albeit not in the Mini Cooper’s class; while its four-wheel disc brakes provided excellent stopping power.

Grande Entrata, Mousetown
Mousetown lay at the end of an old corduroy road that seemed to travel back a century with each passing mile. It ended in a forest path that looked to be from around the time of the Battle of Cannae – only with hillbillies. While requiring frequent downshifts, the 500c’s six-speed automatic negotiated its rough terrain admirably and allowed the car to ascend more manfully than mouse-fully into the rodentine Brigadoon, which probably had never seen a Fiat of any stripe before.

I sat amid the trees reflecting on the fact that this new Fiat had a truly Italian spirit as a vehicle not be taken too seriously. Rather the 500 is meant to be enjoyed for what it is – a car that creates an atmosphere of fun. In it, you can go to your happy place; just forget about tearing up the highway getting there. 

Then again, one look and you might forgive it anything.


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