Drive: Fiat 500 Convertible

Fiat 500C


I’m away this weekend but following on from the Fiat 500 Abarth story a few days ago, I thought I’d re-share my own thoughts on the Fiat 500 from January 2012. Note that we had a non-Abarth version, hence the non-noteworthy performance on the highways.


When you live in Tasmania, 4 or 5 hours on a plane will barely get you out of the country. When you’re living in Sweden, 4 or 5 hours on a plane can get you just about anywhere. So it should come as no great surprise that this normally stuck-at-the-end-of-the-world Tasmanian availed himself of an opportunity to see a little more of ‘the continent’ whilst working for Saab during 2011.

The month was October and the occasion was Mrs Swade’s birthday. She’d already done the long-haul from Tassie to Sverige a few days before. To celebrate her advancing into another year, we jumped on a plane and flew to Mallorca for a week of sunshine, good food and general R&R.

It was during our stay on this island paradise that I had the opportunity to take the new-ish Fiat 500 for a spin.

I’ve placed this photo at the top quite deliberately. Whilst it’s been out in Europe for a couple of years now, the Fiat 500 has only recently been launched in the United States. It’s fair to say that Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne placed some high hopes on the little car leading Fiat’s charge back into the US. Some 50,000 sales were forecast in the first year, though less than 20,000 little Fiats had actually been sold when the ball dropped for 2012.

Of course, the US is well known as being the home of big cities (good potential for a city car) but it’s also the home of big families and big landscapes viewed whilst driving big distances along big highways between those big cities, and none of those other ‘bigs’ are particularly good for the 500.

Europe is also home to some big cities, just like the US. But unlike the US, many of those European cities have very small streets and it’s in those busy little streets that the 500 really shows its stuff.

So in considering the 500, you’ve got to consider the situation it was made for. It’s a city car and that’s how Fiat will have to market it in the US. They shouldn’t just market it as cute, because cute will wear off if people are buying it for the wrong reason. If word gets around that owners in the suburban fringe don’t find it fit for purpose, there will be problems.

Fortunately for the 500, and for Fiat, it’s very good at the things it was made for.

Our drive involved a rented Fiat 500 Convertible – in red (of course) – and a full day on the open road in Mallorca. I realise that sounds like a stark contrast to all the city-car stuff I’ve just carried on with, but bear with me.

The 500 we drove had the four cylinder 1.4 16V engine that produces 100hp at 6000rpm. That doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t, but then the 500 weighs as much as a wet towel and is geared in such a way that the car is actually quite zippy if you go no higher than 3rd gear.

Herein lies both the magic and the downfall of the Fiat 500.

Take a closer look at that map and you’ll notice that much of our drive (starting from Palma and going clockwise) was along that very squiggly purple line – the north-west coast of Mallorca. This road is a majestic, postcard-worthy ribbon that’s chock full of curves and switchbacks. We drove nearly 100 kilometers without going beyond third gear and with its short wheelbase and light weight, the 500 was more fun than a sack full of puppies. So much fun, in fact, that Mrs Swade had to request a “fresh air” stop along the way πŸ™‚

Some of that magic Mallorcan coastline…..

It wasn’t all hairpins and eye-candy, however.

We had some straight stretches of Mallorcan highway to drive on our way home and this is where the 500 is vulnerable.

The car will get up to 100km/h – eventually. Overtaking is strictly for when you’ve got both a clear lane and clear sight lines reaching a loooooong way ahead. Whilst the lower gears are quite short, the higher gears are quite tall so as to sip as little fuel as possible. The consequence is very slow acceleration at speed, but this is one of the things you just have to accept with the 500 if and when you choose it.

Whilst the Fiat 500 can’t prosper on looks alone – even the convertible – there’s no doubt that it does indeed look quite funky…..

Like BMW’s interpretation of a modern Mini, Fiat have got it spot-on with the 500. It looks every bit as cheeky as it’s 20th century namesake, even if it’s quite a bit larger by comparison.

In fact, it’s surprising just how spacious the 500 is. I’m a tad over 6 feet tall and over 100 kilos, and yet I had absolutely no problem driving the car all day. I’m not sure a back-seat passenger would have said the same (if we had one), but still…..

The interior is funky to look at, too, even if some of the materials feel like they’ll wear poorly after a couple of years – the switchgear, in particular. Our car had all the gadgets we needed for our day trip except for satnav, and everything was easy to access and intuitive to use. You can’t ask for more than that.

I suppose I should say something about the roof of our car. It was the 500C, after all.

Truth be known, we didn’t ask for a convertible and if we had the choice, we wouldn’t have taken one. Neither Mrs Swade or I are huge convertible fans when it comes to daytime use. I love them in the evening, but a sunburnt scalp isn’t my idea of driving fun. So we didn’t actually lay the roof back until we pulled back into Palma for some still shots.

The 500 roof is the old-school type that slides back within some rails, leaving the side windows in place. It is a nice, airy feeling with the roof open and we did enjoy it a little as the day progressed and the sun got lower in the sky.

Driving with it closed for most of the day, I have to say that I didn’t really notice any unwelcome wind noise at all, which was great. 250km with a whistling roof would have driven me batty!

There’s a temptation to think of a car like the Fiat 500 as bit of an automotive handbag, especially in convertible guise. In many ways, it is. But I defy any honest gent to whip around town in one of these and not finish the journey with a big smile on his face.

It’s zippy. It’s great to see one on the road, great to drive one, and it’s undeniably FUN.

The only caveat is on how you use it. This IS a car with compromises, but if you live in an environment where those compromises are part of normal everyday living, there’s nothing to stop you having a great, funky looking car that runs on an oily rag and can fit into a parking space the size of a postage stamp.

I certainly enjoyed my time with it, but would I buy one?

Mallorca was full of Minis and I have to say the extra punch of the Mini would be pretty hard to resist if I wanted a car in this small size category. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be displeased if our living conditions required such a vehicle and Mrs Swade bought one home.

Now, back to those Mallorcan memories……

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  1. It’s nice to see that FIAT is still using the same top as my family’s 1954 500c convertible. The car was a blast to drive and handled like a go-kart. It felt a lot faster than it was. πŸ™‚

  2. Great car I AGREE but on the whole a pretty hopeless dealer network and ownership experience at least in the UK. Same I am afraid for Alfa Romeo and in the past Lancia. I used to own a Fiat Tipo Sedicivalvole. Fantastic drive but when problems arose dealers were either unable to fix without several attempts or wanted to charge the earth.
    Resale value was quite poor and in the end I got into a Saab
    The rest is history I am now in my 5th 9-5 having had 2×9-3’s

  3. I was thinking about the 500 this week, and why it isn’t doing so well in the US.

    I’m sure the dealer network is part of the problem. Dodge dealers have no clue how to sell this type of car, and probably discourage customers in the hope of “up-selling” them into a Caliber or Avenger. I remember Dodge dealers trying to sell Peugeot (in Canada), Mistubishi (Colt), Benz (Chrysler Crossfire), Renault (Eagle Premier). Every one of these attempts was a failure. The customers for these cars were like space aliens in Dodge dealerships; dealers couldn’t relate to them at all (“she’s fully loaded with automatic and velour seats, what will it take to get you into this baby today?”).
    Hate to use the dated term “paradigm shift,” but the dealerships can’t begin to understand how someone can want a car with manual transmission and leather. The only reason to get a stick is that you can’t afford the automatic, right?

    The other issue is the lack of a halo model. That will be solved soon with the 500 Abarth, so I will see if I am right.
    There are a few more brands that could use a halo model in the US. Smart and Suzuki come to mind. Both could get more showroom traffic if they offered something with more horsepower than sense. Price it high to keep it exclusive, and make sure you have one in the showroom.
    There’s a reason why Subaru took off after they shipped-in the STI. People sit in the STI and imagine themselves winning rally championships. After that, the base Impreza isn’t a weedy compact with a cheap interior any more. Even the kids like it.

  4. The ones I’ve seen on the road are quite attractive and I so dearly wish more car companies would do that kind of bespoke interior design detailing on more mainstream models.

    That said, from a US perspective, this car is irrelevant to about 95% of the population, and I say this as someone who lives in a city. In the US, the marketing mistakes with this vehicle have been well documented by others around the web (especially Peter Delorenzo), and as a launch to the Fiat brand (will there actually be more Fiats?) it’s been muddled and as a launch to the 500 itself somewhat confusing.

    I think they made a mistake bringing this to the US first and should have instead started with a full Alfa lineup, marketed the red paint off of it, and *then* brought over the next gen 500 as boutique models for what would have at that point been the already established dealer network. As a launch vehicle, this hasn’t worked nearly as well as I think that would have. But no one asks me about such things πŸ™‚ .

  5. I’ve seen a few Fiat 500s in New York City. They’re kind of cute but their height to length dimension also makes them look a little ungainly. Like cars I wouldn’t want to drive long distances on an Interstate. So far, they’ve been advertising the basic 500 with amazingly mindless music video-like commercials starring J-Lo. In the commercials, she drives the car through “the hood.” There are two J-Lo commercials, I think. Neither of them will suspend Fiat’s “Fix It Again Tony” reputation in the U.S. There’s a fabulous, genuinely sexy commercial for the 2012 Abarth version of the car, but I’ve only seen it on YouTube. The sooner they run it, the better off they’ll be versus Mini. Come to think of it, I wonder why they didn’t do best forward – Abarth version first – with their return to the U.S.

  6. Nice to see you two together.

    We have a Fiat dealership in Mentor next to a donut shop. That gave me a reason to stop and look at the 500. I was surprised that the fuel economy wasn’t better for such a small car. It is a curious looking car but not attractive to me. I suppose driving one might change my mind.

  7. “…there’s nothing to stop you having a great, funky looking car that runs on an oily rag and can fit into a parking space the size of a postage stamp.”

  8. I just belive in smaller cars , when I first started as a mechanic I had some choise of things and imports payed better and for myself made more sence . X-19’s , 124’s and 500’s were good fun , so I’m glad to see small cars come back in the market their such fun to drive . nice read Steven , Thanks

  9. Drove many of those same roads back in 2002, while there for a week for a friend’s daughter’s wedding in Deia. What a beautiful island. Had a Renault Clio that was fun to drive. Really enjoyed the “twisty bits” away from the towns. πŸ™‚