By Jonathan Crouch
Fiat's lovable 500 citycar is even harder to resist in 500 C convertible form. One of the most affordable routes to open-topped motoring is also one of the very best. Let's check it out as a used buy.
New born kittens, baby seals, a panda licking a big lollipop, little kids dressed up as teddy bears with big fluffy ears and bow ties... All the things that make you go aww.. If you like everything with a double-dose of saccharine sweetness, you'll be going all gooey and weak at the knees just from the thought of all that cuteness bundled up together. And when it comes to cars, you'll be just the sort of person that will take next to no time to fall in love with the little convertible we're looking at here, Fiat's 500C. This car is cute made metal.
Good things very often come in small packages and there's little doubt that the little 500 has been a 'good thing' for Fiat, rejuvenating the Italian brand from America to Andalucia. So when the Turin maker offered fixed-top buyers the option of this open-roof version in 2009, further success looked certain, even though the cabriolet premium was a hefty one. As it turned out, British buyers didn't mind paying a little extra. Though our land sees less of the sun than almost any other nation in Europe, our love of convertible cars remains undiminished, with demand unmatched across the continent. In any case, this Fiat still offered its customers pretty much the most affordable route to open-topped motoring it was possible to take and in its later guises, fresher air from the exhaust complimented that available from opening the roof, thanks to the adoption of clever Twinair engine technology.
The result sounds tempting as a used buy, but will it also appeal to those with tastes beyond the sickly sweet? That's what we're here to find out in this guide to used models sold between 2009 and 2015.
What You Get
So. Just how much cute can you cram into one car? For goodness sake, even the Tychy manufacturing plant in Poland where Fiat built this convertible version of its 500 citycar has a cute name. It's tempting to imagine the factory as a Willy Wonka-style operation where the cars float on rivers of golden syrup down assembly lines run by a green-skinned chorus line of oompah-loompahs. A factory of fun where the foreman is a talking spoon and there's a gingerbread man in middle management.
All right, so we're getting carried away, but who couldn't love a face like this, faithfully updated from an original 1957 Cinquecento model that was offered as a convertible from very early on - in 1958. We say a 'convertible': in fact, that design wasn't one in the form in the way we recognise today. Rather than the complete top half of the car raising and folding back, it used a kind of giant sunroof in a sardine tin-like arrangement that saw the canvas top concertina-ing backwards and forwards to suit the weather. Half a century on, either in a nod to the original or a bid to save costs, this 500C was developed to use exactly the same kind of idea, open-roofed, yet retaining the same B-pillars, door frames and rear side windows as the standard fixed-top hatch.
It's led to some rivals sniffily doubting whether this car is a 'proper convertible' but loyal buyers didn't seem to care, pointing to the ease of use of this arrangement and the way that it was possible to electrically open or close the 6ft fabric roof in up to three positions at speeds of up to 37mph via upper buttons near the rear view mirror. However far you retract it, that roof has a lot of material to fold. Actually we've found this more of a problem in the halfway-back position where the bulging creases create plenty of wind judder that's only partly alleviated by the optional wind deflector that original buyers could purchase to mount behind the front seat headrests. With the top fully back, there's a plump sandwich of fabric but the judders disappear and there's more of a proper cabriolet feeling.
Unlike the original Fiat 500's canvas roof, this double-layered fabric top won't leak or flap about. It also features a proper glass rear window and was available in a choice of colours, so original buyers could easily personalise their cars. And unlike most convertibles, it doesn't even impinge on bootspace, the 182-litre capacity being virtually the same as you'd get on the normal 500 hatch. Compare that to the paltry 125-litres you'd get with a pricier drop-top MINI from this era. The bootlid itself does, it's true, have a pretty small opening but at least you can use it when the soft top's fully down, the electrics automatically lifting the retracted hood bundle a few cms upwards when the boot release is activated so you can raise the luggage door properly. Should you need more carriage capacity, the rear seats fold forward to increase the space available to 520-litres, though rather meanly, a split-folding arrangement wasn't fitted as standard to base 'Pop'-trimmed models.
Otherwise, the feel is much as it is in any ordinary 500 hatchback, delicious detailing everywhere around the cabin, from the chrome-ringed vents to the circular head restraints. There are a few small issues you'll need to get used to of course: the way the steering wheel is adjustable for height but not for reach - though that's mitigated to some extent by the standard inclusion of a height-adjustable driver's seat. A little more annoying is the way that the circular electronic display in the centre of the speedo becomes illegible with the roof down in bright sunlight.
In buying this car, you might be expecting moans from rear seat passengers. This Fiat is, after all, just 3.5m long. Actually, space in the back isn't as much of an issue as you might think. The fabric roof doesn't impinge on rear seat headroom and the designers have made excellent use of the space available to them with clever touches like the neat elbow cut-outs indented into the side panels. It all explains why we've sat in the back of convertibles half as big again that offered less rear passenger space. There's even very reasonable in-cabin stowage, with a usefully deep shelf ahead of the passenger, a small pop-out cubby on the driver's side of the centre console and the usual door bins and cupholders. Even the passenger seat cushion tips forward to reveal an oddments compartment.
What to Look For
The 500C has earned a decent reliability record, helped in no small part by its reliable engines. The biggest reported issue to date has been premature ball joint wear and pressure plate issues - but this manly applies only to early models. Check for upholstery damage caused by child seats in the back, typical supermarket dints and scrapes, slipping clutches on the manual cars and ensure all the electrical functions - which can get surprisingly sophisticated on up-spec models - work as advertised as these can be expensive to fix. The 500C isn't bad on consumables like brake pads and most people should be able to park it without nerfing the extremities.
Our ownership survey revealed a large number of satisfied buyers, but there were a few issues that you might want to look out for. We found a few people having trouble with the optional Dualogic automatic gearbox; in one case, it was automatically going into neutral on the move. One owner had an issue with an intermittently inoperative passenger-side rear light; another heard a knocking sound when braking on steep roads. We also came across a few owners who reported hearing metal clunking sounds in the passenger footwell. One owner also reported that the engine fan kept coming on after 15 minutes of use. Listen out for all these things. Other issues were slightly more minor. One owner reported that the ignition light came on at cruising speeds of over 70mph, while another reported that their multifunction display had gone blank. One driver had issues with the seat belt holder clips. And another reported that the coolant temperature and ABS warning lights came on when the indicator was used.
[based on 500C 1.2-litre petrol - 2014] A set of brake pads are around £15 but you could pay as much as £35 for a pricier brand. Brake discs cost around £25 to £40. Brake callipers are around £200. Air filters are in the £8 to £15 bracket. Oil filters cost around £5. A fuel pump will cost around £215, or between £275 to £320 if you want a pricier brand. You'll pay around £10 to £12 for a wiper blade but you could pay as much as £30 for a pricier brand. A timing belt would be around £20-£35, with a full timing belt kit costing anything between £60 to £75 - or as much as £130 if you go for a pricier brand. Bash one of the wing mirrors and you're looking at paying between £8 and £13 for the mirror section or between £100 and £110 if you need to replace the whole wing mirror unit. A radiator would be around £125, a water pump would be around £30 to £45 and a thermostat will cost round £45. A shock absorber would be priced in the £35 to £45 bracket, or between £55 and £90 if you want a pricier brand
On The Road
On the Road
Step into the 500C and, as you might expect, it's very similar to the hard-topped hatchback. The driving position is quite upright but not uncomfortable, and the large, thin-rimmed steering wheel and billiard ball-type gearknob both add to the retro flavour. The controls are simple and easy to use, while the large door mirrors compensate for the fairly dramatic loss of rearward vision when the roof is fully folded. To be fair, this aspect isn't as bad as you'd find with cabriolet versions of the MINI or the VW Beetle but you'd still ideally want to make sure that you find yourself an example of this car fitted with the parking sensors that were optional on most variants from new.
Urban agility is of course what you want in such a compactly proportioned urban runabout. Sure enough, this is a great car for city motoring, especially in 875cc TwinAir guise. For a start, this version has an engine note to suit the cheeky retro looks, a putter-putter sound that seems to be exactly the kind of thing you'd have heard from the 1957 original nipping through the back streets of Naples. Not that there isn't also a place for the more conventional four cylinder petrol engines in the range, the 69bhp 1.2 that slots below TwinAir motoring and the 100bhp 1.4 that fits in just above it, enlarged to 140bhp in the pokey Abarth hot hatch model. You can also see why some 500C buyers might continue to prefer the 95bhp 1.3-litre diesel variant, which on paper matches the TwinAir's frugality but in day-to-day reality, probably betters it.
On the open road, this car reveals itself as one of the very few open-tops able to better the dynamic prowess of the fixed-roof version it's based upon. The addition of a rear anti-roll bar and softer springs make this a much pleasanter car to hustle along over point-to-point journeys you can actually complete very quickly due to the perky performance common to all variants bar the entry-level petrol 1.2. This TwinAir unit gets you from rest to sixty in 11s on the way to 108mph - and feels faster. The diesel version's useful 200Nm of torque makes it feel similarly feisty, while the fiery Abarth model rockets to sixty in just 8.1s on the way to nearly 130mph. At that sort of speed, roof-retracted, hairpieces will need to be firmly glued on, though to be fair, one of the many advantages in going with what amounts to a giant sunroof rather than a full convertible is that al-fresco roof buffeting is reduced. It's also worth mentioning that when closed, the two-layer fabric top does a fine job of sealing out road and wind noise.
It's true that if you work the TwinAir's two cylinder engine hard, it can get a bit vocal but even then, the gruff, slightly throbby note is characterful rather than unpleasant and around town, refinement is more than acceptable. If you are urban-bound and especially keen on cutting costs, there's the option on a TwinAir variant of pushing an 'Eco' button on the dash which cuts your pulling power from 145 to just 100Nm - which can be a be disconcerting if you forget it's on then suddenly need to dive for a gap in the traffic. We'd leave the thing alone. A better option for Townies would be to find a 500C fitted with the optional Dualogic gearbox, a kind of manual transmission without a clutch. These people will also particularly like the 'City' mode option on the power steering that can increase the assistance you get at parking speeds. Urban-friendly through and through you see.
We're used to the idea of paying through the nose for items deemed to be on the cutting edge of fashion but Fiat's 500C provides a welcome break from all that. Though the premium this soft-top model demands over its hatchback counterpart seems quite high, the overall package still represents pretty much the most affordable route into soft-top motoring. And the car that comes with it remains one of the trendiest on the road, just as liable to turn heads whether you've plumped for the entry-level 1.2-litre version or shelled out for something much plusher.
Here's a carefree car that's free, sunny and open in its outlook - and very difficult to dislike with a sheer joie de vivre that's central to its charming appeal, turning even the most mundane of commutes into something far more attractive: a journey to be savoured, rather than endured.