AFTER a bit of a false start on the South African market, Fiat’s cheerful 500 range is now finally priced right and sales are picking up momentum. Adding an extra dose of pep and joie-de vivre to the local line-up is the aggressively priced new 500C convertible version. It’s hard to believe the 500 could get cuter, but the soft-top is just that. Paying homage to the 1957 fabric- roof 500, the newcomer eschews a fully folding roof in favour of a top that simply (and electrically) slides backwards between the roof pillars.

Available in three colours (ivory, red and black), the roof contrasts strongly with the car’s roof pillars, which form bodycoloured arches next to it. Although structural demands necessitated a slightly higher front windscreen, the 500C actually looks most different from the rear due to this strong contrast between the upper (fabric roof) half and lower (steel bodywork) sections, divided by chrome trim. Also, the rear window (glass, with electric demister) is more rounded. Due to the design changes, Fiat also had to completely revise the design of the boot – the lid now lifts upwards and when the soft top is down an electronic device actuautomatically lifts the roof a few centimetres to allow the boot to be opened. Considering the car’s size and the fact that it has four-seater capability as well as an electrically folding roof, the 500C actually is commendably practical. Luggage capacity measures 128 dm3, extendable to 528 by folding the rear seats.

But the trick part is undoubtedly the car’s roof. The top can be operated either using buttons in the roof lining or from the key fob. Furthermore, even when doing the national speed limit, it is possible to slide the roof all the way back. For obvious aerodynamic reasons, the roof can only be slid forwards at speeds under 60 km/h. We think the top works a treat, even though some people will simply see it as a really big sunroof, rather than a full convertible top. Interestingly, we found that buffeting and noise are least prevalent when it is completely open, rather than half-way. In any event, Fiat sells an optional wind-stop that can be affixed to the parcel shelf.

The one major benefit of not going topless all the way and keeping the car’s roof pillars (arches) as part of the structure, is torsional rigidity. So configured, the 500C is not only remarkably free of scuttle shake, but rides and handles like a normal 500 – there’s impressive compliance in the suspension so, unlike many small cars with a sporty bent, the ride is very impressive. But this comfort doesn’t result in poor body control in the twisties either. Certainly, the 500C is no hot hatch, but most testers commented on its fun-to-drive dynamics – it’s an engaging partner, that’s for sure. Fiat makes mention of the 500C gaining the rear anti-roll bar from the marque’s sporty Abarth models.

A contributing factor to the 500C’s exuberant driving appeal is the fact that it’s hardly any heavier than its steel-roofed siblings. This means it can make good use of the willing 1,4-litre 16-valve engine under the bonnet. Producing a healthy 74 kW and 131 N.m of torque, the little engine is mated to a slick sixspeed manual ’box with a lever placed close to the steering wheel.

The engine is very willing to rev – don’t be fooled by the 6 000 r/min red-line, as this is where maximum power is actually developed – a soft limiter only comes into play at 7 000! With a 0-100 km/h time of a leisurely 11,55 seconds, the 500C is admittedly hardly in the performance car segment, yet it entertains, partly because it feels quite a bit faster than it really is due to good throttle sensitivity and a rorty engine sound.

Inside its retro cabin the 500C really does boast space for four and has generally impressive comfort levels for those seated in front, courtesy of nicely padded seats and generous space.

However, some testers couldn’t quite get comfortable at the wheel because the heightadjustable seat doesn’t go down low enough, and also because the steering wheel is only adjustable for rake, not reach. Several testers also commented on the cabin being quite noisy with the double-layer roof closed, but only at higher speeds.

The car’s standard specification level is impressive – look at the accompanying table – with the standard Blue&Me hands-free system with remote controls and USB plug-in port worth mentioning as it’s the kind of feature for which the German luxury brands will charge you a pretty penny. The 500C also features an impressive armoury of seven airbags. Of course, this being a 500, Fiat offers a vast range of personalisation options.

Priced at just under R200 000, Fiat’s new 500C is the cheapest convertible on the local market with seating for four passengers. In fact, if you ignore the slightly cheaper Smart ForTwo – something we suspect many potential buyers will do, anyway – it is the least expensive way to topless driving fun, full stop. But its appeal runs far deeper than just a low sticker price and cutesy looks.

The 500C is surprisingly fun to drive, with a zesty engine, entertaining dynamics and a well-packaged and solidly made interior with loads of features. To all those macho types who’ll ignore it by virtue of it being a colourful little Fiat with a fabric top… get over yourselves. The 500C is a blast.

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