Test Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio

Sliding-roof minicar mixes Italian style with fun and frisky personality

by James M. Flammang
Updated: September 17, 2011

2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio

When Fiat first melded into the recovering Chrysler corporation, it was made clear that the little Fiat 500 minicar would be the first (but not the only) product from the Italian automaker to be placed on sale in the U.S. under Chrysler auspices. First came the Fiat 500 hatchback coupe, which went on sale as a 2011 model. ( See our Preview Drive.) Next, it's the turn of the Fiat 500 Cabrio, which first appeared at the New York Auto Show in April 2011 and soon went on sale as a 2012 model.

Rather than a true, conventional convertible, the 500 Cabrio is essentially a coupe with a long, sliding fabric roof. That design is nothing new. Fiat and other European manufacturers turned out small cars with sliding roofs back in the 1950s and '60s. In fact, the very first Fiat 500, more than half a century ago, was a Cabrio. Still, no other manufacturer selling cars in the U.S. has adopted that style of convertible top for a long while.

Styling of both body types stems from Fiat's Cinquecento 500 model, manufactured from 1957 to 1975. To improve visibility for occupants, the Cabrio gets a slightly longer windshield. Pushing a button allows the fabric top to retract all the way to the rear, or to stop at a mid-point position. Specifications for the Cabrio are nearly identical to those for the 500 coupe, starting with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 101 horsepower and employs Fiat's "MultiAir" technology.

Pop and Lounge trim levels are available for the Cabrio. Coupes also are offered in Sport trim. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard on Pop models, while the Lounge Cabrio gets a standard six-speed automatic transmission. Lounge soft-tops also get chromed fascia accents, foglamps, 15-inch aluminum wheels, automatic climate control, and a Bose Energy Efficient Series audio system.

First and foremost, the Fiat 500 Cabrio is one frisky, friendly, and fun-filled little machine - just as its iconic Italian shape might suggest. Harking back to the overall character and feel of European imports of the Sixties, but brought strictly up to date technically, the Cabrio maneuvers neatly, feels sure of itself, and handles much like a more costly Euro-model than a typical subcompact car.

Even with the well-behaved six-speed automatic transmission, a Fiat 500 Cabrio delivers eager performance. Though not entirely gentle, the ride is hardly harsh. Instead, it's enjoyable, at an enticing midpoint between the two extremes. Steering feels light, yet tempting, and in addition to being supremely agile, the Fiat 500 is an easy car to drive.

Concentric-circle gauges are not all easy to read, but the forward view is superior. Over-the-shoulder visibility is another matter: it's simply awful, so regular use of the outside mirrors is mandatory. The Cabrio'soff-white plastic dashboard may be somewhat off-putting, but it does add a touch of extra character to the interior.

Cabrio prices start at an even $20,000 (including destination charge), which is $4,000 higher than the equivalent Pop hatchback coupe. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the Fiat 500 with manual shift a fuel-economy estimate of 30 mpg in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway. An automatic transmission drops the estimate to 27-mpg city/34-mpg highway.

Longer-Trial Update: After a week with the Fiat 500 Cabrio, our reaction was simple: We didn't want to give it back. More than any car in recent memory, the Fiat 500 delivers a joyful, fun-filled experience, even when used for humdrum chores. This is true whether the car has manual shift or the automatic transmission, which isn't usually the case with microsized automobiles. The innovative fabric top can stay up, slide down part way (with the back window remaining in its regular position), or ease back all the way for the full open-roof sensation. No, the Cabrio isn't cheap, especially with a few options added - as on our week-long test model. But for those who savor what we view as the ultimate in microcar driving, there's nothing like the Fiat 500 on the American road.

Not everything is perfect, of course. Instruments, for example, are huge but not easily readable - especially the tachometer, which sits on a concentric circle within the speedometer. On even a modest upgrade, the engine starts to struggle somewhat, and downshifts are the rule from the excellent automatic transmission. No matter. A couple of everyday flaws cannot undo the joy of maneuvering a Fiat 500 around town.

Attention Editors: The complete 2011 Fiat 500 Cabrio review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.

© All contents copyright 2011 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang