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Fiat 500C has real Italian flair

BUONGIORNO. Now, before we get started, I think it's important to examine the stereotypes one might hold about Italian people.

BUONGIORNO.

Now, before we get started, I think it's important to examine the stereotypes one might hold about Italian people. As television and the movies have repeatedly told us, Italians are fiery, and passionate, and they talk with their hands a lot, and if they tell you they're in the waste management business, then you're best off being extremely polite to them.

And, as the stereotype goes, when it comes to building cars, Italians like to make ones that are beautiful and fiery and passionate and somewhat . . . um, explodey. And the repair bills? Mamamia! That's a spicy meatball!

However, like most stereotypes, this view is outmoded and outdated. The good people of Italy are the same as you and I, except they live in a country that looks like a boot. They still build feisty supercars, but they also build sensible everyday cars that are good on fuel and reasonably practical.

So it is with this, the convertible version of the Fiat 500: a proper little four-seat, four-cylinder city car. However, whatever you do, don't call it dull.

DESIGN

Opinions may differ on whether or not "retro" design is actually any better than futuristic swoops and shapes. For myself, one need only look at the current Mazda3 to see how ultra-modern over styling can put a funny face on an otherwise excellent car.

With their 500, Fiat got things pretty much pitch-perfect with a zippy pod-like body, friendly looking face up front and a high seating position. With chunky alloy wheels to complete the look, the 500C has all the sporty appeal of the much more expensive Mini Cooper.

To make the tiny 500 into a cabriolet, Fiat has taken a hacksaw to the centre part of the roof and fitted a folding cloth section instead. Doubtless making the car a full convertible would have reduced the body integrity to the point at which both safety and handling would have been compromised.

However, with the roof folded up on the back hatch like a pile of laundry, it has to be said that the 500C looks best top-up. It is possible to retract the roof with the push of a button at up-to highway speeds.

ENVIRONMENT

Like the Mini Cooper, the little Fiat's cabin is a blend of the old and the new. The 500 is much less cartoonish than the Mini, with traditionally placed gauges and switchgear. However, depending on the options you choose, it certainly can be a riot of colour.

Up from the standard-looking, easy-to-operate air-conditioning controls, the centre element of the 500C's dash is a broad expanse of shiny, metal-look plastic with large, boiled-sweet buttons. It's actually nicer than it sounds: a modern-design car would be swathed in soft-touch plastics, but this homage to the original 500's cheap metal works well - at least until it starts getting scuffed.

My tester was a Lounge model, meaning leather seating surfaces picked out in bright white and red, as well as a white steering wheel and instrument binnacle. First reaction upon sliding behind the wheel was to goggle at the bright contrasts, but given the 500's cheeky demeanour, having the option to customize with some wild colours seems a perfect fit.

Like the Mini, the 500's instrumentation is a mixed bag. The outer speedometer "chases" the rev counter clockwise around the gauges, which is cute - but a little difficult to read. Thankfully, there's a digital read-out as well.

PERFORMANCE

Like its fixed-roof cousin, the 500C is powered by a 1.4-litre engine that produces 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque; approximately the same power levels as a Braun hand-blender. 0100km/h comes in an interval long enough to listen to the collected works of Puccini and then prepare and eat a medium-sized tiramisu.

The electrically assisted steering is somewhat overboosted, giving the driver the sense that the steering wheel is only marginally associated with anything the front wheels might be doing, and the high seating position and soft suspension give a slight feeling of tippiness.

The shifter is also a bit vague: down-shifting from third to second feels like stirring marinara sauce with a wooden spoon.

Pressing the Sport button on the dash helpfully illuminates a small indicator on the digital readout that says, "Sport." That's about it. In theory, there's supposed to be firmed-up steering and a sharpened throttle response, but mostly you just get the light.

The 500C bundles up all these little short-comings and doesn't simply transcend them: they become part of the experience itself. Sbrigati! Veloci! Andiamo!

This tippy little roller skate puts its hands on its hips and simply demands to be driven like a Ferrari; and it is extremely rewarding to do so. It could not be more different than a Mini: there is none of the precision steering or low-slung feel of the Cooper, and you'll have to wait for the Abarth version for any real thrust.

But who cares? Drive like you're pursuing the gold stealing Inglese through the streets of Turin! Urge your steed onward like Tazio Nuvolari! Shake your fist and spit curses at any who might cut you off! The best part?

Even if you're really caning it, you won't be breaking any speed limits.

Features

The 500C is available in two models: the Pop which starts at $17,495, and the tested Lounge, which adds leather, chrome accents, 15-inch alloy wheels and upgraded Bose audio for $20,495. A six-speed automatic transmission will cost you $1,300 - and it does sap a bit of fun out of the car.

Aside from standard features such as Bluetooth, air-conditioning, power locks and windows, USB and iPod connectivity, most of the options for the 500C revolve around colour-coding your car. There are 14 different exterior colour options and five interior combinations: the little Fiat awaits your paintbrush.

Even when driven Con Brio, the 500C returns very good fuel-economy. Official figures are 6.7/5.1 litres/100 kilometres city/highway for the five-speed manual, and 7.4/5.7 l/100 km for the sixspeed automatic. Green light

Great styling; low cost; engaging drive.

Stop sign

Numb steering; limited power; strange instrumentation; some interior cheapness.

The checkered flag

Boutique Euro-chic with a compact car price tag. Not a race car, but drive it like one anyway.

Competitors Mini Cooper convertible ($29,200)

Why pay more? Well, unlike the 500C, the Mini Cooper is actually a proper convertible. What's more, it's also even more of a delight to drive, with a driving position that seems like it was intended for, um, driving (this as opposed to the high-chair feel of the Fiat).

Still, the price gap is not inconsiderable. Factor in the Cooper's Achilles heel - horrible rear blind spots with the top up - and you just might see the Italians catch the plucky Brit this time around.

VW Beetle convertible (price TBA)

It's not even out yet, but you can bet that the 2013 Beetle Convertible is going to be a hot seller, based on the interest the New Beetle is generating. That's the new New Beetle, you understand, not the old New Beetle or the old old Beetle.

Well anyway, VW's newest Beetle is more angular and aggressive than previous models: less retro more modern. A range of engines should be available and by all accounts, the new Beetle convertible is more a baby Porsche than a flower-power throwback.

mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com