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Fiat 500C 1.2 Pop

Click to view picture galleryOnly the Italians could manage to
  launch a convertible in the middle
  of a heatwave. And not just any old
  convertible, either — the new Fiat
  500C is not only the perfect car for
  today
s crowded roads but it now
  has the ‘Sun factor
too...

GENIUS. FIAT LAUNCHED ITS FOLDING-ROOF 500C in the middle of a heatwave. I know the Italians can pull strings but this is ridiculous. I thought I was a gonner as I'd forgotten my Factor 20, but Fiat even gave us journalists some 500C-branded sunblock. Like I said, pure genius…

We Brits love our convertibles. Here's why: people appreciate what is scarce — and in the UK, that means sunshine. So to be able to drive the new 500C in the sunshine was the perfect test. As was being able to drive it in the rain too: Britain being Britain, heatwaves are inevitably overlaid with thunderous outbreaks, which I certainly got during my test drive.

So, what does the extra 'C' in the badge bring you? Anyone who'd pictured the 500C with a full soft-top (à la MINI cabrio) is going to be disappointed because Fiat has gone for what the original Fiat 500 had in 1957: a fabric 'roll top' roof that works within the existing roof arches.

Unlike the baby Fiat of 50 years ago, though, the roof doesn't roll back like the lid of a sardine tin. In 21st century style, you get electric buttons above the windscreen to push — retracting the roof in just a few seconds. In equally 21st century style, its programming is as complex as a Rubik's cube. There are several 'intermediate' positions that the roof may, or may not, roll back to, depending on how you press the buttons and whether you're travelling above 37mph. Luckily, familiarity soon sorts it all out.

Like the original 500, the roof folds all the way back. It cleverly incorporates a proper glass rear window (no cracking, faded plastic here) which folds down with the roof. Equally cleverly, the high-level stop light remains visible with the roof folded.

Not so clever is the fact that the roof barely folds back far enough for the driver to get a clear view over it via the mirror. You can just see the tops of following cars, but that's it. And with the roof raised, you have the opposite problem: the rear window is so small that you only see the lower half of following cars.

However, I was highly impressed by the overall levels of refinement. The roof itself is beautifully crafted and feels of high quality. When it's in the closed position, it insulates excellently against wind and exterior noise and is a very snug fit. I drove through some rain during my test and there was no hint of water ingress even if it did sound like being huddled in a tent on a wet camping holiday…

“The 500C puts a smile
on your face.
This is a fun car with all
the hooters going
...”
With the top down, you get a pleasant breeze flowing through the car. Passengers in the rear get well and truly buffeted, but that's what you buy a convertible for, isn't it? What you never get, though, is that feeling of being totally open to the elements, as you do in a full convertible.

One advantage of the 500C's roof system is that boot space is pretty much unaffected (it's within three litres of the hatchback's volume and the rear seats still fold down). Accessing it is another matter, though: the boot lid feels like a letterbox. At least if you're carrying cheese plants or planks of wood, they can poke out the top of the open roof. And in case you were wondering, if you open the boot with the top down, an electric motor folds the roof part-way up to allow the lid to open. Clever stuff.

Another advantage of keeping the roof arches, rather than having a full convertible, is that it's all much more rigid than a normal soft-top. There's none of that wobbly scuttle shake that you normally associate with roof-down driving — the 500C drives very much like the regular 500.

So how does it drive? It's comfortable and at its happiest in town, where the light controls and compact size make it ideal. Take it out of town and it's less happy. The 1.2 engine is pretty gutless (the 1.4 petrol and 1.3 MultiJet diesel are better bets if you're a regular motorway or country road user) and the way it corners is rather lifeless, with dead-feeling steering and quite a bit of body roll. But it still conspires to leave you with a smile on your face. This is a fun car with all the hooters going.

I must just say a word on colours. Highly amusing paint names are a Fiat speciality, and the three unique music-inspired colours for the 500C are no different: Ragamuffin Red, Tech House Grey and Goth-Metal Blue. (Excuse me, but all the Goths I know wouldn't be seen dead wearing anything other than black!). You can also choose between three colours for the roof: ivory, red and black.

Apparently the average price premium for a convertible version of a regular hatchback is around £3,000 — and three big ones is exactly the extra Fiat charges for the 500C.

While three grand does seem a hell of a lot for what is basically a large electric sunroof, there are a few extras thrown in over the base 500 hatch. On Pop versions, for instance, you get standard air con (worth £500), while on the plusher Lounge you get £1,000 worth of extras in the form of climate control, ESP, rear parking sensors and front foglamps. Still, the top-spec 1.4 Lounge at £13,905 is enough to make any credit crunch victim wince. The most popular model will no doubt be the 1.2 Lounge, priced at a more affordable £12,700.

So, to buy or not to buy. On the plus side it's got a lot going for it: retro cool, great refinement, much more practicality than most convertibles and virtually no difference in the way it drives over the regular 500. On the downside, it's very pricey for what it is.

And 'what it is' is my main quibble with the 500C: it's not really a convertible at all. It's a revival of the old 1950s roll-top Fiat 500 (a car that no-one described as a convertible at the time). Still, it's hard to look at it sitting on the road and not think it's a brilliant bit of design — and it is loads of fun. And for those reasons alone, it's going to find a lot of favour with buyers. — Chris Rees

Fiat 500C 1.2 Pop
| £11,300
Maximum speed: 99mph | 0-62mph: 13.4 seconds | Overall MPG: 55.4mpg
Power: 69bhp | Torque: 75lb ft | CO2 119g/km | Insurance group 4