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Fiat 500C 1.2 Pop

Click to view picture gallery“Peel off a standard Fiat 500s metal
  roof and replace it with a chic,
  powered folding soft-top and what
  have you got? One of the hottest
  looking drop-tops around with prices
  from an irresistible 12,300

ARGUABLY THE COOLEST LITTLE HOTTIE since the BMW MINI hit the market, Fiat's 500 Convertible puts all other small convertibles in the shade.

And coolest of all is its oh-so-smart full-length folding fabric roof — what's so good about it is that while the roof itself folds back electrically all the way to a point just above the bootlid, the side windows and frame all remain fixed in place to help the bodyshell's integrity as well as protecting against wind buffeting. Proof of that, if any is needed after a drive with the top down, is the maximum five-star EuroNCAP rating achieved by the seven-airbag 500 Convertible.

Looks-wise, the 500C is a little peach. Even with the roof in place the standard car's instant and impish appeal moves up several notches on the 'wow' scale. Top down it makes an indisputably tasteful style statement. For the record, there's a choice of colours for the soft-top — black, ivory or red — to go with the eleven paint finishes that include the delightfully named Ragamuffin Red, Cha Cha Cha Azure, Goth-Metal Blue and Electroclash Grey.

A pretty face? Yes, but the 500 Convertible is much more than that. For a start, it's an extremely civilised convertible — unlike traditional rag-tops it's not a full-blown convertible. Inspired by the 'roll-back' roof of the '57 original, it features an elongated fabric roof that slides all the way back to the top of the boot.

The roof is delightfully simple to work, calling for nothing more than pressing a button above the rear-view mirror. You don't even have to keep your finger on it. The roof slides silently all the way back to its fully open position where it sits neatly folded above the boot lid. Pressing the button a second time as it slides will stop the roof wherever you want, so you can use it as a front sunroof or go all the way. For the record, it can be opened or shut at speeds up to 37mph and it's one of the easiest and most user-friendly small drop-tops on sale today. And if you really can't resist posing, you can operate the roof using the key's remote function.

With the roof fully folded back, occupants travelling both front and rear are well shielded from any buffeting by the side windows. At the same time the design lets in a lot of fresh air with just enough of a breeze to ensure the driver and passengers remain pleasantly cool on the sunniest days. And it cuts both ways: our week's road test was conducted in snowy conditions slap bang in the middle of the UK's worst winter for thirty years.

The cabin is exactly like
that of the 500 hatch —
in other words,
smartly finished with
Italian charisma
The top still came down but instead of the air conditioning's chill we had the blower maxed, pumping out cheerfully hot air. And you know what — the alfresco experience was equally enjoyable. For an extra 150 you can get a wind-blocker. Easily fitted behind the rear headrests, it cuts turbulence at all speeds to the benefit of all four seating positions. Better still, it can be left in place when opening or closing the lid. Not instantly noticeable, unless the 500C is standing next to a 500 hatch, is that the convertible version is fitted with a deeper windscreen, giving the back seat passengers a much better view forward.

Thanks to Fiat retaining the outer side sections of the hatch's fixed roof, the 500C also feels unexpectedly robust with the top down. Close the roof and you'll find that the double-layered, fully-trimmed hood not only adds to the cabin's chic ambience but better still, wind noise is well suppressed and, roof up, the sound levels inside the Convertible's cabin are on a par with the standard car.

The cabin itself is exactly like that of the 500 hatch — in other words, smartly finished with Italian charisma. Even the 12,300 entry-level Pop gets standard air conditioning. Also fitted are electric front windows (the driver's with one-shot auto up/down operation; the passenger's just one-shot auto down), radio with MP3-compatible CD player and six speakers, Dualdrive electric power steering (press the button for more power assistance in the city or parking), seven airbags including sidebags, windowbags and a kneebag for the driver and ABS with Electronic Brake Distribution. And, of course, the beautifully-made electric soft-top.

And, as in the hatch, the Convertible's rear seat back folds and, despite the conversion to soft-top, the boot loses barely a litre of space (actually, it loses exactly three litres to the standard car, leaving you with a useful 182 litres of luggage space). Opening the boot with the roof down requires the parked hood to move up a few centimetres but it's not a problem and is all done automatically for you.

The raised gearlever —
level with the top of your
left knee — is perfectly
to hand should you need
to press on
About the only niggle is that with the roof parked in its fully furled position, rearward visibility is restricted so reversing into a parking space, for instance, requires a bit of guesswork — happily you can tick the options box (250) and have parking sensors fitted. On the road, the decent-sized door mirrors go some way to making up for the lost rearward vision. Note that with the top up there's not a problem. And on the safety front, when the roof's down, the high-level third brake light — incorporated into the sliding roof along with a small roof spoiler — can still be seen by the following traffic.

The Convertible comes with a full set of sporty seats upholstered in a high quality fabric. Again, if you like ticking those option boxes then you can plump for Frau leather (750) in red, black or beige. And, as for the 'ordinary' 500 hatch, there's a mind-bogglingly long list of personalisation options — even the key can be customised! — if having a truly unique 500C is what turns you on.

With the 500's cabin, Fiat have shown everyone else exactly how to do '21st Century Retro'. The painted dashboard matches the body colour and is standard and as eye-catching as it is in the fixed-roof 500s, as too is the all-in-one single speedo / rev-counter / main instrument dial sited dead ahead of the leather-wrapped steering wheel which, incidentally, adjusts for height only.

But it's not an issue because, in combination with the height-adjustable driver's seat, a fine driving position is easily set. And yes, four adults can travel comfortably but as with all four-seat cabrios it does depend on how you mix 'n' match sizes.

While the 500 Convertible's looks are sizzling, its performance is unlikely to set the world on fire. Powerplants can be 1.2 (69bhp) or 1.4 (100bhp) petrol or 1.3-litre (95bhp) Multijet turbodiesel. Performance from these engines is okay and actually even the 1.2 we tested could really get a move on if you worked the shift and stoked up the revs.

While it does hustle,
the 500C is a car
for tootling around in
The raised gearlever — level with the top of your left knee — is perfectly to hand should you need to press on. And it's a nice smooth change action. Given the compact external dimensions — exactly the same as for the steel-roofed hatch — the cabin is unexpectedly roomy. You don't get a glovebox but there are lots of storage cubbies including a large, deep open shelf under the fascia. The essential iPod USB is down by the traditional handbrake, as is a 12v power socket. And tilt 'n' slide front seats that always return to their last position make entry and exit easy for rear seat passengers.

The engine is not afraid to rev and pulls heartily if asked and will get you to 62mph in a perky 12.9 seconds while the official combined cycle consumption is 58.9mpg — our week's average was 46.7mpg, but we were driving in snow and ice, the arch enemy of fuel economy, so our figure was actually very good. But if miles-per-gallon is important to you then, with a possible 72.4mpg, the 1.3-litre turbodiesel is likely to appeal the strongest. Alternatively, if you regularly carry passengers then the 100bhp 1.4-litre petrol engine will be the one for you.

While it does hustle, the 500C is a car for tootling around in topless — like driving a Ferrari, there's nothing to prove. Consequently most of these trendy little convertibles are likely to be driven with a light right foot — the aim, of course, is to be seen; snapped by the paparazzi, not by a speed camera. And to make driving easier for boulevardiers, a semi-automatic sequential transmission (complete with steering wheel paddle-shifts on the 1.4) is available as an option for petrol-engined versions.

So far as handling and ride are concerned, the Convertible is much like its steel-roofed sister hatch but better to drive — thanks to tweaked electric power steering and a revised rear suspension set-up including 'softer' settings and anti-roll bar (as per Fiat's rorty 500 Abarth). On the road it feels all of a piece, drives well and zips along very nicely thank you. Not surprisingly, the ladies love the 500 — seven out of ten are already driven by women but men will undoubtedly feel more at home in the Convertible.

Call the Fiat 500C a 'budget' rag-top and you'll be doing it a disservice because the very affordable price doesn't stop the 500C being a well made, user-friendly and remarkably civilised convertible. —

Fiat 500C 1.2 Pop
| 12,300
Maximum speed: 99mph | 0-62mph: 12.9 seconds | Overall test MPG: 46.7mpg
Power: 69bhp | Torque: 75lb ft | CO2 113g/km