Cute Fiat 500C is all about open-air fun

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The Fiat brand has been successful in the U.S. by peddling the concept of compact, fun driving that stands out in a crowd. Based on those pillars of differentiation, they have been utterly successful. People hear Fiat and they think of the 500.

Fiat offers three models, Pop, Lounge and Abarth; each offers a hatchback or Cabrio cloth top that rolls back. There’s also a 500L wagon and 500X crossover. When the desire is pure enjoyment (at a great price), the 500C and its rolled-back cloth top are the ideal image of Fiat fun.

In its sixth year of U.S. market scrutiny, the Fiat still must fend off occasional criticism for quirky features inside the cabin as well as a mix of odd material surfaces that can be more distracting than enjoyable. The big “but wait” moment is when you get to the base price of $16,995 and you suddenly realize there is a value trade-off that resonates with a lot of American consumers.

Fiat is the little Italian car that could. It’s lovable, quirky, cute and charming — and who doesn’t want to have a little bit of fun at some point during a commute? The challenge for the Fiat 500 is a crowded house of established award-winning and impressive compacts, including Ford Fiesta, Mini Cooper, Chevy Spark and Hyundai Accent.

The 500C, especially its topless transitional feature, is a difference maker in the segment. When it comes to the 500C, when the cloth top goes down, the fun factor goes up — way up.

On the outside, the 500C is either endearing or offensive. People who avoid compacts won’t appreciate the short overhangs on the front and rear wheel wells for their sporty intentions, or the understated front fascia with tiny grille and flat-front nose.

My tester didn’t offer many surprises. The cabin seats four, with the two rear passengers squeezed into a tight space. Up front, you are left feeling that the space is larger because of the high seating position. Opening up the roof really makes it feel spacious up front.

Inside, the small gauges and screens, monotone dials and knobs and smallish vents all seem to be sized in the context of a compact. Everything is right-sized. The dash-base-mounted shifter has a chrome-look accent, but that’s about all you get. Based on the price of entry, I’m OK with that.

Depending on the engine you choose, acceleration is muted or peppy. For 2017, there are two engines: a base 1.4-liter (101 horsepower) and a turbocharged version offering 160 horsepower in the sporty Abarth 500. Each is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox or six-speed automatic.

I found my open-air 500C tester to deliver nimble and responsive handling. The Fiat 500 with base engine and five-speed gets an EPA-rated 31/40/34 mpg city/highway/combined, while the turbo gets 30 mpg combined with the manual and just 27 mpg with the automatic.

If there is an Achilles’ heel to the Fiat 500, it may be one safety rating. It got a Poor rating from the IIHS in the small-overlap frontal crash test. The other crash ratings were better, with four stars overall from the NHTSA, including four stars for frontal impact and five stars for side impact. The IIHS gave the 500 its top Good score in most tests. There are seven standard airbags: dual front, side and curtain, plus a driver knee airbag.

The Fiat 500C is without doubt a compelling buy for someone searching for a fun factor in a compact car.