Fiat cracks open its 500 to create a zippy cabriolet.

Miami Beach: An excitable foreigner driving an Escalade frantically gestures (with his hands) for me to roll down my window. He breathlessly blurts out in heavily accented English, "is that the new Italian? The Fiat 500c? The chin-qway-chento?


That was only the beginning. From the time that it was dropped off, to various around the neighborhood errands, the newest Fiat to hit these shores has been the talk of the town. And it had big - well, actually tiny - footsteps to follow since the 500c - that's c for cabriolet - comes just months after the 500 hardtop.

What is it?

Based on a design by Roberto Giolito of Fiat Stile Centre, it was announced in 2006 at the Geneva Auto Show as a 2007 model. Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino currently builds the 500c for European markets in Tichy, Poland, and since last last year in Toluca, Mexico, for markets in the Americas.

A 2+2 model, it can carry four adults - yes with two in the backseat, albeit for short trips. Powered by a 1.4-liter inline four-banger, it ranks high on the cuteness scale, but can it be the perfect car for an urban un-cowboy or girl? Take the cannoli and join us as we motor al-fresco in Fiat's 500c cabriolet.

What's it up against?

The MINI Cooper is the 500's sworn mortal enemy, supposing that such a cute conveyance could have enemies. There's that C-word (cute) again. In reality, the MINI is bigger and more expensive, so the Fiat almost feels like its kid brother.

Others have lumped the 500 in with the Smart Fortwo. But, come one, it is much more intelligent than that!

Any breakthroughs?

Beyond its packaging prowess, the Fiat 500c has a roof. Yes, of course you say, but all cars have a roof. But this one is magical in the sense that it is a sunroof, moonroof and drop top all at once. That it manages to keep most external noise at bay is the real breakthrough.

Fiat also informed us that through customization, with accessory parts and decorations, over 500,000 various build combinations are achievable. We're not counting.

How does it look?

Looking like the descendant of another Italian, the Iso Isetta, in that it has grown a fourth wheel and gotten larger overall. The original Cinquecento was built in Turin from 1957 to 1975. In the post war years, transportation was important, but with a cautious financial attitude, and restricted fuel availability on everyone's minds, those needs almost dictated the car's design. After a brief hiatus, the model reappeared in 2006 to much acclaim in Europe.

Taking the best of the original's attributes and incorporating them into a contemporary platform was the job of Fiat designers. They enlarged, extended and envisioned a "be all that you can be" premise that carried the mouse-like look forward to a point that appealed to those rich in spirit, who may not be rich in wallet. Our favorite part: The pencil thin mustache or whiskers if you will, that flank the Fiat logo on the 500's nose.

From the three-quarter beauty angle, the 500c has what appears to be a tallish greenhouse, which when you stand next to it, seems just about right. For our money, it out-cutes the Volkswagen Beetle, and makes one ask why they would allow a lapse in judgment to consider a Smart Fourtwo.

Ingenuity abounds throughout. The windshield frame crossmember is cleverly designed to incorporate part of the roof to add structural integrity to a car that is essentially without a roof, save for the canvas rollup affair that covers the passenger area. The end result is a vehicle that although it is missing a third of its structure is still rigid to the point that there were very few creaks and groans from the unibody. That it manages to be moveable at speeds up to 60 mph and offers terrific noise suppression to 70 mph is a bonus. The one downside is that once the roof is bunched into a pile while in the fully opened position, it creates quite the blind spot for the center-mounted rear-view mirror.

And on the inside?

Maybe it was the torrential downpours we experienced on the late spring day in New York City at the Fiat's launch. Perhaps we were dismayed at the grey monochromatic horizon that seemingly sucked the life out of the day, and caused nearly everything to blend into the buildings around it, but we weren't feeling the 500's interior.

Speed up the go-fast machine to late summer and it's sunny (and hot) outside but it's a totally new and bright day. Among the brightest pieces in the cabin is the rosso (red) body color panel that makes up the dashboard. Contrasted with a set of decidedly European-ish ivory panels that face the audio, climate control and gauge pack it is a refreshing look at the way they do things back in the old country.

Our Lounge-version tester was outfitted with two-toned ivory and tan leather seats that managed to accommodate four adults inside. Since it was the high-zoot trim, they also saw fit to embroider the model name on the backrests as well. While not offering much in the way of side bolstering, it did offer plenty of thigh support, which came in handy during longer than usual drives.

Blue&Me is Fiat's brand of handsfree communications linking navigation, satellite radio and Bluetooth all together. Together with the glovebox hidden USB port, and lower console cubbyholes for iPods, and phones, there are places for everything and hopefully that means everything in its place.

But does it go?

Look, this isn't a Shelby GT500KR, here. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about what really motivates this mouse.

Under the hood of the 500c is Fiat's Multiair 1.4-liter in-line 4-cylinder engine. Transverse-mounted and pulling with front-wheel-drive, it is the only model currently available in the U.S. It manages to produce 101 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 98 lb-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. We will also see an Abarth high-performance version in the not-too-distant-future.

With sequential multi-port fuel injection, the EPA says this 2,434 lbs. droptop manages to achieve 27/34 mpg, equipped as ours was, with Aisin's six-speed automatic transmission. Bestowed with Auto Stick functionality, a driver can row through the gears him or herself. Unfortunately, we averaged a combined 27 mpg, a few notches below what we'd expect for a little runabout like this. Fiat says a five-speed manual transmission will go slightly better at 30/38 mpg.

The Cinquecento rides on a unibody platform, which is made up of MacPherson struts in front, accompanied by coil-overs and a stabilizer bar, while the rear sports a twist-beam axle, again with coilovers. Order the 500C Sport and they manage to stiffen things up nicely with more tuned suspension bits. An electrically assisted rack and pinion steering setup helps to point the way, offering plenty of boosted steering while creeping into parking spaces and then later manages to firm up while at speed.

While underway, we managed to experience all that's good about the Fiat 500c Cabriolet. A smooth operator, it was cause for smiles, waves and yes, the occasional laugh. At first glance, it appears top-heavy, but the reality for the Cinquecento is that of a car that likes to be pushed and will generally scoot you through the turns in a rapid fashion. We like the throttle response with the automatic and find it surprisingly good for a car this size.

For added excitement, push the sport button located on the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel. Press it and the engine changes from Dr Jekyll to a, um, more aggressive version of Dr. Jekyll. It'll do for faster gear changes, a throttle re-map and gear-holding function that allows the engine to be held closer to redline. It was just the thing needed to keep up with the local tuner crowd whose bark (think coffee can mufflers) is generally fiercer than their bite.

Why you would buy it:

Everyone in the neighborhood has the MINI Cooper as his or her go-to cute car. You want something different.

Why you wouldn't:

You still haven't managed to rid yourself of the bad taste left in your mouth from your old Fiat 124.

Leftlane's bottom line

The return of Fiat to the United States has been a long time coming. The last go round was rife with reliability issues throughout the line. This time we think the company is on the right track and know that with all the good cars available today, they need to have a good product for their reintroduction to the new world.

The Fiat 500c is so cute it makes Hello Kitty look like a Pit Bull. Luckily, there's some real substance to that smiling face, even if it's not quite a fuel miser.

2012 Fiat 500c Lounge base price, $23,500. As tested, $25,250.

Leather package, $1,250; Destination, $500.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.