By Eve Pickman
American’s have a love/hate relationship with small “city” cars it’s the Battle of the Quirky Small Ragtops. They say that want something appealing, with great fuel economy, upscale finishes and creature comforts at a fun meal price, but are often disappointed when the promise of less is more fails to deliver. Let’s blow the top off of the city car segment and take a look at the 2013 Fiat 500c Lounge and smart fortwo passion cabriolet, two of the cuter city car contenders and the only ones offered as soft tops.
First to hit the U.S. market, the smart fortwo is a true two-seater, with 45.4 cubic feet of passenger volume, a 70 horsepower 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine and an awkward smartshift® 5-speed automated manual transmission. The smartshift® automated manual transmission is a gutless, clutchless manual transmission, that only serves to enhance how underpowered the 1808 lbs vehicle is. Unlike many small cars, the Smart fortwo is a rear-wheel drive vehicle, though that actually makes sense, since the engine is in the rear of the car, like old air-cooled Porsches and Volkswagens.
You’ll never forget your first highway miles in a smart fortwo. In addition to the fear of being sucked under a semi or into the oversized grill of a large pickup truck there are the very real issues with road noise, the rather anemic engine and that crazy jerky transmission. While certain aspects of the smart fortwo passion cabriolet driving experience are fun, the transmission is a total buzz kill and serious turnoff. This not the commuter car for drivers who must merge onto highways from a dead stop; no warp speed here.
The smart fortwo passion cabriolet excels around town, with a tiny 106.1-inch long footprint, perfect for slipping into the smallest of parking spaces. The cabin of the smart fortwo passion cabriolet is open and airy, especially when the cloth top is open. Neither the fortwo passion cabriolet nor the Fiat 500c Lounge Cabrio are American-style convertibles, both have large cloth tops which roll back at the touch of a button, opening like a panoramic sunroof. Rear visibility with the top open in the smart fortwo is significantly better than of the Fiat 500c Lounge Cabrio, which really needs its standard rear parking sensors to “see” behind it.
Every Fortwo cabrio is built around a Tridion safety cell body structure, similar to the roll cages used in race cars. ABS brakes, traction control, stability control and hill-start assist are standard, as are 6 air bags. 15-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, fog lamps, heated mirrors and a wide range of paint colors dress up the exterior of the fortwo. The passenger compartment makes good use of limited space; the cloth front bucket seats feature a flat folding passenger seat for extra cargo capacity. The 3-spoke leather steering wheel includes sporty paddle shifters, the leather shift knob is pleasant to the touch, the instrument cluster with multifunctional display, fuel, coolant, service interval, trip mileage, clock and exterior temperature display are logically laid out, there’s no hunting for buttons or switches. The fortwo passion cabrio also includes air conditioning, power windows and mirrors and smart radio with USB and AUX inputs.
Service by select Mercedes Benz dealers, the smart fortwo is a car best suited for urban areas, where space is at a premium. Speaking of premium, both the smart fortwo and Fiat 500 require premium unleaded fuel. And with an EPA estimate 34 city/38 highway mpg, there are many larger offerings than the smart fortwo passion cabrio with better fuel efficiency.
While the smart car may seem inexpensive, with a base price of $17,890, it can develops a passion for your wallet, with numerous option packages, such as the Cruise Control Package for $280, Style Package which includes enhanced dash gauges, ambient lighting and 3-spoke 15-inch wheels for $750 and the $1,600 Technology Package with navigation and surround sound.
The 2013 Fiat 500c Lounge is billed as a four passenger vehicle, though its 50/50 split folding rear seat is more suited to cargo than kids; there is virtually no leg room. The 85.1 cubic feet of passenger volume feels tighter than the interior of the Smart fortwo Passion Cabrio, probable due to the wider side pillars and heavier doors. Like the 2013 Smart fortwo passion cabrio, the Fiat 500c has a cloth roll top, with adjustable opening positions, from just a sliver of sunshine to full on panoramic top. One down side of the Fiat 500c Lounge Cabrio is the very limited rear viability. Once the rear window glass is folded away, the use of mirrors and rear parking sensors is a must.
Equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission, which can be upgraded to a 6-speed automatic for $1,250, the 1.4-liter I4 MultiAir® engine produces 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque. Kick it into Sport mode with the touch of a button and the Fiat cabrio comes to life, with tighter handling and shift points. Around town and light highway driving are no problem for the 2,411 pound Fiat, though this is not the car for cross country road trips. Fuel economy is a solid 31 city/40 hwy MPG.
A top safety pick, the 2013 Fiat 500 has seven standard airbags, including a driver’s knee airbag and full-length side-curtain airbags; 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, hill-start assist, speed control and electronic stability control are all part of the Fiat 500c Lounge’s safety standard equipment.
If you are looking for sexy Italian style, the 500c Lounge delivers, with 15-inch aluminum wheels, chrome touches on the door handles, mirrors and shift knob. The $ 1,450 Luxury Leather Package comes in Manolo Blahnik worthy color combinations, the $700 Beats™ Audio Group turns the Lounge into a dance club.
The leather steering wheel has phone and sound system controls, the unique gauge cluster combines the speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges, date, time and mileage indicators into one oversized gauge. One downside, only the climate control, sound system and exterior ring outputs on the large central gauge are adjustable, the center portion of the gauge cluster LEDs can seem alarming bright by contrast. The standard Alpine Sound System with 1 year of satellite radio adds fun to an already fun car, the available dash-mounted TomTom® Navigation and Blue&Me hands-free calling features are a snap to use.
With a base price of $ 19,600 base price, and the 500c Lounge Cabrio starting at $22,500, the Fiat 500c is pricier than the smaller Smart fortwo, but you get more car for the money. The 90.6-inch wheel base offers a smoother ride, the 139.6-inches long foot print is still small enough for easy parking.
Sometimes it’s difficult to pick the most fun toy in the toy chest, but for a better all around driving experience, the Fiat 500c Lounge Cabrio beats the Smart fortwo hands down.