Mostly modern cars are not interesting to this site, since they err too far on the trusty side of the rusty-to-trusty spectrum. But every so often, a new car is eye-catching or different enough that it catches my attention. The recently-introduced (to the US market) Fiat 500 is of those. Last month, on a trip to eastern Canada, I had a chance to rent a 500 Sport from Budget (mini sportster, class XF). Having test-driven a 500 Pop when the nearest Fiat dealer first opened, I already had some idea of what to expect, but spending so much time with one in all kinds of situations really gave a full perspective.
After picking up the car, the first test was a drive down to northern Vermont from Montreal. In the city, this size of car is remarkably easy to maneuver. However, the sport’s suspension and automatic transmission (the only way in a rental car) made for a bit of a rough ride, particularly in sport mode, which delays shift points, adds weight to the steering and quickens throttle response. While part of that is my learning curve, being a bit of a control freak when it comes to shifting, things improved fairly quickly out in the countryside.
Pulling onto highways, and driving through curvy roads, the holding of shift points helps maximize what the 1.4 liter engine can do. The car also did pretty well on a loose dirt road, although (probably due to the short wheelbase) it was a little twitchy through corners. At that point, the auto-shift mode makes the manual shift mode more or less unneeded, unless you want to do things like slow down using engine braking. It still doesn’t shift on command like a manual, but if you timed it, no doubt the time to execute a shift would be similar. So you have to plan your shifts ahead so it hits at the correct RPMs.
Parking was unbelievably easy, but this is the first really small car I’ve spent much time with since the Smart ForTwo I rented in Germany in 2005. Driving out to Quebec City gave the first real taste of long-distance highway driving. The sport suspension was still stiff, and the car more sensitive to cross-winds than some, but the firm steering and solid roadholding made it a confident freeway driver. It was also reasonably quiet for a car its size. Speaking of size, you wouldn’t think a car this small would swallow two roll-on bags, a messenger bag and a couple of jackets in the trunk, but the 500 did.
On the road to Fredericton, New Brunswick, we discovered the firm lumbar support caused some discomfort in our lower backs. We also found the car can cruise quite comfortably at speeds of 80-100mph, and could have gone further were it not for my fear of the highway patrol. The stereo also kept me well-entertained during the drive, with good sound coming out of the 6 speakers.
So, does the Fiat have any of the weird ergonomic issues Italian cars are so famous for? Well, the stylish combination speedo/tacho/computer mono-gauge is not as easy to use as separate gauges. And the seating position was otherwise comfortable, but I also have no problem with the seating in my Alfas, even though I don’t have a long-arm, short-leg stature.
Even on Magnetic Hill, below, where cars (in theory) roll by themselves without power, the Fiat’s handling was good.
Driving on to Prince Edward Island, I started noticing the range of the car is a bit limited. To be fair, it’s a city car, and I was averaging 36mpg without trying too hard, but the refills seemed to come fairly quickly compared to other cars I’ve driven. The car allowed us to drive pretty much all over the island, quickly and easily, and the sunroof let in the sea air and sun very well. The return drive, 1200km, was uneventful, with stops in Bristol, NB (next to Florenceville, home of the McCain potato empire) and Trois Rivieres, QC. We spent the last day driving out to Fairmount Bagel with a final run to Nuns’ Island to fill the tank before dropping the car back at Budget, filthy and needing an oil change.
So overall, was it a good car? Yes – good drive, decent fuel economy, and everywhere we went it got an amazing amount of attention from people of all ages. There was a sporty engine note (as I’d expect of any Italian car, however mundane), flatter cornering than on the base Pop model, and enough style and minor oddities to remind you it wasn’t German or Japanese. My next new car will be a 500, although I will hold out for the Abarth, with more power and (hopefully) a 6-speed. Until then, I’m going to try to keep renting them any chance I get.