I finally got behind the wheel of a Fiat 500. I couldn’t find a comfortable seating position, which is a major problem, but the car is still super-cute and fun to drive.
Enterprise Rent-a-Car at the airport in San Jose, California is set up so you step out from the rental booth with an agent and a blank contract, and walk the rows together to select your own car. They very, very shrewdly placed a Fiat 500 next to the booth so you can’t miss it, and I joyfully leaped into the obvious trap:
“Is that Fiat 500 yours? Is it available? I want it.”
“But of course, madame. It’s a specialty class, a mere $10 per day extra.”
I took exactly enough time to calculate in my head the cost for a two-day rental before agreeing.
I drove my Fiat 500 about 10 miles from the airport to my brother’s apartment in San Jose, and then about 85 miles from there to Vacaville, and finally about 40 miles from Vacaville to the Sacramento airport. Here’s my review of that experience.
There is absolutely nothing cuter on the road in the USA than this car.
- Cute exterior, duh.
- Cute seats with cute round headrests
- Cute inside door handles that push/pull to lock/unlock in a cute way
- Really cute shiny dashboard that looks just like old school enameled metal; preserve the illusion by not touching the cheap plastic it’s actually made of, which will surely scuff and come to look cheap over time
- Cheap-looking and -feeling plastic bubble-shaped gearshift lever
- Somewhat garish orange electronic dash display with ugly LCD font
Doesn’t feel tiny.
- Fast; I was doing 75 up to nearly 85 without realizing it
- I passionately hate automatic transmission and this car didn’t change my mind
- Steering is effortless on city streets and in parking lots but wild on the highway, I’m surprised I didn’t get called in for my wild veering at speed on the way to Vacaville
- Bumpy on Highway 87, but I either got used to it or I-680 was smoother later
- Cruise control works nicely
Midway to Sacramento, I RTFM’d and accidentally discovered this feature.
“The Sport mode increases steering feedback to the driver with slight increase in effort and changes the transmission shift schedules for more aggressive shifting.”
- I almost didn’t hate automatic transmission to the point of violence
- I stopped oversteering all over my lane at speed; it was easy to stay steady
- It ruled
This might be the dealbreaker, but I will try a few more options.
- I normally slide my seat back all the way
- The good news: plenty of legroom, more than my Corolla even
- The bad news: couldn’t reach the steering wheel, and it doesn’t telescope
- Also can’t tilt it down enough to reach the bottom of the wheel while resting my arm on my knee
There was no comfortable driving position; even sitting closer and straighter than normal, my arms & shoulders were outstretched and tensed up the entire time (a 1.5-hour drive and a 40-minute drive) and my shoulders, neck and back still ache two days later.
- Driver’s side blind spot checking is blocked by a big roof support, but I got the hang of looking around it
- Seat belt anchor height is not adjustable; WTF, it is 2011, seriously
- It’s tall and sits high; I actually looked down into a Mini Cooper when I passed it
I didn’t find anything on the car itself to tell me whether I had a Pop, Sport or Lounge model, but the rental receipt suggests perhaps the base Pop.
- Automatic window switches are on the center console, not the doors; they’re cute there but I found the placement annoying after just one drive-thru
- Windows have one-touch-down but not one-touch-up; it is 2011, I demand both
- Cool switchblade-style retractable key
- Keyfob is ridiculously large, and Enterprise made me carry two of them
- Trunk button on the keyfob unlocks, but doesn’t unlatch, the hatchback
- No hatchback release lever inside the car that I could find
- Audio Aux In hidden inside the glove box, with a cute tiny cargo net to hold the iPod, if I had brought a 3.5mm cable, which I hadn’t; manual says some models come with USB iPod in in the same spot, which I had cable for, but my model didn’t
- This is insane, but I could not find the ACC setting on the ignition switch, only ON or OFF, even though the manual suggested that ACC should exist
- Lane Change Assist feature, extremely clever: lightly tap the turn signal lever and it flashes exactly three times and stops on its own; I loved this, but the light-tap required a surgically precise amount of pressure and precise direction of tap to get it right so it only worked about half the time for me
- My 1998 Corolla automatically detects when it’s dark out and turns its own headlights on; it is unacceptable for me to have to do this myself in 2011
- The back seats mostly aren’t
I didn’t see a single other Fiat 500 on the road during two solid days in the Bay Area, which ought to be its demographic. Not a good sign for the business.
I still like the idea of this car, and I might have to part with my beloved 1998 Corolla someday, so I’ll probably test-drive a Sport with manual transmission at some point and see whether I like it any better. Maybe the dealer can help me get the seat and wheel adjustment right in some way that I missed.
- I forgot; obviously what I want is an Abarth. An Abarth and a massage therapist. Totally worth it.
- As I suspected, sales of the Fiat 500 have been lousy so far. “While it’s too soon to regard Fiat as troubled, Chrysler will be watching carefully to make sure sales performance continues to gain strength after the slow start.” (Fortune/CNN, 3 Nov 2011)
- Abarth == macho cuteness? Sign me up! “The Abarth, a souped-up 500, arrives after an announcement that slow sales of the Fiat 500 in North America were prompting a cut in production. The parent company is hoping that throwing a little horsepower and macho sex appeal at the problem will excite American audiences with visions of new possibilities for the 500.” (NYT, 16 Nov 2011)
- I can attest: “Chrysler’s ads for the Fiat 500 starring Jennifer Lopez have become a lightning rod for the car’s disastrous launch.” (BusinessInsider, 22 Nov 2011) I don’t watch commercials if I can help it, so I’d never even seen it, but my friends on FB didn’t hesitate to mock me about it! If Fiat distinctive cute is going to become Fiat unmistakable laughingstock, then yes, I would seriously reconsider whether I want to be seen driving one for the next decade.