The happiest car in the world;
Jodi Lai by JODI LAI, NATIONAL POST | APRIL 4, 2013
184258...I have never encountered a vehicle that people who normally don’t
care about cars get this excited about. As soon as the word got out that I was
testing a red Fiat 500, my Facebook and text message inbox was inundated with
requests for a ride in the little runabout.
When I told people I was driving a Fiat, the reaction was mostly a variation
of, “Awhhh! Those are sooo cute!”
Did they care that it has an awesome little 1.4-litre turbocharged
four-cylinder? Nope. How about the sport-tuned suspension? Nah. That the
excellent sound system in my tester was designed by the folks at Beats by Dre?
Barely. All they knew is that they wanted to sit in it.
And after driving it, I completely understand why.
It is nearly impossible to be in a bad mood while driving the Fiat 500. It’s
the happiest car in the world, and it really rubs off. If the Fiat could talk,
it would say, “Ciao, bella! Look at me! Wheeeee! I’m driving! I’m so happy to
be alive!”The people at Fiat have done a magnificent job in making sure people
know about the car’s happy disposition. With its clever marketing campaigns, it
has diverted attention from the car’s flaws and made it an object of desire,
capable of stirring emotion in the most far-removed of gear heads.
And the Fiat has many flaws, but because of the sheer joy it brings, it is
very easy to forgive them.
While the main complaint with the first Fiat on Canadian shores was that it
was underpowered, the sweet turbocharged engine goes above and beyond fixing
that gripe. Although 135 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque don’t seem
like numbers to brag about, the turbocharged engine is more than capable of
moving the light 500 (it’s essentially a tuned-down version of the motor in the
mighty Abarth). At idle, the little four-cylinder purrs away quietly, but once
the throttle is buried, a surprisingly menacing exhaust note fills your ears.
The five-speed manual’s long bite and throws, along with its unique clutch and
shifter position took a bit of getting used to, but turned out to be a fine
performer, well-matched to the sporty 500T.
Things are amped up a notch when you push the Sport button, which quickens
throttle response and seems to deepen the exhaust note.
Although the exterior has been essentially the same since 2007, Fiat had to
give this turbocharged model some attitude to match the exhaust note and
sportier feel, and did so with some mean-looking 16-inch aluminum rims, chrome
exhaust tips, red brake calipers, flared side sills and a rear spoiler.
But staying true to the Fiat’s happy personality, the cabin brings the 500
back to its cheery self. The cabin is simple and is characteristic of other
cars in its segment, with the exception of a body-coloured dash panel and retro
touches such as round, chrome-trimmed buttons. The retro touches elevate the
cabin and only add to the car’s never-ending desire to make you smile.
Because of the Fiat’s small frame and barely-there rear windows, blind spots
were an issue. Fiat has addressed this problem by putting a blind spot mirror
inside the driver’s side mirror — an extremely helpful addition.
The other problems with the Fiat are issues that plague the entire subcompact
segment and are to be expected. These are tiny, front-wheel-drive,
small-wheelbase cars, which means twitchy highway driving and considerable
understeer when pushed into corners. With the 500 being so light, road bumps
and Toronto’s infamous potholes also became my worst enemies.
Rear-seat room is also laughable. I’m 5-foot-7 and didn’t have the driver seat
all the way back on its tracks, and I could barely fit my lunch bag in the
wedge of space that was left. Most buyers wouldn’t buy this car as a
four-seater, however. For two people, it is completely comfortable. For three,
it is OK for short trips. For four? Nearly impossible unless your friends are
The back seats make better storage for groceries or bigger items; the trunk is
a wee one, as evidenced by the world’s smallest snowbrush provided by Chrysler
Canada. About the size of a dustpan sweeper, it’s the cutest snowbrush I’ve
ever seen, but it’s a very simple indicator of how small the trunk is — a
larger snowbrush probably won’t fit.
Of course, being so small, the 500 is perfectly suited to be an urban
runabout. Its fuel economy is respectable, it has peppy performance, it’s
ridiculously easy to park and it stands out in a crowd.
The Fiat 500 is a charming car that makes me want to take the long way home.
It makes me want to do silly things like match my nail polish colour to the
Rosso red exterior, sing out loud like Wayne and Garth, and drive all my
friends around because nothing would make them, or myself, happier.
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