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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

FIAT For A Day

My daily driver is a Chevrolet Colorado pick up truck (pause, sigh) and yes, I’m fully aware that it is consistently rated as one of the worst trucks of all time. The grill looks like it was put it on upside-down, the turning radius is only slightly smaller than that of a destroyer, the transmission shifts gears like a squirrel trying to cross a road and the latch on tailgate needs attention almost as often as it needs a gas-up.

It’s pretty old school by today's standards, which is probably why it typically gets trashed in comparisons with similar vehicles such as the Nissan Frontier and Honda Ridgeway. But I like old school and its defense I’ll say that it rides better than a lot of cars, has plenty of power, is a terrific off-roader and gets ok gas mileage on the highway (city mileage sux). It's also very simple, void of useless buttons, knobs and dials. Having recently celebrated it's fourth birthday, the body is still in good shape, but flip it over and it’s obvious that the salty NY winters have taken their toll on the underside. (FYI - Future production of the Colorado is presently uncertain. The plant in Shreveport, LA has been shuttered and, while a new model is now available in Thailand and The Phillipines, GM has not said when the new model will be available here).

Given the state of the economy and the uncertainty of what’s coming after the election, my wife and I have decided to alter our pattern of replacing our vehicles every four years in favor of doing whatever is necessary to keep them running as long as possible. Not that I believe everything I read, but I have yet to hear any economist anywhere predict that things will improve if Obama is re-elected, so why chance it. But what really convinced me it was worth keeping was when I saw one identical to it advertised used, same mileage, for MORE than I paid for my truck new four years ago.

So, off to the shop it went for a complete rust-proofing and undercoating. BTW, the salesperson confirmed that they have been beyond busy as people rush in to get their cars and trucks treated so they’ll last “four more years.”

Hey, I Thought This Was About A FIAT!
While my truck was getting a goop job, I needed mobility, so I decided to take Enterprise up on their $35 a day rent-a-car deal. I had the choice between a Toyota Corolla and a FIAT 500. No choice really. It’s been years since I’ve driven a car where the doors make up nearly 50% of the length of the car so the 500 has to be more kicks than a Corolla. Actually... ah, nevermind...

The FIAT is smaller than small—more than two feet shorter than a VW Beetle, but the doors are large and open wide for easy entry, and they shut with a meaningful “whump." The cabin is bright and retro-whimsical. It reminded me of an old frig that my aunt had. This particular unit was a mix of white, pale green and black. The cloth seats are comfortable enough for buzzing around town and the ride is better than I expected for a vehicle with such a short stretch between its 15” wheels, even over pot holes and rail road tracks. The sound system was also several cuts above what I expected. The steering is light and fairly quick, however did expect it to be a little tighter and more responsive, more “go kart” like.

Out on the highway, the little 1.4 liter engine (101 hp / 98 lb. ft torque) was quite capable of keeping up and even passing when necessary. The 6-speed auto transmission has a clutchless, +/- shift feature for more spirited driving and this model had a “sport” button on the dash that seemed to quicken up the steering a bit. Most of the time, I used the manual mode and while it’s no Ferrari, it gets pretty eager when you hold the pedal to the floor and slam the shift stick up through the gears. 6000 rpms seems to be the sweet spot for DIY shifts, push it beyond that point and it’ll override your intentions rather than run into the rev limiter. For a tiny gumdrop of a car, it feels far larger than it is. It’s lack of mass is only apparent when some one pulls right up on the rear bumper at a stop, or there’s a semi approaching in the distance. I did notice this sort of “If it does hit me, how much can it hurt?” attitude from on coming drivers.

This unit had over 24K on the odo and was still tight and rattle-free. On my way back to the agency, I stopped to replace the fuel I had spent and found that a gallon and half took the gauge way above where it was at start.

On the down-side, if you’re long-legged (as I am) you may find it nearly impossible to find a comfortable driving position. There’s plenty of leg-room, but the way the gear-shift pod is position, there’s no knee-room. By the end of the day, my knee was sore from banging against that stupid shift-pod. There’s not much leg room for riders in the rear either, especially when someone sitting up front slides the seat back even half-way.

Aside from these nit-picks, I did enjoy running my day's errands in the 500 and if that new FIAT 500L (L is far large) offers a little more space, I may even give it a look—in four years. Hey, if gas goes to $6+ a gallon, these things will be flying off the lots.

Chevrolet Colorado - 75% US Content, Assembled in US (Until 2011)
FIAT 500 - 11% US Content, Assembled in Mexico. (FIAT owns controlling interest in Chrysler Corp.)

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