Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fiat gets it right

When the Fiat left the United States in 1984, their reputation was rubbish.  People loved to use the expression "Fix It Again, Tony" when describing their cars.  In many ways, that reputation was deserved, and the United States was left without a true Italian car in their market.  Oh sure, there were Lambos and Ferraris for the rich and famous, but Fiat was nowhere to be seen.

Fast forward to the year 2011, when Fiat returned to our shores with the Fiat 500.  It was retro cool, and it was tiny.  But there was something appealing about that little car.  With a combination of old-fashioned looking buttons but modern technology, the 500 was a great choice for Fiat to try to pry its way into a Japanese-ruled small car market.

This year, circumstances dictated that my wife and I buy a second vehicle.  We have a Honda Civic in very good shape that we use for everything that requires a four door mode of transport.  But for our second car, we wanted something inexpensive, good on gas, low cost to insure, and small.  And being small, whatever car we chose needed to be a manual transmission, so that we could really enjoy driving it.

We narrowed our choices down to the Chevrolet Sonic, the Ford Fiesta, the Honda Fit, and the Fiat 500.  There are no subcompact cars out there that score perfectly on Consumer Reports' reliability scale, so we did our homework, did some test drives, and made our decision.

The Honda Fit was out of the running quickly.  Although a great car with Tardis-style room on the inside, it is not very attractive and was unavailable in the Sport model for anything less that $18,000.  That's more than we wanted to pay.

The Chevrolet Sonic was next, but we just weren't that impressed.  Granted, it's a step up for Chevy from the Aveo, but the car itself didn't move us.

We test drove the Ford Fiesta.  The price was right for the model we wanted (we got a quote of around $14,000 for the SE model with a stick).  We made an appointment with the dealer for a test drive and headed out.  When we arrived we were incredibly annoyed that the sales department had not arranged for a manual transmission to be available.  What?  We make an appointment to test drive a manual and when we arrive there isn't one?  Strike one.  We decided to at least drive the automatic.  It wasn't quick, it wasn't fun, and the audio system in the center console was a complete nightmare.  Strike two.  While the car is excellent in terms of quality and build, it is a four-door, and we already have one of those.  If we were going to buy another one, the car had to be enjoyable to drive.  The sales person said that if we wanted to leave a $500 deposit, they would arrange to have a manual transferred over for us to drive.  What?  What?  Strike three.

Finally, we went back to Fiat.  First of all, kudos to Fiat of Sacramento for having their final prices on their website.  Too many dealers list just the MSRP on their site and expect you to wheel and deal with them.  Not Sacramento Fiat.  We saw the prices, and that's what they were.  We test drove a Fiat Pop (the base model) listed at $14,100.  While the interior was very nice and the build felt solid, the little engine just didn't have the "pop" (sorry) that we were hoping it would.  It would be fantastic for city driving, but the long clutch play and the softness of the suspension wasn't exactly what we wanted.  Still, it was one up on the Fiesta.

Then we drove the new 500 Turbo.  Oh ... my ... goodness.  The clutch was completely different, as was the engine.  The sound was more guttural, and the turbo gave it the kick it needed.  There was leather everywhere, and the suspension was tight and responsive.  Granted, it was a bit more expensive (it was listed at $16,900), but what a difference.  It didn't take long to know that we were down to a tough decision:  the Pop at the lower price, or the Turbo with the better feel.  After talking and thinking and calculating, we contacted the dealer and let him know we wanted the Turbo.  Everything went smoothly at the dealership, and we climbed into our little Italian 500 and drove off.  Then, something amazing happened.  As we hit the freeway and merged into traffic, I looked at my wife.  She had a smile on her face.  I realized that I had the same smile!  Yes, I had just parted with a large chunk of money, but I had no regrets.  For the first time in my life, I felt perfectly at ease with a car purchase.  Yes, my Honda is great.  But this Fiat pushes all the right buttons.  Bluetooth voice controls, leather, sport feel, retro but modern, a kick to drive, a blast to maneuver, a breeze to park, and complete confidence in the solid feel to the build and sound to the entire vehicle.  We were happy as could be, and a week and a half later, we're happier still.

Fiat wasn't great in the early 80s.  But today, I'm proud to say that I am the owner of a Fiat 500.  Welcome back to America, Fiat.  Here's hoping you stay.

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