Intro: Changing priorities:
Except for a two-year period where I was cruising around the roads of Melbourne in a 1974 Citroen DS, I have always owned performance oriented cars – A Porsche Boxster here, a couple of RenaultSport and Ford hot hatches there and a Mazda RX-7… mostly sitting at my mechanic’s workshop.
But I’m a big believer in the theory that the best car in the world is the one that best suits my current requirements.
For me this boiled down to: A car that would make my daily commute to work fun by enabling me to drive with my foot mashed to the firewall often, without breaking speed limits and losing my license. It had to have at least a little bit of character. Also, as I’m currently focused on saving more money and investing for my future, it needed to be cheap to buy and cheap to run. So I that’s how I ended up buying a brand new Fiat 500 S.
Week 1: Yes, it’s small:
I pick up the 500 from the dealership and drive it over to my parents’ house. My dad takes a look around. “Where’s the other half of it?” he asks.
It becomes clear very quickly that if you’re going to drive around in a 500, you’re going to have to get used to people asking questions about whether or not you fit in it – especially if you’re on the tall side like me.
My standard response soon becomes: “Why yes, I do fit in it. That’s how I managed to get here. But I do own two – one for each foot.”
I also start to find that “blokey” guys give you weird looks when you tell them what you’ve just bought. Best get used to that too.
A work colleague asks me if it comes equipped with parking sensors because she finds parking difficult without them. Honestly, if you can’t park this car without parking sensors, you probably shouldn’t be driving.
The thing is though, when you’re behind the wheel, it doesn’t feel that small. I think it’s the high driving position – which means that people driving standard sized cars are still at your eye-level. You feel less vulnerable than you expect to feel when driving something that weighs less than a tonne.
Week 2: Useable gimmicks:
The 500 S has a ‘sport’ button on the dash. Being a cheap economy car, I assume that pressing it would have absolutely no effect on anything. I am wrong. It makes the throttle significantly more responsive, which, in a car with a small and rev-hungry 1.4l engine is a welcome trait. The downside of this is that it makes keeping a constant speed (especially on the freeway) a bit tricky, which is exacerbated by it not being fitted with cruise control.
So my freeway driving ritual soon becomes this: Mash the accelerator on the on-ramp. Get up to speed, turn off sport mode. Maintain constant speed. Come off freeway onto normal streets, turn on sport mode. If I’m being truly honest, this makes you look like a bit of a tosser to your passengers, but it actually makes a big difference to the driving experience.
My 500 is the July 2014 update, which means it comes with a colour TFT screen, with an inbuilt G-meter. If you’re looking down at this during enthusiastic cornering, you’re doing enthusiastic cornering wrong. Also, the G-meter can’t be activated if you’re listening to the stereo. Which is a pity because what if you’re listening to the 1812 overture, which in turn encourages you drive like a total madman, and you want to know how many Gs you’re pulling around a roundabout in Kew? But the main advantage of the TFT screen is the big digital speedo, which, with the above-mentioned touchy throttle issue, is a godsend when you’re trying to stick to draconian speed limits.
Week 3: Feeling like you’re going fast vs. actually going fast:
The little Fiat is not a fast car. But it is a car that feels fast. The 1.4 sounds like a wasps’ nest on wheels. It makes an endearing ‘whooom’ sound when you come off the throttle to change gears. It’s like the car is constantly saying “I can, I can, I can! I’m small, but I can!”
The 6 speed manual box (with the metallic lever positioned close to the steering wheel) is a delight to use. The brake pedal and the throttle are placed a bit far apart, but heal and toe downshifts are possible if you’re committed.
Mid corner bumps make the whole car bounce and bobble around a bit, which is an undesirable trait in most other cars, but it suits the 500 perfectly. People ask me if I miss my Boxster. I can honestly say that I don’t. Of course it doesn’t have true performance car ability, but it finds other ways to deliver driving pleasure.
Week 4: More practical than you'd think:
With its diminutive dimensions, The 500 is not the last word when it comes to practicality. If that’s what you’re looking for, you need to get yourself to the Honda dealership and buy a Jazz.
But on a Saturday I call up a good friend, and we agree to go for lunch. The Fiat carries us two and our girlfriends to the lunch venue. Four adults in this tiny thing for about fifteen minutes and no-one complains. Also, the extra weight doesn’t dull performance as much as I am expecting.
The 500 also has a tiny boot, and this means that you have to think about what you’re carrying around. There’s not much storage space in the cabin either – just a couple of door pockets, some small recesses here and there and no glove box. This is a car that encourages you to travel light and not lug around all sorts of useless junk around in it. Sort of like how moving into a one-bedroom apartment forces you to de-clutter.
Week 6: Yes, people will smile and wave:
Every car has a face. The 500’s always looks scared and/or surprised. When there’s a bigger car behind it (i.e. all the time), it looks like it’s running away from a scary monster that’s chasing it. No wonder no one honks their horns angrily at me anymore and always let me into traffic. Also, kids sometimes wave at it. It’s like driving around in an animal onesie. You can decide whether or not that’s a good thing.
People come and talk to you when you’re pumping petrol or putting the groceries in the boot. They ask how much it cost me to buy. They’re usually surprised by the answer - they think it'd cost more. “It looks like a fun car”, they say. They’re right.
Conclusion: It’s a keeper:
The original plan was to keep the 500 for two years, then sell it to someone else and buy something more performance-oriented again. I’ve already realised that this isn’t going to happen. I’m going to keep it around even with my next car purchase. I can see it twenty years from now, being my P-Plater son or daughter’s first car. I can see them riding the clutch and grinding the gears and complaining about how no-one drives a manual car anymore and the 500 just patiently putting up with it all.
What I like most about the 500 is that it gives you just enough of… car-ness – so that you can simplify your life, do all the car things you need it to do, and save money while still having loads of fun.
No, it doesn’t make sense from a purely rational choice. There are ‘better’ cars for $19k with VW, Mazda and Ford badges on them, but I couldn’t care less. No other car will make you smile as much for as little, and as such, it has no real competition in the sub-$20k car market.