Sunday, September 30, 2012

Batting 1000. (Me, not the FIAT).

It wasn't by choice this time, since it was the only economy offering Enterprise had for me. But after my last encounter with the 500 just a week or so ago, a high school friend told me how much she loved hers. So I didn't mind giving the piccolo FIAT another try.

This time, my friends in green and black pulled out a lower-level model than the one I rented previously. This meant my short-term relationship would be devoid of heated leather seats, a moonroof, Bluetooth, a USB port, and a handful of other features. The USB was immediately missed—since my iPhone was nearly dead after a miserable day of travel, and I needed to navigate to my hotel. But it was a far more low-tech feature lacking on this 500 that I missed the most: No little convex portion of the driver sideview mirror. The 500 has an enormous blind spot over the driver's left shoulder. It's criminal that this cheap little mirror isn't standard equipment on all trim levels.

Coincidentally, this silver 500 had the same mileage on it as the first one: 26,000. And sadly, the rental experience became a game of "What's Broken on This One?". Just like the first one, driver arm rest? Morto. Separation of badge lamination on the hatch (see photo)? Male. And keyfob functionality? Mezzo mezzo (the trunk release worked half the time). I discovered new territory of brokenness in the passenger seat release, which is in a convenient location at the top outboard corner of the seatback. When this release is broken, however, the funky ergonomics mean that you have to lean into the car and move the seat via TWO inboard controls (both forward/backward and recline levers face the console side of the seat). My developers rolled with the punches but egress was a royal pain in the culo. The rear headrests were frozen in position, as well, which meant the rear passenger had to sit with his head pitched downward on every ride.

To expand on my previous ergonomic/conventions rant, there are three prominently positioned controls on a body-colored expanse between the radio and climate controls: sport shift mode, hazard lights, and rear defrost. While all are illuminated when the headlights are on, NONE illuminate when engaged. Instead, tiny icons for each light up 18 inches away on the way-too-busy gauge cluster. Che cazzo! What jolly red plastic hazard button DOESN'T flash when engaged?

On a provision run to Target, we found that the back seats don't really fold down. They merely tip forward at about a 70-degree angle, providing no meaningful additional cargo capacity. Perhaps if the front passengers weren't tall, this wouldn't be the case. Then again you don't buy the 500 for its payload volume.

The ride was the same. The small footprint and short wheelbase give the 500 a bouncy buggy feel. The engine is noisy, compared to the competition, but it has enough pep to get out of its own way. And it's comical to see how much parking space you DON'T use in the 500. One of my developers commented that it leaves plenty of room for tailgating. This would be true if you didn't need another car in which to bring the grill, cooler, chairs, and foam "We're #1" fingers.

People do beat on rentals. But having experienced the same failures on two successive FIATs, I have real durability concerns with this brand. It's adorable. It zips you around town in an entertaining if not completely comfortable way. But long term? I'm not so sure.

If I'm faced with the same choices next time, Enterprise will have to cough up an upgrade. There will be no chance for strike three.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Continuing my excursion into the world of everything entry level, my friends at Enterprise put the keys of a sparkly blue Toyota Yaris in my hand. 2 keys, to be precise. An all-metal one, and a black-tipped one. No keyfob remote. Oldskool key-in-hole door locks. Felt like 1990.

From a design standpoint, I can honeszz... zzzz.... honestly say thazzz... zzzzz... zzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

The all-grey interior is an homage to thzzz... zzzzzzzzzzzzzz... plastic with zzzzz... The fish wears a bow tie? I should fly to the tree house when my teeth are done falling out.

On the road is where you really ge... zz.. zzzzzzzzz... (No recollection of ensuing Ambien-fueled pancake feast.)

Sorry. I've never been able to get excited about anything Toyota has ever done. That includes Lexus. A way-too-broad array of mild appliances with awesome resale value. Designs that wash over the senses like Paxil over neuroreceptors. The Yaris is an entry level shot of novocaine into the medulla. Never engaging, yet never offensive.

The running joke at Motor Trend is that the most they can say about Yaris is, "It's a car!"

Open the door and you transition from a featureless exterior to a cabin reminiscent of a security buggy at the mall. A sea of grey plastic awaits, including a large expanse of it in front of the Cub Cadet injection-molded steering wheel. The gauge cluster, you see, is in the center of the dash. This is not an element of style. It's just a cheap way to produce left- and right-hand-drive vehicles without having to change much. It takes some getting used to. Imagine looking 14" to the right to see if your turn signal is still on.

Driving the Yaris at night was amusing. That gaping black void in front of the steering wheel is disconcerting. Absolute darkness from the defrost vents to your feet. I kept expecting a raccoon to leap out of that abyss and into my face. The center stack is a tragic result of a cost-cutting stroll down Toyota's spare parts aisle. The gauge cluster is backlit white. The radio is backlit orange. HVAC controls are backlit green. Tribute to Ireland? I don't think so.

I do feel I owe an apology to both Mazda and FIAT for calling their base models "basic transportation". This Yaris truly lowers that bar, in comparison. Mine did have A/C and a stereo with iPod interface, but the overall feeling is that you're in a do-it-yourself stripper. And the lack of fashion is oppressive.

I'll retract my claws now and admit that the Yaris did its simple job extraordinarily well. It comfortably toted my developers and me around town and on the highway. It had reasonable power, surprisingly good handling with minimal body roll, and everything worked flawlessly. And this is what you buy a Toyota for: Absolute utility without a hint of style.

I don't own a single pair of sweatpants - for the same reason I wouldn't own a Yaris. But for those who don't care about aesthetics and want a basic car that they don't have to think about, Yaris just might be the one... furry... icicle barge... zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Non Va Bene

Enterprise offered the best weekly rental price in my economy car search for this week in Chicago. They offered me an interesting choice between a FIAT 500 and an Impala. Because nothing shouts "economy" like a cop car.

The 500 is a tiny retromobile designed after the classic Cinquecento. It's also the most poorly-marketed vehicle I can think of. Jenny-(filmed 3,000 miles)-from-the-Block and Charlie Sheen are epic fails in pegging the demo for this car. Adam Levine and Kristen Stewart? Closer. FIAT's one stroke of marketing genius was promoting it at events hosted by the gay professional network, dot429. Bullseye.

With 26,000 miles on the OD, this 500 was worse for wear. Broken passenger door release, arm rest, and trunk release, and faulty Bluetooth pairing. I was shocked to see that the lamination on the FIAT emblem on the trunk was already separating from the metal. Rental abuse? Maybe. But I smell quality issues. And Enterprise—this car was filthy inside and out. What's UP with that?

One quickly learns why American/German/Japanese/South Korean functionality and conventions have risen to the top, when stepping into a car from somewhere else. The Italian 500 is an exercise in ergonomic frustration. The center of the gauge cluster is a hideous orange LCD with a blizzard of read outs in different letter and graphic styles. The tach and speedo are configured in two concentric arcs which create a cool design but are not easy to read. HVAC and radio controls are a mess. And I had to Google how to lock and unlock the bloody doors. It was well equipped however, with climate control, heated seats, power moonroof, a nice Bose audio system, and Bluetooth (if only it worked).

Front seats were comfortable and you could roast a chicken with the seat heat. But the steering wheel doesn't tilt low enough, which required me to jack the seat up high. As a result, I repeatedly bumped my head against the door jamb when looking out the window. Seat height adjustment uses a ratcheting lever with obscenely short throws. It felt like 10 pulls raised the seat an inch. Outward visibility is poor for blind spots, but there is a wide angle sideview mirror to help with that. Three full size guys fit in the 500, but just barely. it was okay for the 10 minute ride to work. But I wouldn't want to do any long range cruising with more than driver plus 1.

The 500 was fine for bopping around town. But an hour-long ride down I-90 from the burbs to Bandera on North Michigan Avenue showed off a noisy, busy ride. The 500 felt top-heavy and a little hard to keep on a straight path. Power was just okay. Sport mode allowed shifts at higher revs, but kept the revs high for a 2 count after taking my foot off the gas. I wonder what that does to fuel economy.

Having driven the 500 within two weeks of the Mazda 2, the Mazda is the hands-down winner. What the 2 lacks in visual panache, it makes up for in drivability, without any of the toy-like behavior of the FIAT. The Mazda drives like a much bigger car. The 500 drives like what it is - a statement. Just not a compelling one.

This is the first time Enterprise has delivered a car in such poor shape to me. And I made it known to them. I'm on my way to swap the 500 for a Yaris. The Y is for Yawn, but I'm confident all the doors will work.

This 500 is one cute Italian outfit that I won't be wearing again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

2 Much or 2 Little?

One of my besties, Kelly, came to visit me in Chicago, where I am neck-deep in producing mobile apps. Upon arrival, she was convinced she'd pick the "wrong" car as she perused Enterprise's selections, and was prepared to be lambasted by me upon arrival at the hotel.

She arrived in a black Mazda 2 (so glad for black) — the diminutive, entry-level offering from the Zoom-Zoom division. I wasn't mad at all. Mazda is doing great things. Their Skyactiv technology is bringing performance and efficiency to the streets. And the upcoming 6 is a STUNNA! But a 2? A base model? It's been a while since I've sampled what I consider basic transportation. Would I suffer and die in the absence of 8-way leather seats, OnStar, and a turbocharger?

This 2 had the basics covered. Power windows, mirrors, and locks. A/C. A CD player with an MP3 jack. Stability control. And not much else. Control layout is logical and intuitive. The look inside is attractive, bordering on fun, without getting cute.

Within the first five minutes behind the wheel, I realized the 2 was a hoot. Even when burdened with four adults, the 2's 100hp mill had enough power to keep us from getting nervous on onramps. The ride is firm and assured, most likely as a result of the wheels being pushed to the far corners. Steering gave good feedback as the 2 cruised effortlessly and comfortably on the varied pavement of the land of Lincoln. Solo jaunts were much more fun. The 2 loves to be whipped around, responding instantly to inputs like it's waiting for them. Granted, not at light speed. But it does what it's asked to very well. And parking the tiny 2 is easier than finding pastrami at Eisenberg's—er—cholesterol at Gino's.
2 CUBED: An Enterprise Encounter  
Me: The low coolant light came on in my Mazda 2.  
Enterprise Agent: Sorry 'bout that. I can switch you into a Nissan Cube. 
Me: Please tell me you have some coolant. 
You've gotta love a rental company that obliges potential hits to the ego. 10 minutes later, I was back in the 2 after a coolant top-off.
Four of us were able to get quite comfy in the 2. Though it's a very small car, we never felt cramped. A six foot IOS developer sat behind this driver of the same height and was reasonably comfortable, though he did say he felt like we were spooning. A slight splay of his knees was required. The two sub-six-foot folks on the starboard side fared much better.

If I were to venture into the "just enough" market, I know I could live with a 2. The rental didn't have cruise control and lumbar support. Without these, long highway cruises could get tedious. On another note, fuel economy in the 30's isn't great for a car of this size - especially since so many larger cars return numbers in the 40's. But I read some new engines are on the way that will bring better fuel economy and some more zoom.

So I didn't die. To the contrary, the 2 proved entertaining. Basic transportation has come a long way. And while I don't have much to compare the 2 against, I'm sure I'll have an opportunity to do so soon. I used to rent cars better than the ones I owned. Now, I'm all about cheap. Give me fuel economy or nothing! (Then I go home to my 8-way leather, OnStar, and turbocharger).