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.

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