Fiat 500 Sport Touring
A couple of weeks ago I read a long term test review of the Fiat 500 in one of the car magazines. Although positive, it stated that the car would not be suitable for a long drive. This was of interest because the very next day we launched off on a drive from Seattle to Santa Cruz and back, which covered over 2,000 miles with some creative planning and assuredly counted as a long drive.
With the modern Fiat 500 there are essentially three choices, and your choice would have a dramatic effect on a longer drive, so pointing out our own selection would be a good start. Ours in a 2012 model 500 Sport, purchased in August of 2011, and it now has 18,000 miles. At the time of purchase there were two choices, and now there are three.
The “base” model is the “Polo,” which has smaller wheels, no fog lights, and an overall lower level of bells and whistles. This is the model used by Fiat to brag about fuel mileage, as the smaller and narrower wheels allow it to top 40mpg. We chose the 500 Sport, which gets you wheels, and tires that are taller and wider, plus different front and rear fascias to allow the fitment of fog lamps, etc. There’s also a rear roof spoiler that lengthens the look visually and looks a little bit cool. The Polo does appear to be rather plain in comparison.
We also opted for the 5 speed manual transmission, although I did drive an automatic when mine was in for a day of repair to a gouge in the roof (a saga described in detail much earlier) and the automatic was much better than I would have expected. We also chose the $875 power glass sun roof, and I consider that to be a mandatory option. Without it, as in the loaner I had, the interior is a small and cramped black box that seems much smaller and more cramped with no light from above.
With Sport model you also get the “Sport” button, which tightens up the steering and speeds throttle response. The only flaw is you have to press it each time you start the car, and I wish you could reverse it and make the heftier steering and faster throttle response the default setting. I do not remember if this was available on the lesser model, but it makes the car fun to drive rather than an economy sacrifice.
Last, we paid up for “Rosso Brilliant” paint, which is a deep metallic red to you and me. The standard red is rather blah – possible chosen by Fiat to spur purchase of the Rosso Brilliante option. There are other colors available of course, but really – it’s an Italian car! Sort of a mini-Ferrari, which is less absurd than you might think, since Fiat owns Ferrari. OK, it’s still absurd.
At the time the Abarth model was not available, and I almost waited for it. In addition to a turbo giving a healthy boost (almost 40 %!) to the 104 stock hamsters pedaling away under the hood, I assumed it would come with a 6 speed. I eschewed waiting because I also presumed it would come with a much higher price.
I was sort of half right. The price increase is not all that much, but it still retains the 5 speed. It also has more weight on the front end and is reported to handle less well, although I have not driven one. Last time I visited the dealer he had 7 left over 2013 Abarths and was willing to make a screaming deal, but I behaved myself. We really like ours.
Other options included a rather silly fabric “convertible” top which leaves two strips of roof on either side. It retracts and sort of folds at the back, but the windshield header is far enough back that it does not really provide much more of an open air experience than you get with the glass sun roof opened up. It was also a $3,000, which I thought ridiculous. Then there was the red and white leather interior, which Susan loved, but she agreed it was beyond the pale. After we win the lottery…
So off on our tour…
The plan was to drone down the freeway to Santa Cruz to visit our daughter and her husband and our 7 month old grandson. We would spend three days with them and then return via the fabled US 1 up the California coast, as far into Oregon as we wanted before veering right and back to I-5 for the drone home.
I was really looking forward to this trip, as I did the same route at Christmas of 1969 on a Honda 450 Street Scrambler. The end point for that one was to see my brother and his wife in Berkeley. There are people who will tell you it is not possible to ride a motorcycle to Berkeley from Seattle in late December due to the weather in the Siskiyou Mountains at the Oregon border. I had a friend at the time tell me “You will die doing this.” Well, it can be done, but I admit I would not dare attempt it again.
Since this trip was to take up most of Susan’s Spring Break, it was important to do this in vacation mode. As such, we did not leave until after 9:30am, which is far from my personal practice of leaving on trips at the crack of dawn. The trip down the freeway was uneventful, and we were glad to have chosen the drone route for the drive south, as the weather was awful. Rain, showers, spitting rain, wind, blah, more rain, drying, and repeat. All day.
Nevertheless, the car was a pleasant place to be. There’s enough wind noise that you would either need the radio on very loud or occupy yourself with a book, which is Susan’s choice most of the time. She also enjoyed time learning some of the infinite techno-treat apps available for her new smart phone. For myself, I’m one of those odd people who enjoy driving. Anything. Anywhere. For any reason. I’ve driven everything from a Hillman (in fact, two of them) to Miatas, Fiats (we’ve owned three of them – all reliable – what are the odds?), Corvettes, Porsches, and a Hummer or two. I like to drive.
One of my concerns over a long trip was the seats. Fiat seats are upholstered in what feels like Nerf ball material. Soft and spongy, but over the long day? Actually not too bad. I also found that putting the seat further back than I usually place it allowed for enough leg room. It does get a little tight if you are close to 6’ tall and “working” the car.
We stopped in the late afternoon in Ashland because – Susan likes to stop in Ashland. Her favorite motel is downtown, so you can walk around and enjoy a nice relaxing meal, etc. Instead, we went to a local grocery and purchased a “picnic” dinner to enjoy in the room.
The trip began in earnest the next day with a romp up and over the mountains. I had a lot of time to get more proficient with the cruise control and gear selection, as I learned that a Fiat Sport, even in “Sport” mode, does not have enough beans to be able to maintain 65mph in cruise control up a steep hill. In fact, if the grade is severe enough, it cannot even maintain 5th gear, but a shift to 4th will allow whatever speed you want. After several hours of this I began to see that the eventual and inevitable shift to paddle shifting in all new cars of a sporting character will not be the horror I have imagined. I had a great and amusing time varying between 4th and 5th gear and cycling the cruise control on and off. Despite all that, this tank returned 40.5 mpg, a new high for this car. That is on regular gas, also.
In California we made a slight route error in search of a good restaurant, going 20 miles or more out of our way to reach Woodland. Turned out to be a great idea, as they were having a food truck festival. We ate outside in the back of a restaurant with all the hubbub out in the street and I enjoyed a seriously delicious cheese and bacon hamburger – a menu selection that became a theme of the trip.
Once in Santa Cruz we spent a lovely three days with Dorine and Dorje and Arthur, although Dorje had to attend a conference in Berkeley while we were there and was otherwise working, so we did not have as much time with him as preferred. We did spend quality time with Dorine and her son, including a day at “3 mile beach,” which is 4 miles up the coast from Santa Cruz, and an afternoon at the Long Marine Research facility, which I highly recommend. We also blew a large wad of cash at the UC SC student store stocking up on “banana slug” gear. The banana slug is the mascot of UC SC, which is where Dorje works. The hat I purchased has the inscription “Fiat Slug” emblazoned, and how cool is that? In Latin it means “let it be done” or “let it be,” while FIAT the company is an acronym. Different word, but why be picky?
We also enjoyed the best burger feast of the trip, at a restaurant close to D and D’s called “Hamburger .” as in Hamburger – period. That turned out to be a lie, as they serve much more than hamburgers, plus a mind boggling array of different beers. Wasted on me, as I never drink while driving, even in Dorine’s ancient little Nissan, chosen for ease of access for baby Arthur and his accoutrements, which would have been a challenge for the Fiat. The highlight here was the fries. Imagine a big bowl of French fries, covered with bleu cheese and pieces of bacon. Wow!
Speaking of space, the Fiat was fine for people traveling light. Susan likes to be able to access water and fruit and etc., so a small cooler went in the middle of the bag seat, plus a bag full of jackets and sweaters and reading materials. Her luggage went behind her, and mine in the trunk, along with other stuff. It all fit, but carrying a stroller for Arthur would have been a step too far, even with everything else removed. There is enough room in the back seat for a passenger or two, provided they are small people.
The trip back was where things got interesting, and then fantastic. Highway 1 is a challenging drive in anything, and a joy in a small and flickable car like the Fiat. Susan did a wonderful job of whimpering seldom, and I would not have wanted to be a passenger on this road if the driver was having fun. About 8 hours of hairpins, with infinite changes of gear, on the brakes, off, on the gas, OOPS!, off the gas – an endless ballet, and probably about as graceful as I would be if actually attempting ballet. Closest to riding a motorcycle on a winding road I have ever come. Some of Susan’s spare time activities were curtailed by a total lack of cell phone service for most of the day, which really surprised me. This area is more than remote. We paused in Stinson Beach for yet another hamburger feast, and then resumed the fun.
In the late afternoon we stopped in Mendocino, and scored a front room on the 2nd floor of a hotel that opened in the 1878. After a stroll to another burger place – mediocre- we luxuriated out on the deck in jammies, wrapped up against the chill, reading the New York Times as the sun set. Bliss.
The next day the twisties continued, although things did straighten out from time to time. There was one romp up and over a semi-mountain that featured dozens of hairpins and very few guard rails. Challenging, but spectacular. These are the roads the Fiat was designed for, and it took me almost three years and 18,000 miles to find them. I wondered at times if I would blow the tires off the car, but they did not show appreciable wear despite the abuse. I wondered what car might be better here. Perhaps an open top Ferrari would make a symphony to be enjoyed. A Porsche Boxster would also be sublime. Most performance cars would be too long, too wide, and would have power you could never use. A modern Corvette convertible would be terrific, for example, but also a lot of work and I suspect frustrating at the end of the day. The Fiat was fantastic.
This day ended in Coos Bay and a large motel that was mundane, but also spacious, clean, and cheap.
For the last day we planned to romp over to Eugene on Highway 38. Our schedule was thrown the monkey wrench that usually clangs into your travel plans by a horrible accident that had us parked for over an hour while the wreckage up ahead was cleared. It turned out to be a head on collision between a Toyota pick-up truck and a fuel tanker. 4500 gallons of fuel on the truck and 5500 gallons in a trailer. When we finally trolled past the site, the remains of the Toyota were on a trailer, and it was obvious a fatality had taken place. Did not see the truck, but several Haz Mat trucks added a sobering touch to the heavy fuel fumes in the air.
Waiting for the wreck to clear.
We finally reached Eugene and then set the cruise control and motored home.
Can you tour in a Fiat 500 Sport? In the same manner that you can tour on a small motorcycle, the answer is yes. We would have been far more comfortable in a modern entry luxury sort of sedan perhaps, although Susan opines that I-5 from Eugene home would be a drag in anything. Besides, for the experience of Highway 1 – sacrifices should and must be made!
David Preston Copyright 2014