The Fiat 500 Sport as a Touring Car.
Just back from our second trip to Los Gatos in our Fiat 500 Sport. For sure, the Fiat (almost any Fiat) is not the first choice of most for a long trip. It has a mere 104 horsepower and is short on storage space, although not as cramped as you would think by looking at it. The seats are not the most comfy for a long drive, and the two occupants had better be on friendly terms. They will be in close proximity for the duration. However, it does have assets that come into play on trip like this, as they have in the past.
One quality that never makes it into the published road tests of any car is that the Fiat looks like fun. Every time. The base versions tend toward the cute, but the sport model, with its bigger wheels and tires and more aggressive front and rear styling, fog lamps, and (in our case), a power glass sunroof, give the car a “let’s go” vibe that resonates with either of us on any drive from two miles in length to over 2,000. You want to have a car that says “let’s go!” every time you look at it.
We began by pausing in Olympia to visit with Susan’s brother Kevin and his partner Alex. They spoiled us with fine pastries and excellent coffee, and we lingered longer than planned, as you do when great conversations with interesting people arise.
It’s 900 miles or so from our house to Los Gatos, and we always choose to make the trip over two days. It could be done in one, but we are in this to enjoy, not endure. Our first night’s stop is in Ashland, and Susan prefers a motel room in town so we can enjoy an evening stroll. That did not work so well this time, as our laggardly behavior in Olympia meant we arrived in Ashland well into the evening. A motel by the freeway would have done as well and been cheaper.
The 2nd day is when the Fiat starts to become a great companion, starting off with a morning romp over the Siskiyou’s past Mt. Shasta. This time we actually ran into some snow, which I’d not planned on, but it was not enough to stick and challenge the Fiat’s capabilities. The fun comes from arcing through endless uphill and downhill corners while playing with the throttle, gear change, and cruise controls. The Fiat does not have enough power to hold the cruise control speed in 5th gear up steep hills, and sometimes not enough to hold 5th gear by itself. Thus you are tap dancing with feet and fingers between 4th and 5th gear and in and out of the cruise control to maintain a goodly pace, which is sufficiently involving to keep you focused.
As we cruised past Redding the weather turned to the wet, which California desperately needs. Once on the freeway headed west to Los Gatos the rain picked up quite a bit, and I became concerned with California drivers, many of whom have little or no experience with wet roads, cavorting with each other at 70mph across five lanes with a few feet between each car. I looked for holes where I could hide, and then an interesting thing happened.
The rain ramped up to a real deluge, and there was a “tipping point” where the locals all seemed to realize it was raining, and slowed down! By now we were in a commuter lane that was empty, passing hundreds of cars that had worried me just a few minutes before.
In Los Gatos we stayed with our daughter and son in law and grandson for 3 nights and at the home of Susan’s sister and her family for the 4th night. I drove Dorine to work each morning in the Fiat and then fetched her in the evening. During the day we used Dorine and Dorje’s brand new Subaru Forester, as you could fit a car seat into the Fiat but you might not be able to unkink your back for a week or two afterward. Each day we took 1.7 year old Arthur on various adventures and we all had a great time.
When Dorine was pregnant with Arthur, our first grandchild, there was a lot of discussion about what names our grandchild would use for us. My opinion was that he or she would select the names, and our input was sort of moot. Evidently Arthur has been given a menu of names over time, and has settled on “Nana” for Susan and “Pop Pop” for me. A great way to start your day is with a cup of coffee and hearing your grandson coming down the hall calling for his “Pop Pop.”
The Subaru was purchased after due diligence by Dorje, and it is a fine vehicle for the intended use. For me, it irks me that the center armrest is too low to be of any use, which seems stupid, and the CVT transmission irritates. The car launches from 0-5 mph with great haste, so much so that a smooth take off takes some care, and then falls on its face. After that it accelerates in a fashion, but you are not to know or care what the car is actually doing. It does offer great comfort, a lot of space, good fuel mileage, and a back-up camera, and the handling on winding roads is astonishingly good. A power sunroof would be a great addition, but was only available as part of a very expensive package of mostly irrelevant add-ons, so I would not have specced that either.
The trip home is where the Fiat comes into its own. We zip over the hill to Santa Cruz on Highway 17, which can be challenging with heavy traffic, sharp corners, cluttered sight lines, and semis that loom up in the right lane going 15 mph. Then we turn north on the famed Highway 1 around Monterey Bay, through San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, and on to hug the coastline. Susan enjoys sightseeing in San Francisco, with the sunroof slid back for great views of the architecture, etc. At any speed over 30mph or so it’s best to slide the roof forward, as wind noise makes conversation impossible. Even there the roof is an asset, because the light coming through makes the interior a pleasant place to be. I’ve driven a 500 without the sun roof, and the interior is a dark hole. You can also get a sliding fabric roof that slides all the way back, but at $3,000 for that option versus $875 for the power glass sun roof I think we made the best choice.
Once over the Golden Gate, Highway 1 yanks left and over the hills on what is essentially a well paved goat path. Most of the corners are marked “15 mph” and they’re not kidding. Fortunately there are frequent turn-offs for drivers of a less sporting nature than me, and people were for the most part very polite.
I developed a “system” while enjoying this. When we came up behind someone I would first turn on the headlights. After a bit I would ignite the fog lights, and that usually resulted in the person getting out of the way, without the rudeness of hitting the high beams.
Once on the coast the road opens up and delights flood the car. Open roads with lots of corners, and spectacular views of the ocean waves breaking on the beach alternates with scenes of grasslands with cows who look very contented as they munch on plentiful grass on the rolling hills. The drought has not had an impact on this area, at least yet, at least this year.
We passed the day enjoying ourselves immensely, stopping for a walk or food or whatever, whenever. We found a great place to stay in Fort Bragg and then took Highway 20 over to Willits the next morning to join Highway 101. I noticed last year that Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg becomes so cluttered with hairpins that it takes forever to go about nowhere, so I thought zipping over to Highway 20 might give us more time. In the end, I think the time elapsed was about the same, but Highway 20 is about the best driving road ever. It was a great choice. I’ve altered the intended route for my summer motorcycle trip to include this road.
The previous day I’d noted that we caught up to and passed dozens of others along the road, but nobody ever caught up to us. I wasn’t trying that hard, and the Fiat is certainly not powerful, so what I took from it was that nobody was driving for enjoyment, which seemed very sad.
My ego was kept under control on Highway 20, where after an hour or so of catching and passing all and sundry, I looked in the mirror to see that we were being caught by – a huge Dodge pickup truck.
Towing a trailer.
With a hefty backhoe on it.
I was astonished. Over the next few miles I would gain on really tight sections, but if the road were open at all he was really pouring it on. Discretion being the better part of ego, I eventually pulled over and let him by. And then – he slowed down. It was easy to keep pace with him now, and I realized he was doing what many motorcyclists do on such a road. He was using my brake lights and car positioning as a guide. Well done, Sir!
We motored north from Willits on Highway 101 until it rejoined Highway 1, and from then on up to and into Oregon. Along the way we paused in the historic part of Eureka for a fantastic lunch. Our stop for the night was the Gold Beach Resort, which was fabulous and inexpensive. Highly recommended.
For the final day it was up to Reedsport and then inland on Highway 38 to I-5 and the ensuing drone home. The weather returned to wet for this day, which was fine by me. Interesting in its own right, and the great roads and scenery were pretty much behind us.
We had lunch at “the Cannery” in Eugene, across the street from the U of Oregon. Susan’s phone described the ambience of this place as “hipster,” and who be hipper than we?
A great trip, and the Fiat proved itself, once again, to be a boon adventure companion.
Copyright 2015 David Preston