Buying a Car: Step 5 Purchase and Impressions
The Fiat 500 has won! The car we ordered did arrive, and the sales/purchase experience was more or less enjoyable (more on that later). Our new Fiat 500 Sport is sitting aglow in metallic red in the garage. The metallic red was a $500 hit that Susan felt gave the car more “gravitas.” Yes, we really do talk that way. The Fiat has thus defeated almost a dozen competitors from the original list to win its coveted spot.
It was intended to be the “outside” car, with the two garage spacers reserved for the motorcycles and the Honda CR-V, but Susan is so taken with the Fiat she insists it be inside. Over the next few weeks we will see how her feelings evolve. She may end up driving it more than I do, or she may go back to the original parking plan, or just maybe a significant reorganization of the garage will allow all the vehicles to reside inside in the Seattle winter.
The less moto-interested of my friends (that would be almost all of them) usually say “Fiat?” Aren’t those terrible cars?” Yes and no. Fiat left the United States decades ago with their corporate head sagging, weighed down with wreathes of rust shoddily held together by half-broken parts made on the cheap. But really, there were not all THAT bad. We have owned two Fiats previously, a delectable little 124 Coupe that was a perfect car except for being shy about 50 horsepower, and a 124 Spyder that we enjoyed for several years. Both were as mechanically reliable as you could hope for, and were great fun to drive. However, this was not the experience of most people, and as the horror stories of shoddy workmanship, rust issues from the start, and other ills began to pile up, they fed on themselves and grew out of control. With the Internet, the end would have been even quicker and more coated in the slime of red ink gore than it was back then.
However, Fiat did not die. Far from it. In the decades of marketing minus the US, Fiat has grown and prospered beyond belief. Ferrari is now owned by Fiat, for one little item most people miss. Many Americans assume we are the biggest, richest, and more important market in the world for all products, and companies that cannot prosper here cannot prosper anywhere. And, like many of the beliefs my country people hold so dear, ALL of those assumptions are incorrect. Compare this to the campaign rhetoric of the Perrys and Bachmans and Palins, and their flamboyantly ridiculous statements begin to make sense – if only from a P.T. Barnum marketing point of view.
Where was I? Beginning a rant. Oh yes, back to the Fiat 500.
Fiat has been making the 500 in Europe for a few years to rave reviews, and I’ve been watching the European car mags and web sites for horror stories. Have not found any.
Compared to a Mini, the Fiat is about the same size inside but a few inches shorter and narrower. It is big inside and tiny outside. It should get nearly 40 mpg from an engine that has received rave reviews but makes only 101 hp. Minis range from that up to 225hp, and the more powerful versions have more power than chassis can handle, in my humble opinion. (Susan’s sister has a mega-power Mini and we have both driven it.) Overall, a Mini is perhaps a better car, but it is MUCH more expensive. Minis can run from about 25k to well over 40k, where the Fiat is about 18 – 28k depending on options.
There are three models – cheap and cheerful, larded and loaded expensive, and the “Sport” which is what we purchased. The Sport has 16 inch wheels (others are 15) which will probably be a boon to handling and certainly tire life, and some other sporty doodads. We opted for the $900 power sunroof (and I’m glad we did) plus some other goodies like LoJack, a paint treatment, extended warranty, etc., and the price, out the door, was plus 24k with the trade-in of the Focus, which at 93,000 miles was not worth a whole lot.
Negotiations were very pleasant. I held a weak hand, as these things are now a hot commodity. We ordered ours in July, and when we showed up to haggle the salesman told me he had 5 people waiting to buy it. Some sales blarney, perhaps, but the lot was swarming with people hot to buy the car – and they appear to have about 40 on hand in all colors and styles, etc. The salesman was pleasant and nice, but he knew he held all the cards and so did I. That is the downside of purchasing the “in” car just as it arrives. We haggled a bit, and he was reasonable, but they made a hefty profit on the deal, and they should.
By the way, the expensive model has a pull-back canvas top that they charge $4000 for, compared to $900 for the power glass sunroof, but you also get leather seats and a cute factor that tempted Susan. Fortunately, the cost was so ridiculous that I was not tempted at all.
We drove it to Tacoma Saturday night and it is MUCH quieter on the freeway than our Honda CR-V. To be sure, a Honda CR-V is not all that quiet – but still. The Fiat is actually a better car for a long trip if there are only two people and not too much luggage.
In fact, it may be too quiet. The car simply cries out for a vanity plate and a “sports” exhaust of some sort, so those items are on the list. With a nod to Eddie Izzard, “Ciao” was our first choice for a vanity plate, but someone else already has it. Same with “Bella.” Today I will check out “Con Brio.” The exhaust alterations will wait for several months until the car is bedded in.
Driving impressions in the early days are positive. The seating position is closing in on perfect, as I play with small variations in height and tilt and adjustments to the steering wheel tilt. This stands in contrast to the traditional Italian design ethic where you are meant to have impossibly long legs and the arms of a T-Rex. The fold down arm rest is a boon as well, and there is a comfy spot for your left foot when not rowing the clutch. The transmission gates are very narrow, and it is probable you will embarrass yourself by attempting to pull away in 3rd gear, before you learn to think a bit and make sure you move the lever definitely left and up. It is also possible to drive on the freeway at 65 mph and realize with a glance at the tach that you are in 3rd gear, not 5th! Again, it is perhaps too quiet, but then my hearing is not that great.
The stereo (Bose, and 7 speakers if I recall) is the best of any car I have ever owned, but since many of the cars I have owned either did not have a radio or rarely called for its use, plus my failing hearing, that statement needs to be heard with a grain of salt.
Handling appears benign, although it is definitely a front wheel drive car with the understeer that implies. The previous Focus hid its front wheel nature well, and you could slide the front wheels or the rear depending on the road surface and the state of its tires. No aggressive driving yet, but on freeway ramps, whether accelerating or slowing down; it appears to be well stuck in to the job at hand.
The instrument panel offers a myriad of displays that are surprising in a car of this price range, with tire pressure monitoring and all sorts of doo dads you can choose to have displayed or not. The salesman synced in Susan’s phone as well, as my phone is only one step up from having a cord.
Unlike so many “performance” cars today, you can see out of the Fiat very well, and the sunroof does not intrude on headroom because it actually goes up and back over the roof. Looks a tad flimsy, but we shall see. In addition, the left hand mirror has a 20% slice at the outer edge that is a convex wide angle mirror. It is all about the details.
A minor but pleasing giggle is that we have received rave reviews from strangers on every drive. People come up and exclaim how great looking it is, or gesture through the windows of their cars on the freeway. Not a reason to purchase, but it is fun and makes the trip a little special. Wonder how long that will last.
Overall, the driving experience and little details of accoutrements bely the economical nature of the base car. I think Fiat knew the stakes, and wanted to make sure they hit the nail squarely on the head from the get-go. The plan seems to be to shunt a ton of these off the lots, make it a hit, and then…
Next year should see the arrival of an “Abarth” big power model. I pondered waiting for it, but for one it will be more expensive – probably by a lot, and may well suffer the agonies of frenetic torque steer on acceleration and tramlining on the brakes that the John Cooper Works edition Minis are all about. Some will like that for the energy of the driving experience, but I do not.
If you want to go further, the dealer is Fiat of Kirkland, and is on 124th (Auto Row) heading East from Totem Lake toward the valley. Salesman was Robert John and he was excellent – I would recommend him
Copyright 2011 David Preston