Sometime toward the end of my high school years, “fast fashion” shops like Zara and H&M set up shop in at the local malls, and became the place to shop. The clothing there wasn’t any better than the Gap or the Ralph Lauren remainders at Marshall’s, but if you paid for your own clothes, you would have been silly to shop anywhere else.
Shopping at those stores went beyond mere fashion considerations. If you spilled beer all over your shirt at a party, it wasn’t even worth sending it to the dry cleaners. Just throw it in the washing machine and hope it comes out. If that fails, pay $9.99 for another one. Eventually, people got wise to the fact that after three washes, the clothes tended to fall apart, but we willingly ignored the cheapness because we could look cool on a tight budget. Which is exactly why the Fiat 500 exists.
Just as H&M and Zara exploded in popularity in Canada, so has Fiat. American sales for the little Mexitalian minicar have been slow to ramp up in the United States. Not so here. In May of this year, Fiat outsold Buick, Volvo, Infiniti, Mini, Cadillac, Lincoln, Suzuki and Scion, and Canada is already confirmed for a third model line – likely the widely acclaimed Panda. And yet, up until now, I hadn’t driven one. All I had to go by were mixed reviews. One Mini-owning friend disparaged it as “a Neon in a cool wrapper”, while TTAC’s own Andrew Bell felt that there was a quality gap between our North American-spec model, and the examples he saw during his multi-year stint in Denmark.
The first thing I noticed upon climbing inside is that you sit really high up, or at least have the illusion of doing so. Imagine getting into a life-sized Kinder Surprise egg, and then plopping your rear down on a bar stool, and you have a good approximation of the Fiat’s driving position. The interior is dominated by a big panel of body-colored plastic, while the window switches and stereo knobs are all easy to reach for and can be operated without taking your eyes off the road. The steering wheel has controls for the Bluetooth system, but strangely no audio controls are visible – until you discover that they’re situated on the back of the wheel, like paddle-shifters for your music – well-intentioned, if not cleverly executed idea.
In the same way that the “top-stitching” on my Roberto Cavalli for H&M suit coat betrays a fused canvas, a closer look at the details shows that the 500 was built to a price, down to the last penny. For an outside opinion, I called in TTAC’s interior materials specialist, Berthold Schmaus, who is able to get down into the nooks and crannies that us humans can’t quite see.
Herr Schmaus’ first observation was that the headliner wasn’t just “mouse fur”, but it was his own fur. No, really. It may be difficult to see it in the photos, but Fiat and Herr Schamus must have some kind of common ancestor that supplies them both with their downy coverings. Herr Schmaus was also unimpressed with the naked metal seat rails, not so much for their utilitarian nature, but on account of the sharp metal edges that left him unable to scamper underneath to confirm reports of exposed electrical connectors and tasty wiring (yum!).
The 1.4L Multiair engine is, to put it mildly, gutless. Going up moderate grades in third gear necessitated a downshift to second. The “Sport Mode” is required for anyone who gives a whit about driving. The rumored 500T cannot come soon enough. On the plus side, the chassis isn’t bad, nor is the gearchange feel, and the diminutive footprint is perfect for bobbing and weaving in and out of Toronto’s traffic jams, which are longer than the lines on Yonge St for a Justin Beiber autograph session. You could almost lane-split in this car. Almost.
If you look around, it’s possible to get a base model Pop for $199 a month lease deal around these parts, or $13,999 in cash. A well-equipped Lounge, like my tester, is going for $18,600 at dealers – though every community newspaper in town is being supported by Toronto area Fiat dealers advertising steep discounts on their copious Fiat inventories. For the price, the 500 isn’t a terrible proposition. While a cheap shirt can be worn out and thrown away after a few months, a cheap car can be worn out, but leave you stuck with a note for 5 or more years.
If I were to go for a “fast fashion” car (i.e. something with less functionality but more cred than say, a perfectly good Kia Rio), I’d step up to the “Zara” level of quality and get a Mini Cooper. There weren’t any pressers available for me to drive, but my Zipcar membership gives me access to a fleet of some of the hardest-worn Mini Coopers in town.
Herr Schmauss and I went over the Mini quite carefully, and came away impressed. The interior is busier than the Fiat, to the point of being incoherent, but the quality of the materials is a noticeable cut above. Rather than being deathtrap-slow, the Cooper is Miata-slow; pokey, but enjoyable. It’s still small enough to be city-friendly, but not enough to be lost in the blind spots of SUVs. The driving experience is a whole other order of fun, with weighty, direct steering, a communicative chassis and the feeling that you’re driving a real car and not an espresso cup with a motor. Of course, Mini’s reliability record ranges from “not great” to “abysmal”, depending on who you ask ($8000 CVT replacements, anyone?)
Thousands of Canadians are seemingly happy with their Fiats, and for good reason; it does exactly what they want it to do; look chic and stylish, not sip too much gas and fit into small parking spaces. Long-term reliability and the driving experience don’t factor in too highly for them, even if those factors give me pause when it comes to recommending either of them outright.
Personally, I’ve had a change in perception, and have begun shopping with classic looks and quality in mind. Sometimes, it means going to a second-hand store for gently used but well made clothing. The good news is that it’s easy to find, the *ahem* designer labels that are really cool…