The Truth About Cars » Fiat The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Fiat Fiat Sets Date Of Shareholder Meeting For August 1 Fri, 04 Jul 2014 13:00:38 +0000 A new Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sign is pictured after being unveiled at Chrysler Group World Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan

Own any shares in Fiat S.p.A.? The automaker just announced it will hold its next general assembly of all shareholders August 1, where the topic of discussion will be the approval of the merger of Fiat with Chrysler Group to become Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.

Reuters reports shareholders will also be asked to approve the merger of Fiat with its wholly owned subsidiary Netherlands Fiat Investments N.V. prior to the FCA vote. The meeting would allow CEO Sergio Marchionne to list FCA on the New York Stock Exchange by October at the earliest.

Those who approve FCA’s existence will receive one FCA common share for every Fiat share they hold, while those against will have the right of withdrawal for the next 15 days, with the redemption price set to €7.727 ($10.51 USD) per Fiat share.

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JD Power Initial Quality Study Shows GM, Hyundai, Porsche Leading The Pack Thu, 19 Jun 2014 12:00:29 +0000 2013 Buick Encore, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

J.D. Power has released their U.S. Initial Quality Study for 2014, where General Motors, Hyundai and Porsche earned top marks despite consumers still struggling with the gizmology taking over their vehicles.

Autoblog reports GM’s Buick, Chevrolet and GMC captured more awards than anyone else in the 2014 IQS, with six vehicles winning in their segments. Meanwhile, Hyundai and Porsche were ranked best overall mass-market and premium brand, respectively, where the former reported 94 issues per 100 vehicles reported in the first 90 days, 74/100 for the latter. Porsche also dominated the IQS, having the best score of all brands surveyed.

On the other end of the scale, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles ranked poorly in the study, with Fiat holding dead last at 206 problems per 100 vehicles reported in the survey period. Jeep came second-to-last with 146/100, while Dodge was just below the industry average at 124/100. Only Ram and Chrysler fared the best, matching or just exceeding the average of 116/100.

Part of the results may be due to automakers pushing the envelope on technology and new features to make consumers’ lives easier. J.D. Power Vice President of Global Automotive David Sargent says “almost all automakers are struggling” to introduce these pieces “without introducing additional quality problems.” In turn, some consumers are noting the technologies involved are “hard to understand, difficult to use, or [do] not always work as designed.”

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Rental Review: 2014 Fiat 500L “Easy” FWD Wed, 18 Jun 2014 10:00:32 +0000 20140615_195842

“Cheap and cheerful.” It’s a phrase the Brit mags like to use all the time to describe poverty-priced cars that attempt to use design and color to mask their humble aspirations. Think Scion xB compared to Toyota Tercel — but nobody does the C&C music factory like the Europeans. The original Twingo set the template, but it’s had many a riff played on it since then.

Now we have a cheap-and-cheerful from a Euro manufacturer, built in Serbia, with as much design and flair as you can stand. Whether it’s the worst car for sale in America or one of the best depends entirely on how cheerful you need your cheap to be.


We’re reviewing a Kia Soul in these pages today, so it was both lucky and good than I rented one for last weekend’s WRL race at Texas World Speedway. I have )plenty of experience driving a Kia Soul in Houston. No, wait, I meant to post this review, the other one is fiction. In any event, the Soul also pretends to be cheap-and-cheerful. I say “pretends” because it isn’t really that cheap anymore and it’s approaching respectability in its design and execution. The deal Kia is currently making with the American public is this: you pay about what you’d pay for a Honda, give or take a bit, and we’ll throw in some warranty and some Audi-derived flair to help you get over the brand stigma. (Yes, I know who designs Kias now — Peter Schreyer.)

The 500L, on the other hand — well, when I first sat in the thing at the Hertz office I couldn’t believe what an utter piece of shit it was. Like a Toyota Corolla and about everything else nowadays, it has a three-rotating-ring climate control system. Unlike with the Toyota, however, in this car the rings wobble. They’re so loose I worried that they would fall off. Adjusting the driver’s seat gave me another case of the wobbles — the hollow-molded handles to adjust the seatback and height gave no sensation of being firmly attached to anything at all. The handbrake was bizarrely shaped and the flash lines from the plastic molding were sharply evident. There are no manual door lock actuators on the doors themselves. That would cost money. The shifter found “D” with a very Italian vagueness.

And then the engine quit.

For at least five seconds, I just sat there with my mouth open. As someone who races a variety of Lemons-spec cars across the country and who once owned a MA href=””>1980 Mercury Marquis, I am no stranger to the phenomenon known as “failure to proceed”, but in a 2014-model automobile with 4000 miles on the clock?

I re-selected Park, twisted the switchblade key in the ignition, and the car caught before dying yet again!

A third time was the charm, but throughout the weekend, the Fiat would often indicate it’s reluctance to run in the ninety-five-degree Texas weather by cutting out once or twice when started cold, always starting by the third try. Okay. We’re rolling. Time to take a look around.

Although the 500L shares nothing with the infamous Multipla wide-body CUV, the long dashboard, multiple fishbowl windows in front of the driver, and the general turret-toppedness of the thing make it hard to believe such is the case. Really, it’s a relative of the upcoming Renegade. Think Caliber to the Patriot and you’ll have the idea, sort of. There’s a lot of glass, some of it wavy, and it’s all pretty far away from you in all directions. You want Euro? You got it. This is how our nominal superiors on the Continent imagine high-seat cars, as compared to something like a modern Tahoe where you get the cockpit of an Impala mounted to the frame of an Iowa-class in an arrangement that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Star Destroyer.

I slapped the thing into Drive again and noticed that, as is also a Euro market practice, the red-LCD display between the dials showed which gear I’d selected. This is a nice feature, one I remember with pleasure from my Phaetons. You get “D4″ or “D6″ or “D1″ instead of “D”. If you don’t like being surprised by shifting, it’s good to have. It’s also useful because when you’re low-speed cruising through town you can accurately estimate whether you’ll need to press for kickdown in order to make a move in traffic. Already in third? Probably okay. If the transmission has drifted up to fifth, you’d better ask for a shift.

Particularly if, as is the case here, you’re asking 1.4L of light-pressured turbocharged four-cylinder to motivate 3,203 pounds with just 160 horsepower. The Fiat 500L will never be confused with an acceptably rapid automobile and such is its lassitude that even I, who just got a six-point speeding ticket in another turbocharged Euro-mobile last week, frequently found myself dawdling along at 65mph on the 75mph Texas freeways. It’s clearly never in a hurry. The good news is that the engine’s relatively flat torque curve approximates a big-cube four-banger like the Chrysler 2.4 pretty well and it’s never dangerous in a merging situation. Hilariously, the twin-clutch transmission allows the thing to “brap” a bit when it’s in a hurry, just like a GTI. Again, you want Euro, you got it.

How’s it handle? It definitely does. My plans to take it around Texas World Speedway were canceled because my flight arrived late-ish and therefore I couldn’t get both this and the car I was actually going to race around the course in the allotted time, but hey, on the street it’s dynamically competent. To some degree, the 500L’s abilities in the steer-stop department are masked by the form factor and the seating. If you had a car that put up these same numbers but sat you on the ground in the manner of, say, a previous-generation Civic, you’d be quite pleased. It’s just that being up in the fishbowl makes the whole enterprise seem a bit stupid. I’m pretty sure this thing would dust most CUVs around a track, if you really wanted to make it happen.
As befits a “Fiatsler” product, the 500L has a uConnect center screen. Right now, if you buy one from dealer stock, you’ll get a better uConnect than this one, free of charge, and it will include navigation. This one’s okay, however, offering the same virtues you get in a 300C. (Incidentally, I am the only major TTAC contributor who doesn’t think uConnect is better than MyFordTouch, so take this with a grain of salt.) It was a little picky about reconnecting to my Galaxy upon startup, but overall the Bluetooth integration was solid. The sound quality was less so. Not a lot of juice in the amp.

Cargo and passenger space, as you’d expect, is excellent and from my experience it matches what’s available elsewhere in the segment. The rear seats are as comfortable as the fronts, which is to say pretty good and supportive over long drives. I covered nearly 800 miles in three days during my drive, having to fold my fractured frame into a couple of Kirkey race seats in the intervals between trips, and I was never in any pain or discomfort. It’s a good way to travel. The A/C, despite feeling desperately flimsy in operation, was up to the demands of cooling this very glazing-intensive car in Texas heat.

Overall, the 500L appears to be a very nice design put together in completely slipshod fashion. I was prepared to give it a bit of a diss-track review. The lousy quality and will-it-run business made it easily the worst car I’ve rented this year or last, in plain functional terms. As I was preparing my notes, however, I took the time to build my test vehicle in FIAT’s configuator.

This, as the say, changed everything.

Equipped as my “Easy” DCT model was, net price before discounts was $21,095. Which means out the door for under twenty grand. Were I willing to take a six-speed manual transmission over the DCT — would I be? You think so? — the net-net would be mid-nineteen grand. Compare that to a Honda CR-V EX with similar equipment at $25,320 or a Ford Escape at what is probably, given that company’s current pricing strategy, $118,255. For that money, I’d get navigation and a suite of other upgrades if I took it from dealer stock, which makes the real price gap between this and the competition an easy seven grand.

Cheap indeed.

At that price, I’ve changed my mind. If you can trade build quality away for a double helping of design whimsy, and you’d like to save something like thirty percent of the purchase price, the 500L is recommended with reservations. And those reservations are: you didn’t pay Honda money, it doesn’t look like the God-awful CR-V, don’t expect it to run forever with no problems. You say you want a Euro car? You got it. Just remember that it’s not Japanese.


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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ London Headquarters To Focus On Corporate Finance Wed, 21 May 2014 11:00:08 +0000 Fiat 500 in London

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ new headquarters in London, England will be as small as many Silicon Valley startups, with a staff of 50 mostly focused on finance.

Automotive News Europe reports FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne and Fiat Group chairman John Elkann will have a home in London, with FCA COO Richard Palmer possibly having a place there as well. Though no new hiring is planned, the automaker hopes to pull more finance employees from its Asia Pacific and Latin American regions to its headquarters, where most of the work will involve treasury operations.

The move to London also means tax savings for FCA; whereas Fiat paid 31.4 percent in corporate taxes to Italy while Chrysler paid 35 percent to the United States, the Italo-American company will pay only 20 percent for its part of filling the Queen’s coffers. This strategy has come under fire from both sides of the Atlantic, with feelings of betrayal on the part of Italians due to history, and on Americans due to tax dollars used to rescue Chrysler in 2009.

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Marchionne’s Grand Vision For FCA Faces Hard Financial Road To Success Thu, 08 May 2014 12:00:11 +0000 Sergio Marchionne - FCA

Though Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne’s five-year plan announced this week may be ambitious, analysts are raising questions about how the plan will be funded — and how much will be needed — if it is to be successful, let alone live up to Marchionne’s vision.

Automotive News Europe reports a large part of the problem for the plan, according to Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton, is debt:

Much as we admire the ambition and think elements are achievable… it is hard to find conviction on the financing of the plan. Fiat is weighed down with huge debt, burdened by financing costs and is only thinly profitable. It’s (sic) cost of capital is huge.

Warburton adds FCA’s grand plan and its potential capital expenditure and R&D appear to be unaffordable and not prudent for investors, stating the company would need “a capital raise” for any part of the plan to pan out.

Aside from its debt, FCA also faces sales challenges from markets that are peaking or slowing down, with the European market being the biggest drag upon the automaker. However, independent analyst Marianne Keller said that with the recovery now taking place in Europe, paired with North American profits and a strong Jeep brand, Marchionne could “pull it off”; Marchionne himself announced during the five-year plan’s unveiling that he was considering a mandatory convertible bond to bring the needed financing for the plan.

Finally, FCA’s Q1 2014 results — a net loss of 319 million euros compared to a net profit of 31 million euros the year before — serve as a sign for both the company and its investors that FCA has more hard road ahead, a view best summed up by Macquarie Group analyst Jens Schattner:

If it was so easy just to launch new products to be successful in this industry, why wouldn’t everybody do exactly the same.

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Shudder To Think: New Transmissions, Bad Friends and the DaimlerChrysler Merger Wed, 07 May 2014 20:38:07 +0000 Dodge Challenger chromed T-shifter automatic transmission knob

I never would’ve known about the WA850/NAG1 transmission if it weren’t for that dead-beat roommate I had in Miami. It was desperate times for Chrysler and myself —we both just needed a friend.

16 years ago today, the Chrysler Group found an abusively negligent partner in Daimler AG. The “merger of equals” proved to be anything but, as the German camp rapidly oscillated between ignoring the American’s input and engaging in full-blown Teutonic pedantry. Rumor has it they even insulted the American’s taste in typeface by forcing them to get new business cards.

My friendship wasn’t nearly as toxic. I had been living in Miami for a few months, but had failed to adapt to the social scene. He was also a transplant from the North Atlantic so he understood my pain. He had friends that I admired, so I stuck by him. Despite his professed love for the BMX bike and only the BMX bike, he was in possession of a hand-me-down 2003 Mercedes-Benz E500. This example was a former Enron fleet-car his mother had purchased at auction in late 2006, just months before Daimler offloaded their American bedfellow. He didn’t keep up with the maintenance; it was in poor shape but I loved it. It was everything my Miata wasn’t: heavy, powerful and smooth.

It was equipped with the WA850 transmission, or as it is more commonly known, the 5G-Tronic. A five-speed automatic of Mercedes design, one of Daimler’s first acts after the merger was to force this part on Chrysler. It was clearly a superior gearbox than Chrysler’s ubiquitous 545RFE, but it was the principle of the matter. Chrysler was saddled with what they perceived to be needless logistical complications. The official Chrysler designation for the part was “New Automatic Gearbox Version 1” or NAG1. Very funny Chrysler.

In theory it was an excellent transmission, but there were serious qualms about its reliability on American roads. It wasn’t about road quality; rather it was its needy maintenance schedule and complex service that was out of line with American ownership habits. Anything less than perfectly precise handling by a tech and the thing would shudder and shake for the rest of its days.

Like Chrysler, My friend had forced something on me as well: the pointless pursuit of fun at a time in my life when I should have been saving money, exercising, and improving my craft. An apt comparison because like the WA580, a life of partying works on paper, but without the discipline to perform proper maintenance you are end up shuddering and leaking fluid in public.

The Daimler-Chrysler merger was a clear failure, and so was my friendship. Both partnerships could’ve been successful, but they required more compromise and hard work than either party was prepared for. That’s not to say the respective mergers were complete failures. Chrysler walked away with an excellent transmission that’s still in use today, and I learned how to have fun and not take myself so seriously. What we both learned was that in business like life, you can only rely on yourself for meaningful improvement.


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Smaller Jeep To Slot Beneath Renegade Thu, 06 Mar 2014 14:00:39 +0000 Jeep-Renegade-18

Though the Jeep Renegade already bowed at the 2014 Geneva Auto Show, the off-road brand has plans for not only a fullsize SUV similar to the discontinued Commander, but an A segment SUV slotted beneath the Renegade, as well.

Auto Express reports the A segment vehicle could possibly be underpinned by the next-generation Fiat 500, though would face greater engineering challenges than those faced by the Renegade — built upon Fiat’s “small-wide” archecture underpinning the upcoming 500X — to make it Rubicon-ready, as Jeep boss Mike Manley explained:

We couldn’t make an SUV off of “small wide” as you can’t get the ground clearance. It was completely changed by Jeep engineers so now it’s “small wide 4×4″ architecture.

The A segment Jeep could also aid in bringing the brand into compliance with increasing CO2 emissions standards, though the improvement drive — much like the vehicle itself — will be a long, hard road to hew:

There’s relentless pressure to reduce CO2 and there’s much more for us to do. We’re trying to stay away from complexity and improvements are slowly coming.

Meanwhile, Manley’s focus is toward the Grand Wagoneer, which will slot above the Grand Cherokee. The fullsize SUV will boast room for seven and “be bigger than the old Commander” made between 2006 and 2010.

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Fiat, Abarth Likely To Receive Mazda-Based Roadster Over Alfa Tue, 04 Mar 2014 19:19:50 +0000 2011_Mazda_MX-5_PRHT_--_04-28-2011

Long rumored to wear the Alfa Romeo badge, the next-generation Mazda MX-5 may instead don a Fiat or Abarth necklace in 2015 if Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne has the last word.

Automotive News reports sources close to the project stated product planners from Mazda and Fiat met recently to discuss a roadster based upon the MX-5. Fiat’s planners are looking for a way to maintain the supply partnership deal with the Japanese automaker, lest the break-up leave Fiat in the red through 2016, when they hope to return to the black in their native Europe.

As for why, Marchionne has proclaimed that no Alfa will be made outside of Italy so long as he is CEO, a statement reinforced as recently as the 2014 Detroit Auto Show; Marchionne plans to head FCA until 2017 at the earliest.

The so-called heir to the throne abdicated by the Fiat Duetto Spider made famous by the film “The Graduate,” the Italo-Japanese roadster may find a home with Fiat or Abarth, too underpowered be paired with Ferrari or Maserati, while Lancia retreats into its home market as a one-model brand by the end of 2014.

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Marichonne Still Seeking Location For New Minivans Fri, 14 Feb 2014 11:00:33 +0000 2013 Chrysler Town and Country

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV boss Sergio Marichonne, in talks with federal and provincial governments in Canada for loans to help prepare their factories in Windsor and Brampton, Ontario for new vehicle production, may come to a decision about moving forward with plans for where new minivans will be built by the end of March 2014.

Bloomberg reports that parent company Fiat is “not even close” to resolving those talks, with Marichonne hinting that he may take his business elsewhere, such as the United States or Mexico, if Canada won’t have them any longer:

“We’ve got to decide whether you want this or not. And if you do, I’ll be more than willing to stay. Global footprints are global footprints. I’m not using this as a threat, but there are some parts of the world that are desperately looking for capacity utilization, where infrastructure exists, is in place and is operational.”

The incentives sought for the new minivan production have been reported by Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail to be around $637 million, which would help Marichonne’s vision of an FCA capable of challenging larger automakers such as General Motors and Volkswagen.

Meanwhile, Canada is bolstering its Automotive Innovation Fund over the next two years by an additional $456 million (USD, or $500 million Canadian) over the $288 million (USD) already invested in six projects since 2008. The money is meant to attract all automakers in Canada beyond Chrysler, such as Ford, whose next-generation Edge will be built in Oakville, Ontario following a $640 million revamp by the automaker, and a $65 million investment by the Canadian government.

Though most of the Fiat-Chrysler merger has been worked out, Marichonne is doing all he can to remove distractions around the decision as to where new minivans will be constructed:

“We’re trying to remove all politics and noise around this issue. It’s a very simple investment call. We’re ready to go. We’re at the table. The car is ready. We’re ready to build minivans. Somewhere.”

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Moody’s Cuts Fiat’s Rating Down Due To Earnings Worries, Outlook Wed, 12 Feb 2014 16:18:06 +0000 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Citing weak results in 2013 and guidance challenges for 2014, investment ratings agency Moody’s has cut Fiat’s rating from B3a to B1, four notches below investment grade.

Automotive News reports that the rating was decided upon by the agency after placing the automaker under review for a possible downgrade back in the opening days of 2014 just after Fiat struck a deal to take full control of Chrysler for $4.35 billion. In turn, the B1 rating for Fiat means the automaker will have a harder time securing much-needed financing in order to right the ship for their loss-making European operations.

Aside from the aforementioned reasons cited for the downgrade, Moody’s lead analyst for Fiat Falk Frey added that

“We have downgraded Fiat’s ratings following its weaker-than-expected performance in fiscal year 2013 and our view that the company faces significant challenges in terms of achieving its outlook guidance for the current fiscal year.”

 “We are also concerned that Fiat may not be able to offset any further profitability deterioration in its Latin American operation through anticipated improvements in other regions and in its luxury and performance division,” 

Other factors in the downgrade include Fiat’s overreliance on the European market — still weak from the Great Recession — rising price pressures, a lack of major new models coming down the ramp in 2014, and overcapacity in Fiat’s home market.

Although Fiat and Chrysler merged not too long ago, Moody’s will keep the former duo’s ratings separate for the foreseeable future. The agency also said Fiat’s rating’s outlook overall has improved from negative to stable.

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One-Time Tax Gain Nets Chrysler $1.6 Billion In Q4 2013 Thu, 30 Jan 2014 11:00:04 +0000 FCA - Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

The American half of the newly dubbed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported a net income of $1.6 billion in Q4 2013, the majority of which came from a one-time tax gain of $962 million.

Automotive News reports that revenue in the fourth quarter for Chrysler advanced 24 percent to $21.4 billion, while total revenue for the outgoing year totaled $72.1 billion, up 10 percent from 2012′s $65.8 billion. Meanwhile, the total adjusted net income in 2013 for the brand came out to $1.8 billion, $2.8 billion unadjusted.

Within the next four to six weeks, Chrysler’s 37,200 unionized hourly employees will receive profit-sharing checks to the tune of $2,500, with an extra $1,000 split into two awards for quality and performance to be distributed in June and December, respectively. Some individual plants will also add to the pot based on their own quality and efficiency goals.

Regarding market share, Chrysler’s home market gained two-tenths of a percentage point to 11.6 percent in 2013 on the backs of 1.8 million units sold in the United States, an increase of 9 percent driven by the brand’s redesigned truck and SUV lines. Globally, 2.6 million vehicles in 2013 were delivered, including those made for parent company Fiat.

As far as cash on-hand and debt are concerned, Chrysler reported a nest egg of $13.3 billion with $12.3 billion in gross industrial debt; in 2012, the brand held $11.6 billion in cash and $12.6 billion in debt. The bottom line marks the first time Chrysler held more cash than debt since the Italo-American marriage was consummated before the U.S. federal government back in 2009.

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Turbos, Diesels Rule Top 10 Engine List in 2014 Fri, 13 Dec 2013 11:30:57 +0000 Audi 3.0 TFSI Engine

‘Tis the season for year-end Top 10 lists celebrating and lamenting all things in the world of life, and the automotive industry is no exception. Ward’s Automotive has announced its list of the 10 best engines for 2014, and it’s a turbodiesel-intercooled festival of power this year.

The winners on the 20th anniversary of this list are as follows:

  • 3.0L TFSI Supercharged DOHC V6 (Audi S5)
  • 3.0L Turbodiesel DOHC I6 (BMW 535d)
  • 3.0L Turbodiesel DOHC V6 (Ram 1500 EcoDiesel)
  • 83 kW Electric Motor (Fiat 500e)
  • 1.0L EcoBoost DOHC I3 (Ford Fiesta)
  • 2.0L Turbodiesel DOHC I4 (Chevrolet Cruze Diesel)
  • 6.2L OHV V8 (Chevrolet Corvette Stingray)
  • 3.5L SOHC V6 (Honda Accord)
  • 2.7L DOHC H6 boxer (Porsche Cayman)
  • 1.8L Turbocharged DOHC I4 (Volkswagen Jetta)

Of note, Ford’s three-pot EcoBoost marks the first time an automaker won a spot on the list with only three cylinders, while Fiat scores a first-time win with its 83 kW electric motor found in the 500e. On the other end, only two engines from last year’s list returned — Audi’s 3.0-liter TFSI and Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 — while six of the 10 are oil-burners, a first for Ward’s.

General Motors scored two wins this year for the first time since 2008 with the Cruze’s 2-liter turbodiesel I4 and the new Corvette Stingray’s 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V8. Among trucks, the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is the sole winner, based on the strength of its 3-liter turbodiesel stump-puller.

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Ram to ProMaster the City in Late 2014 Tue, 03 Dec 2013 15:57:34 +0000 Fiat Doblo

On the heels of “the biggest thing to happen in the commercial world” that is the Ram ProMaster — whose page links back to our review, of course — the Italo-American truck division has announced the introduction of the ProMaster City in late 2014.

The ProMaster City is expected to go up against the Ford Transit Connect and the Nissan NV200/Chevrolet City Express in the battle for the hearts and wallets of many a florist, caterer and cable installer.

Much like how the Fiat Ducato provided the framework for the ProMaster, the Fiat Doblo will provide the foundation for the ProMaster City as it becomes an Americanized delivery machine. The treatment will include adding more transmission/engine combos, an automatic transmission as an option, and slight changes to the design to appeal to the North American market.

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Fiat Passes on Milano Auto Show Mon, 18 Nov 2013 14:45:18 +0000 Fiat Strada Adventure

If you were hoping to celebrate an early Christmas in Milan with Signore Marchionne next year, you’re out of luck: Fiat has declined an invitation to show at the 2014 Milano Auto Show in light of the weakened local market.

The Italian half of the Italo-American mashup stated that the shows in Paris, Frankfurt and Geneva are enough for all automakers to show off their latest and greatest to the masses and the press alike, and that current economic conditions may not be able to support another auto show, especially one in a market that took only 1.3 million cars out of the showroom in 2013 after a peak of 2.5 million units sold back in 2007.

In response, Chairman Alfredo Cazzola of Promotor, the production company responsible for organizing next year’s show, had this to say to the Italian daily La Repubblica:

Fiat’s business is to build cars, not to organize shows.

Cazzola also said that Fiat would change its mind once they’ve seen what his Promotor has in store for Milan. Previously, Promotor were responsible for the Bologna Auto Show until its reorganization as the Milano Auto Show, where 133 exhibitors displayed their wares in 2012. In contrast, this year’s show in Frankfort held 1,000 under their tent.

As for 2013, the 38th iteration of the Bologna Auto Show was cancelled due to a lack of exhibitors.

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Review: 2014 Fiat 500L (With Video) Fri, 06 Sep 2013 21:15:12 +0000 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-008

I have to admit, I’m a fan of the Fiat 500. Yes, I know it’s just a Fiat Panda with bubbly sheetmetal. Yes I know it’s a little peculiar. Yes I know it’s trying to ride on MINI success. It doesn’t matter, the wee Fiat makes me grin every time I drive one. Whether it’s the slow-as-dirt standard 500, the ludicrously loud Abarth, the almost-convertible 500c or the totally impractical 500e, the Cinquecento knows how to brighten my day. I was therefore excited when Fiat announced the 500′s success would spawn a four door stable-mate for 2014.  Is the 500L 40% more smiles for 20% more cash?

Click here to view the embedded video.


When I first saw the 500L at the Chicago Auto Show, I tried to keep an open mind about the exterior styling. The perfectly orchestrated lighting, booth babes and a free cappuccino mug certainly helped distract from the car’s lines. Once I had the super-sized 500 parked in the grocery store parking lot under the harsh California sun, my opinion was set. Something is wrong with the 500L.

2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

On the face of things, a larger 500 sounds like a great idea, I love the way the new 500 looks. The problem is: the 500L is not a stretched 500. Instead, the L is an entirely different car riding on a completely unrelated architecture co-designed by Fiat and Opel. The result is a 500 that got stung by a bee, not a 500 Xeroxed with the enlarge setting at 140%. I don’t think the 500L is hideous, it’s just awkward. Like a slightly overweight person in skinny jeans and a tube top.

If you want a 500L that looks slightly more rugged, the Trekking model gets a tweaked bumper cover featuring more black plastic. Apparently black plastic tells others you’re an outdoor sports person. The side profile is dominated by slab sides and an unusual A and B pillar location. If you can’t tell from the picture above, check out the one below. The A pillar and B pillar are up by the dashboard allowing the windshield to be pushed out towards the front of the car, improving interior room but creating a style that is far from common in America. If I might proffer an opinion: I think going for a 1950′s wrap-around-bubble windshield would have been more unique and more harmonious. Out back the 500′s raked hatchback style is out, replaced by a more practical vertical hatch. I realize that style is subjective so, so I’ll end this section by soliciting your opinion in the comment section. Ready? Set. Flame!

2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


While the funky styling on the outside turned my nose up, the Euro-funk on the inside whet my appetite in a strange sort of way. (Kind of like admitting you eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches and aren’t pregnant.) Cars in America are so cookie-cutter these days with every car company pulling from the same pool of suppliers are parts that the 500L stands out. In addition to switch gear you won’t find in a Ford or Toyota, the overall style is refreshingly different. Our 500L Lounge tester had the optional pleather dash in a faux-marble pattern that is on the one hand unique and the other a little strange. From the seat design to the parking brake handle and the steering wheel to the air vents, the 500L is just a little different. If you like breaking from the herd, this interior is for you.

Front seat comfort was acceptable for a car in the 500L’s price range ($19,100-$27,895) but could have been better. Part of this is because our Lounge model was a pre-production vehicle and did not have the four-way power lumbar support that is normally standard on Lounge models and optional on Easy and Trekking. I was unable to locate a 500L with the optional lumbar support so keep that in mind. Power seats are not available at any price and the manual adjustment range of motion is more limited than I had expected, but Fiat did go the extra mile and give the same height adjustment levers to the front passenger seat. The 500L’s chunky leather wrapped steering wheel and well placed controls have a premium feel to them you don’t normally find in this price range.

2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L.Dykes

Logically the 500L exists to give 500 shoppers an alternative that can seat 5 and schlep more widgets. Indeed, the rear bench has three belts, is split 60/40, adjusted fore/aft and folded/flipped forward to increase cargo capacity from 21 cubes to 64 cubes. (The front passenger seat also folds flat.) Unfortunately our model was had the panoramic sunroof, a trendy $950 option. Why is that unfortunate? Two reasons. The sunroof drops the ceiling low enough that my head brushed the ceiling and I’m only 6-feet tall. The other problem is the perforated cloth sunshade. It sieves the light rather than blocking it. This didn’t seem like a problem at first, but on a 98 degree day having my head baking and my face freezing lead to a headache that wouldn’t have happened in anything other than a convertible. Except in a convertible I could have put the lid back on. Phoenix shoppers beware. It is now that I should point out I had a passenger who thought this was the best feature ever. I think her head has been in the sun too long.

Americans love cupholders because we love fast food as much as we love fast cars. This is one cultural difference that even European car companies that have been in America for decades continue to get wrong. (I’m lookin’ at you BMW.) If you’re considering a 500L as a family car, there’s a serious deficiency you should know about: the 500L has three cup holders. That’s two less than the car’s occupancy, one less than the American bare-minimum standard and three less than ideal. Yes, the cup holder that slides out of the rear armrest is sturdy. Yes it can handle a 42oz McCokePepsiDew from the drive-thru. But there is only one. Fiat kindly includes a bottle holder in each of the 500L’s doors but tells you to never put a drink without a screw cap in them. Holding your Big Gulp between your knees may be acceptable in Italy, but in suburban America it is grounds for mutiny. Trust me, I found out the hard way.

 2014 Fiat 500L


The 500L is the first Fiat to use Chrysler’s uConnect Infotainment system. (Yes, I am discounting the re-badged Fiat and Lancia models.) Because the 8-inch system found in most Chrysler vehicles wouldn’t fit the dash, a 5-inch system is used in base models while most seem to get the 6.5-inch unit. Both systems carry the uConnect name but the 5-inch system runs an embedded version of Microsoft Windows ala MyFord Touch and the 6.5-inch system runs on the same QNX operating system as other uConnect systems (and Blackberry phones.)

Despite running a different OS, the 5-inch system looks and feels very similar to the other uConnect devices and it follows Chrysler and Fiat’s new direction in infotainment: no standard CD player. Like the RAM trucks and new Jeeps, you can pay $190 for an optical drive but it will be located somewhere other than in the dash. Fiat has said the 5-inch system can also be upgraded to include GPS navigation but details remain sketchy.  If you’ve seen the 8-inch system, you’ll be right at home with the 6.5-inch version. I assumed initially that the reduced screen real estate would be an issue for my inner-nerd, but I was mistaken. The reason is that Fiat moved the permanent on-screen button bank to a row of physical buttons below the screen making the useable area almost as large as its bigger brother. If you want the infotainment deep dive, check out the video. I was unable to discern a difference between the standard 6 speaker system on the 500L Pop and the “premium” system found on the other models. I did however find the 6-speaker Beats branded system to have a strange balance with exaggerated bass and muted mid range.

2014 Fiat 500L Engine, Fiat Multi-Air, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


In many world markets, popping the hood of the 500L will reveal a 0.9L two-cylinder engine good for 79 ponies. Clearly this would have taken “Euro-funky” to a level Americans would never accept. In an interesting twist, Fiat skipped over their 1.4L 135HP turbo and gave the 500L some Abarth love the form of their 160 horsepower 1.4L MultiAir turbo. In a move that may make Abarth owners feel left out, Fiat tweaked the small four again, bumping torque from 170 ft-lbs to 184. Thanks to the MultiAir system, the turbo’s 18psi (maximum) of boost can still be enjoyed with 87 octane.

Further upsetting Abarth owners is the fact that this engine is mated to a 6-speed manual or a quick-shifting 6-speed dual clutch transmission. Unlike most of the dual-clutch units out there, Fiat’s “Euro Twin Clutch” transmission uses dry clutches rather than wet clutches as seen in VW’s original 6-speed DSG. Cost and complexity are the main reasons for the dry clutches, however shift quality is not quite up to VW’s standards as a result. Another interesting side effect of the dry clutches is driving at slow speeds, especially on sloping roads, can heat up the clutch pack enough you can smell it.

2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Cargo Area, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


Based on the 500L’s proportions you might be temped to think it handles like a giant marshmallow. You’d be wrong. At 3,200lbs (with the dual-clutch) the 500L is [relatively] light and thanks to the chassis stamping, the center of gravity is low. Toss in some Italian engineering and the optional 225/45R17 tires (205/55R16s are standard on all models except Trekking) and the 500L is surprisingly agile on the road. I spent a few hours behind the wheel of the base Pop model with the 6-speed manual and the 205-width rubber and came away fairly impressed even in stripper form. The 500L with the optional rubber easily out-grips the Buick Encore and Kia Soul, but if corner carving in your almost-crossover is your style, the Countryman has higher limits and better feel.

Fiat uses a modern electric power steering system in the 500L so that means we can skip steering feel for other topics at hand. Tossing the 500L into corners produces less body roll than you might imagine and the chassis is tuned to the stiffer side of this segment. The 500L’s cabin is considerably quieter than the Soul or the Countryman but not as quiet as Buick’s crossover.

2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Headlamps, Piicture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The 6-speed manual transmission has an excellent feel, moderately long throws and a linear, but slightly spongy clutch. The shifter feel is reminiscent of the smaller 500 Abarth except the 500L gains an all important 6th gear and looes the incessant drone designed into the Abarth’s exhaust. The extra cog helps the 500L achieve a very respectable 25/33/28 MPG (City/Highway/Combined) EPA score which is three city and one highway MPG lower than the Abarth. Adding the dual clutch tranny drops the city and combined number by one MPG to 24/33/27. In a week of mixed driving and hill climbing I averaged an impressive 28.9MPG, several shy of the Buick Encore but 4MPG ahead of the Mini Countryman S.

Opinions on Fiat’s dual-clutch transmission are likely to be as mixed as the exterior design. The 6-speed unit has all the benefits and flaws of every other dual clutch robotic manual on the market. Because this is a manual transmission at heart, there is no torque converter. If you understand what’s going on inside the transmission, the behavior makes sense. If you’re passengers aren’t “car people” they will ask: “dude, what’s wrong with your car?” The reason is: the 500L drives like a someone driving a manual. Takes offs have a hint of clutch slip and then an engagement point, this is especially obvious in slow driving where the car is almost constantly slipping the clutch. The 500L gets hill hold assist, but if the incline is shallow, you’re pointing down hill, or you wait too long to press the accelerator, the 500L will roll. On the up side, the transmission’s shifts are fast and crisp and the Fiat unit is just as eager to downshift as it is to up-shift making it a decent companion on mountain roads.

2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Pricing & Competition

Ah, the bugaboo of every review. Any car can seem like a slam dunk in a vacuum (I’m thinking LS 600hL) but pricing makes the deal. With a spread from $19,100 to $27,895 (without destination), the 500L’s pricing spread isn’t out of the ordinary, but what else competes with the super-sized Fiat? I suppose you could call the $14,700-$23,400 Kia Soul competition, but are they really the same thing? It may not handle as well, be as quiet on the inside or get the same fuel economy as the 500L, but it’s about $4,000 cheaper. That’s a significant difference.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the Buick Encore and Mini Countryman Cooper S. Both the Buick and the Mini seem like better competition thanks to their turbocharged engines, mini SUV looks and more premium brand image. The Buick and Mini both have AWD options which is something to keep in mind, but the majority of their sales are FWD so the comparison is valid.  The Buick is over $3,000 more expensive and not as powerful, but it does deliver at least $3,000 worth of interior refinements in my opinion. The Mini on the other hand fails the value proposition costing $8,000-$9,000 more than the Fiat depending on the options. I’d like to say the Mini makes up for the difference, but I’d be lying. Yes the Mini does have better road manners and I like their version of BMW’s iDrive, but the difference isn’t worth the price especially when Mini continues to use some crazy cheap plastics in their cabins.

The 500L is certainly 40% more Fiat for 20% more cash, but the size increase exacts a 50% toll on the cuteness factor and a 20% reduction in fun. Once that math is done, you’re left with the Kia being cheaper, the Encore doing almost everything better and the Mini still selling on brand but delivering little else. The 500L handles well, is reasonably priced, gets good fuel economy and has the largest cargo hold of this group. Paired with a large helping of Euro-funk, I can see why someone would want to own one, I’m just not that person. If you’re torn between the 500 and 500L, get the 500 and rent a four-door when you need one. If you need four-doors all the time, the 500L is unquestionably a better buy than the Mini Countryman, and in many ways a better vehicle as well, but the Kia Soul is a better value and the Buick Encore is just a better car. I can’t believe I said that about a Buick. Someone help me find my wheelchair, I know I left it here before that whippersnapper came in the room.

Hit it or Quit it?

Hit it

  • I know I’m the only one, but I love a dual-clutch transmission.
  • The baby uConnect system hasn’t lost what makes the 8-inch unit great.
  • Larger cargo hold than Encore and Countryman.

Quit it

  • Awkward looks.
  • Distinct cup-holder shortage in the rear.
  • The Kia Soul is a better value.

Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 3.47 Seconds

0-60: 8.34 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 16.72 Seconds @ 85.5 MPH

Average Observed Fuel Economy: 28.9 MPG over 460 miles

2014 Fiat 500L Engine, Fiat Multi-Air, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Engine-001 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-001 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-003 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-004 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Headlamps, Piicture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-006 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior, Wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-008 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-009 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-010 2014 Fiat 500L Exterior-011 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Fiat 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-001 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-002 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-003 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-004 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-005 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L.Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-008 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-009 2014 Fiat 500L Interior-010 2014 Fiat 500L Interior, Cargo Area, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes ]]> 114
Review: 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van (Video) Tue, 16 Jul 2013 22:35:10 +0000  2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Before we dive in, let’s get one thing straight. This is not, I repeat NOT a review of the 2014 RAM ProMaster cargo van. Instead I managed to get my hands on a Euro spec Fiat Ducato van for a few days. The Ducato is the basis for the ProMaster, but the ProMaster is more than just a Fiat with a RAM on it. Fiat’s Americanized cargo van might just be the biggest shakeup to the domestic commercial vehicle segment in our lifetime. Why? Front wheel drive, that’s why. Intrigued?


Click here to view the embedded video.

The American commercial market is very different from most of the world. In America, our vans are based on pickup trucks, usually a generation (or two or three) behind the consumer product. The benefit is a stable platform that’s been tested. The downsides are: a large and heavy ladder frame undercarriage causing a high center of gravity, thirsty V8 engines, old 4-speed automatics, engines located under a “dog house” between the front seats, poor fuel economy and a general lack of innovation. Even the newcomer to this segment, the Nissan NV, follows the same formula with a chassis and drivetrain very loosely based on the Titan.

In Europe things are different. Even if manufacturers had large trucks to base vans on, fuel economy is a huge deal. Because of this Europe is a sea of large unibody vans sporting small diesel engines, manual transmissions and [comparatively] aerodynamic shapes. How small? The Ford Transit sports a 100HP 2.2L diesel and a 6-speed manual. In America the only diesel cargo van on sale at the moment is the Chevy Express with a massive 6.6L V8 engine.

2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


Form follows function. Fiat boasts the squarest, boxiest cargo area on the market, not a claim you would hear at a “normal” press conference. Up front the awkward nose is a nod to practicality. Because the Ducato is front-wheel-drive, Fiat located the transverse engines under the hood, not between the seats like you see in GM and Ford vans. Crash structures and radiators are located in the black plastic section of the nose while headlamps are positioned above the usual fender-bender zone. Fiat claims the three-piece front bumper cover reduces minor accident repair costs.

As with other entries, glass is optional. Base vans come with a windshield and two front windows. If you pay, you can get rear barn-doors with glass and partially or fully-glazed van sides. Somewhat unique is an optional driver’s side sliding door. Much like the Mercedes Sprinter and Nissan NV cargo vans, rear doors swing nearly 270 degrees and lock in place almost parallel to the side of the van.

2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Three Seat Van, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


I have been told some of the Ducato’s unique seat options will make it across the Atlantic. The standard driver’s seat is height-adjustable with lumbar support. There is also an optional suspension seat (think city-bus) and three-abreast seating. Our Euro model was distinctly lacking in the cupholder department, an omission that will be remedied for America.

Starting several inches lower than the passenger cab of the Ducato is the cargo area. Yes, several inches lower. That’s because the gas tank and battery are under the passenger compartment floor. Despite this the cab is about the same height as an Express or E-150.

The load floor is 7 inches closer to the ground than any American van. That’s what FWD does for you. Without the driveshaft to worry about, Fiat tucks the suspension and exhaust close to the load rails in the chassis making the floor of the Ducato much “thinner” than the competition. Don’t let that fool you, the Ducato’s load capacity is 3,472lbs, which positions it between the Chevrolet Express 2500′s 3,095lb capacity and the 3500′s 4,394lb maximum payload. When the Ducato becomes a naturalized American, payload increases and ranges from 3,922-4,417 lbs in the regular van configuration to 5,189 in the chassis cab and cut-away models.

2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Cargo Hold, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Cargo Hauling

Based on pickups, American vans are branded 1500, 2500 and 3500. In Europe these naming conventions don’t exist. When purchasing a Ducato, you first decide if you want a cargo box or if you want a chassis cab or cut away. Huh? How does that work in a unibody van? Easy. Unibody is becoming a generic descriptor and in the purest sense of the word the Ducato is not a true unibody vehicle. Instead it’s more of a hybrid having fully-boxed steel load rails. When the cargo box is put on top, the two are welded together to increase strength, but the Ducato doesn’t need the body to haul cargo. Next you select between three wheelbases and two roof heights. If you choose the longest wheelbase you have the option to extend the body an extra 14 inches. Each wheelbase has a range of payloads which you can select somewhat independently of drivetrains.

Because Fiat didn’t have a parts bin to raid for axles and chassis components, the Ducato was designed from the ground up to maximize cargo room. That meant pushing the rear wheels out as far as possible giving the Ducato 4-6 inches more room between the wheel wells than the competition. Fiat combined the low load floor with a standard cargo box that is nearly a foot taller inside than GM or Ford while maintaining roughly the same exterior dimensions. Opt for the factory high roof and you get 72 inches of floor-to-ceiling height. Because the high-roof version starts 7-inches closer to the ground, the Ducato is 7 inches shorter overall than the high-roof NV. This made the difference between fitting through a drive-thru and parking and walking in for my burger. Yes, I am that lazy.

The picture above shows the optional bulkhead between cargo and passenger compartments. If that was not in place, you would see the passenger area is 7 inches higher than the cargo area making it unlikely that liquids from your cargo would slosh around your feet. When in place, the bulkhead allows the cabin A/C to more effectively cool the driver, makes for a quieter ride and keeps your cargo from smacking your head. Speaking of liquids, the Ducato sports a double-sealed load floor to prevent liquids from rusting the welds from the inside out, a common problem with the Mercedes Sprinter. If you’re counting cubes, the Ducato shifts between 283 and 530 depending on the body. The E-Series ranges from 237 cubes to 278 while Nissan’s NV swallows 234 to 323.

180 MultiJet EngineDrivetrain

In most countries the Ducato sports an all-diesel, all-Iveco engine lineup ranging from a 2.3L 110 HP four-cylinder to the 3.0L 177 HP four-cylinder we will be getting in America in the ProMaster. (Iveco is Fiat’s commercial engine subsidiary.) Hauling is more about torque than HP and that’s where these oil burners shine. The base 2.3L engine delivers 221 lb-ft and the 3.0L engine cranks out a GM 4.8L V8 matching 295 lb-ft. Some markets have an optional Iveco compressed natural gas mill, but I’m not holding my breath for an American version. Exclusive to the US/Canadian market will be the 3.6L Pentastar V6 tuned to 280 HP and 260 lb-ft of twist.

Motivating 7,000-10,000lbs with 177 ponies may sound like a disaster, but you should remember that horsepower wars are a recent affectation and 295 lb-ft is enough to motivate the Ducato without a problem. The base engine sends that power to the ground via a 6-speed manual transmission. Yes, manual. No, I don’t think that’s a good idea for American commercial drivers because I have seen them drive. Thankfully Fiat offers an “automatic robotised gearbox” on the other diesel engines and that’s the only transmission on the American-bound diesel.

What is a “robotised” gearbox? This is not an automatic transmission. This is not a dual clutch gearbox and it is NOT an automatic transmission with a “manual mode”, it is a manual transmission with an automatic mode. You won’t find any planetary gears or a torque converter.  Instead you’ll find dog clutches, syncromesh and shafts. The reason is simple: torque converters and planetary gearsets are less efficient. Fear not, the computer controls the clutch and the shifting. Anecdotal evidence from a friend in the UK that runs a commercial repair garage indicates you should expect at least 100,000 miles out of the clutch even with heavy loads since the computer is more skilled at slipping the friction material than you are. Worried? The ProMaster’s gasoline V6 will have a regular old automatic with a torque converter and planetary gearsets if you can’t handle change.

2013 Fiat Ducato, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


I’m no stranger to commercial vehicles. I do fleet consulting on the side and I built my own home with my own two hands. Since I’m also a cheap bastard, everything that is my home arrived in a truck, van or trailer that I drove up and over a 2,200ft mountain pass, on gravel roads, in home improvement parking lots and unloaded myself before carrying said items down the hill to the building site. Some day if this construction nightmare is ever complete, I may write about it. What does this have to do with the Ducato? Easy, I had promised some friends we would have a patio party by the end of July. Except I didn’t have a patio yet. To complete the job I needed 26,400lbs of pavers and 22,000lbs of retaining wall blocks. A perfect test for the Ducato. The cheapest way to get the items was to pick them up at the store. To get the quantity I needed, I had to visit every location from Daly City to Watsonville multiple times.

Basalite puts pavers and wall products on 48×40 pallets, the most common size in North America, and loads them to between 3,000 and 3,3300lbs. Loading pallets in the Ducato was a breeze thanks to a generous 56-inches between the rear wheel wells, four more than the Ford. The forklift operators obviously need this extra width because despite being told repeatedly to move the pallet left or right they would invariably place it one millimeter from a wheel well. If you are brave enough, you can also insert a standard 48×48 pallet in the side door of the Ducato, although I don’t recommend it because the opening is 49 inches wide and I don’t trust forklift drivers that much. Still, it is possible which is more than can be said of the GM/Ford vans.

2013 Fiat Ducato, UP Connected button, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

After overloading the Ducato with 4,200lbs of cargo (something that is supposedly within the design specs of the ProMaster) I noticed the curious button in the picture above. I incorrectly assumed that pressing the button would drill into the earth to provide a stable platform for catapulting the load overhead. What the “UP Connected” button actually does is tell the robotic manual you have something heavy in the back. This causes the transmission to hold lower gears longer, downshift automatically when going downhill (engine braking) and most importantly, severely delay upshifts from 1 to 2. Why is that critical? Let’s look at the overall 1st and 2nd gear ratios on the MT40 robotic manual. 1st: 19:1 2nd: 10.7:1 (including the final drive ratio of 4.56:1.) 19:1 is a very low first gear (the ProMaster’s gasoline and automatic transmission will be around 15:1 in first) which means the Ducato had no problems starting on steep inclines despite having to slip the clutch. That was a relief because I would be lying if I didn’t say I was worried. However, there were a few problems.

The van we got our hands on did not have “hill hold assist” so you start rolling back when you lift off the brake. Again, this is a manual transmission, so it behaves just like one. This problem was easily remedied by using two feet and holding the brake gently while taking off. The second problem was less of a problem than I assumed it would be. With 9,000lbs of total vehicle weight climbing up a steep gravel road, I had expected the FWD Ducato to have traction issues. Despite this model lacking the electronic locking front differential offered in Europe, the FWD Fiat scrabbled its way up the hill with less drama than I feared given its Euro-spec crazy-small 215/70R15 tires. The third problem, and the only one that truly annoyed is caused by the huge delta between first and second gears and the leisurely rate at which the transmission shifts. Going up a steep incline, as the engine approached 3,500 RPM in 1st gear (about 15MPH), the transmission would shift into neutral halting forward progress. At this point one of two things would happen. Either the Ducato would slow down rapidly enough for the transmission to change its mind and re-engage first gear, OR it would engage second gear briefly, decide 10:1 wasn’t really low enough, then shift back to first. The only remedy is to anticipate the incline, command the gear manually and keep an eye on the tach to be sure you don’t hit 4,500RPM (about 25MPH). If you do, the transmission will shift into 2nd rather than let you hang out at a “high” RPM. Also, keep in mind that manual transmissions don’t have “Park” and this robotic unit is no different. Fiat does not program the unit to shift into any gear when stopped either, making that parking brake essential.

2013 Fiat Ducato Instrument Cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

So we have a ginormous Euro van with a funky transmission. What’s the benefit? If you can get past the transmission, the diesel is a gem. The Ducato had no problems maintaining highway speeds on mountain roadways with a full payload. The four-cylinder diesel is also quieter and more refined than you might expect and the fuel economy is nothing short of amazing. Over 850 miles the Ducato averaged 29.6 imperial MPG which translates to 24.6 US MPG. Keep in mind the Ducato had 3,300lbs of cargo in the back and the van climbed from sea-level to 2,200 feet every trip. These are impressive numbers. Based on local gasoline and diesel prices of 3.99 and 4.10 per gallon respectively, the pay back time for the diesel’s expected $4,000 premium would be just over 2 years at 20,000 miles a year. That’s without factoring in the increased reliability of a diesel engine, longer transmission fluid lifetime in the robotic unit and lengthy engine oil replacement cycles.

Although not normally a consideration with a cargo van, the Ducato the most civilized ride in this segment. It’s also the easiest to parallel park thanks to an incredibly small 36.3-foot turning circle in the short wheelbase model, smaller than many mid-size sedans. The largest Ducato carries nearly twice the cargo as Chevy’s extended express while being more maneuverable with a 46.8 foot turning circle compared to the 54.6 for the Express. That’s the difference between making a U-turn or a 3-point turn downtown.

Driving the Ducato gave us the best insight so far into the upcoming ProMaster, a van that redefines American cargo hauling. Whether or not the ProMaster will be a success remains to be seen. In this notoriously stagnant market, the Ducato’s (and therefore the ProMaster) biggest feature is that robotic manual and the resulting fuel economy. But will fleet buyers accept the inherent compromises? Although Ford has delayed the highly anticipated T-Series, we can’t discount its impact on this segment. Part of that has to do with Ford’s sales domination, but plenty has to do with the T-Series itself. With a broader range of options, a RWD chassis that fleet buyers are comfortable with, a twin-turbo V6 and their 3.2L diesel 5-cylinder diesel the T-Series covers all the Ducato’s bases except for that low load floor and possibly fuel economy. Even so the Ducato is an interesting and attractive alternative, especially to those old GM vans. Be sure to check back with us in a few months when we get our hands on the 2014 ProMaster for comparison.


2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Three Seat Van, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-002 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-003 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Cargo Hold, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van, Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-006 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-007 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-008 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-009 2013 Fiat Ducato Cargo Van-010

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Review: 2013 Fiat 500e Electric (Video) Sat, 22 Jun 2013 16:45:32 +0000 2013 Fiat 500e Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Despite being an incredibly small part of the US market share, you don’t have to look far in California’s urban areas to find a car with a plug. The reason for that is California’s controversial EV mandate. California wants 1.4 million EVs and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2025. Up till recently, California’s regulations seemed like a pie-in-the-sky dream with a far-away deadline. That changed last year when CARB (California Air Resources Board) mandated (in a nutshell) a combined 7,500 zero-emission vehicles be sold between 2012 and 2014 by the large auto makers in the state. (Credits and trades are not included in that number.) Come 2018, smaller companies like Volvo, Subaru and Jaguar will have to embrace plug-love and at the same time, most of the silly green credits go out the window. By 2025, if my home state has its way, 15% of new cars will be an EV. In California. This brings us to the little orange 500 Fiat lent us for a week. Because everyone is getting into the EV game, this will be our first EV review where we make no mention of living with an EV, range anxiety or charging station availability. If you want to know about that, click over to our 7-part saga “Living with an EV for a week.”


Click here to view the embedded video.


Fiat’s pint-sized car started its life as a Fiat Panda, a popular European car that is constantly bashed on Top Gear. (The Panda isn’t a bad little car, but it looks like something the soviet government would have cooked up.) The 500 however is modern Italian chic from bumper to bumper. While the Nuova 500 (as the Italians call it to distinguish it from the original) isn’t as handsome as the original “new” Mini, it is a plucky little car that makes people smile and point as you drive by. It could have been the $500 optional bright orange paint, but the 500e received more points and waves from passers by than a BMW M6 drop-top or a $120,000 Jaguar.

How small is a 500? We’re talking 139 inches long and 64 inches wide. That’s 7.0 inches shorter and 2 inches narrower than the Mini and a whopping three feet shorter than a Civic and 5 inches narrower than the compact Honda.

For EV duty, Fiat stuck with the 500′s winning formula. The EV gets a tweaked front and rear bumper for improved aerodynamics, wheels that have very little open space to reduce drag and a spoiler designed to do the same. Together the aero improvement reduce drag by 13% over a gasoline Italian. Fiat dropped the charging connector behind the fuel filler door and kept EV badging to an absolute minimum. The 500e’s discrete personality (you know, aside from the orange paint) didn’t go unnoticed by me or by my weekly troupe of lunch guests. Oddly enough when I first drove a 500 gasoline version two years ago everyone I met asked me if it was Electric. Now that there is a 500 electric, nobody thought about asking if it was an EV.

2013 Fiat 500e Interior, Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


EV variants of “normal” cars suffer from the same problem as high-performance variants: the common parts bin. The 500′s plastics and trim parts are entirely appropriate in a $16,000 500 Pop edition but a gasoline vehicle starting at $31,800 would normally be expected to have nicer bits. But this isn’t a gasoline car so we should talk actual competition before we go much further.

The gas 500 finds itself head-to-head with the likes of the Mni Copper, Scion iQ and Smart, the $31,800 500e swims in a larger and more varied pond. We have the $28,800 Leaf, $29,135 i-MiEV, $39,200 Focus Electric, $26,685 Spark EV, as well as the lease-only Fit EV, the expensive crossover RAV4 EV, the crop of “almost EV” plug in hybrids and, yes, even the Model S. (The Mini E is not available for sale yet and Think! went belly-up.)

With the competition now in mind we can assess the interior more honestly. As a dedicated EV, the Leaf was built to a weight so plastics are hard and thin. Ditto the Volt and i-MiEV. The C-MAX and RAV 4, being based off slightly more expensive gasoline vehicles have more luxurious interior plastics. Meanwhile the 500 has plenty of hard plastics but Fiat cast them in stylish shapes that are sure to lure PT Cruiser, HHR and Mini buyers. The only real change to the 500′s interior was the installation of shift buttons where the traditional shifter used to live. I think the change was fine but I wish Fiat had gone further and just removed that portion of the dash so you’d have more knee-room.

EV efficiency is driven as much by environmental concerns as the reality that range is limited and charging times are long. Weight the enemy of efficiency so you won’t find heavy items like cushy seats, adjustable lumbar support or power adjusting mechanisms. The 500e’s thrones aren’t uncomfortable, but they lack the range of adjustibility you find in an average mid-sized sedan. Thanks t0 the 500′s upright profile, the rear seats are surprisingly easy to get into and provide enough headroom for a pair of 6-foot tall adults. On the down side, the battery pack intrudes making the footwells four-inches shallower than the regular 500. (Check out the video for more.) The EV conversion doesn’t really shrink the cargo area as much as it converts it. The 500e has a flip-up cargo floor that reveals a can of fix-a-flat and the 120V “emergency” charging cable which suck up about six-inches of cargo load floor.
2013 Fiat 500e LCD Instrument Cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


Infotainment & Gadgets

The 500 may seem fresh to Americans since it’s only been sold here for three years. Unfortunately for gadget lovers, the 500 is really a 6 year old car launched in 2007. That means that the gadgets on offer were already ageing when “our” 500 hit dealers in 2010.  That means you won’t find any snazzy touchscreen LCDs, self parking doodads or Ford SYNC aping voice commands. To correct this deficiency, 500es sold in the USA come standard with Fiat’s customized Tom-Tom nav system that “docks” into a dedicated hole in the dashboard. For some reason our Canadian brothers and sisters (who are able to buy the 500e) don’t get standard nav-love but Fiat will sell you one for some extra loonies.

Helping counter the 500e’s price tag, Fiat throws in the up-level Alpine sound system from the gasoline model with Bluetooth speaker phone integration and a USB/iPod interface. EV buyers also get a snazzy 7-inch LCD gauge cluster. The disco-dash offers slick graphics but limited customization in this generation. Instead of reworking the car’s controls for the 500e, the LCD is still controlled via the complicated combination of steering wheel buttons, a button on the wiper stalk and three buttons on the dash. Confused? Check out the video to see what they all do.

2013 Fiat 500e Electric Motor, Drivetrain, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Drivetrain & Drive

In place of the gasoline engine sits a 111HP/147lb-ft three-phase AC synchronous motor. That’s a 9HP and 49lb-ft improvement over the 1.4L four-cylinder gasoline engine. Power is stored in a 624lb, 24kWh battery pack that’s liquid cooled and heated that is located mostly under the 500′s Italian body. Power gets to the front wheels via a single speed transaxle. Transaxle is perhaps not the best word to use here since the 500e doesn’t have a transmission in the traditional sense; its more of a reduction gear and differential combination. No reverse gear is needed because the motor can spin backwards just as easily as it can forwards.

Charging is handled by an on-board 6.6kW charger which will take the pack from zero to 100% in just under four hours if you have access to a 240V level 2 charger. 120V charging will take 22 hours, a notable improvement over some EVs thanks to the small size of the 500′s battery. Range clocks in at 80-100 miles depending on how you drive and my range numbers landed in the middle at 90. Thanks to an efficient drivetrain and the 6.6kW charger, the 500e can “opportunity” charge while you’re shopping gobbling up 20-25 miles of range for every hour of 240V public charging. Due to the ongoing DC-charging standard war, Fiat decided to skip on the feature leaving 500e owners to gaze longingly at the possibility of gaining 4 miles of range a minute.

The 111HP motor changes the way the 500 drives dramatically. Motors deliver all their torque from nearly zero RPM to moderate speeds. As a result the 500e has far more “oomph” from a stop than the regular gasoline model that needs to rev to bring the power to a boil. This means the EV version has more torque steer and more one-wheel-peel, but it also runs out of breath over 65 MPH in a way the gas model doesn’t. If you mash your foot to the floor you’ll clock 30 MPH in a very respectable 2.69 seconds, 60 MPH in a four-cylinder Accord 7.87 seconds and a slow 79.7 MPH quarter mile after 16.37 seconds. Keep your boot in it and 88 MPH will happen eventually, at which point the Bosch battery management system will kick in with German efficiency reducing power to keep you from toasting your Samsung cells. Those performance numbers slot the 500e right between the $16,000 500 Pop and the $19,500 500 Turbo which makes sense given the linear power delivery EVs are known for.

2013 Fiat 500e LCD Instrument Cluster, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The 500e may have more around-town scoot than its gasoline brother, but an overall weight gain of 600lbs vs the dino model and low rolling resistance rubber define the 500′s handling. While its true the battery pack causes the 500e to have a better weight balance than the gasoline 500, it just means you’re going to head into the bushes door-first rather than nose-first. Still, 2,980lbs is a fairly light electric car and that is obvious when you drive the 500e back-to-back with a Leaf or Fit EV. Electrification hasn’t destroyed the 500′s dynamics, but it has dulled them.

Despite the changes, the 500e is still an excellent runabout with a tight turning radius, decent visibility and (thanks to is small size) it’s a breeze to park. The same can be said of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, but it’s dreadfully ugly and the 500′s pug nose has a cute factor that can’t be denied. The 500e is also running Bosch’s latest regenerative braking software which handles the friction brake/regen brake transition the smoothest of any car I have driven to date, an important feature in a city-EV. Fiat has one selling point we haven’t covered, the ” Pass program” which gives owners “free” access to 12 days of rental car access per year for three years via Enterprise, National or Alamo. The logic is to quell range anxiety with almost a fortnight in a gasoline car for your yearly road trip. Speaking of leases, I’m not sure how many people would pay $31,800 for 500 that ran on electrons, but Fiat’s $999 down, $199 a month (plus a heap of taxes and fees) is fairly attractive. Nissan is also offering a $199 a month lease on the Leaf, but it required another grand down. Based on the little car’s operating costs, the 500e would make an ideal commuter, especially if your employer foots your charging bill (a growing number in California do.) Just keep in mind that you can’t claim that $7,500 tax credit that is heavily advertised by EV makers if you lease, and Fiat only sells the 500e in California. Bummer dude.


Hit it or Quit It?

Hit it

  • Most fun to drive EV this side of a Model S.
  • Good looks can’t be overlooked.
  • 36 days in a rental car sounds like a reasonable perk.

Quit it

  • Fiat’s infotainment options are old school and awkward interfaces abound.
  • No DC quick-charging ability leaves you wishing you had a Leaf sometimes.

Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance and 24kWh of electricity for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.69 Seconds

0-60: 7.87 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 16.37 Seconds at 79.9 MPH

Average Observed Economy:148 MPGe over 580 miles


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Capsule Review: 2014 Fiat 500L Wed, 19 Jun 2013 13:00:07 +0000 Fiat_Multipla_silver_front

The car you see above is actually not the 2014 Fiat 500L. For most of you, this will be a relief. It’s actually a Fiat Multipla from the mid-1990s. It is ugly. So ugly, in fact, that I love it. I’ve been thinking about importing an LPG-fueled version for use as a daily driver, so that I can fill up at the local taxi garage here for roughly $2/gallon. It’s a terrible idea, I know. Especially when Fiat now sells the Multipla’s successor Stateside.


This is the 500L Trekking, a pseudo-crossover version of the 500L. Is the North Americanized version of the old Multipla, in the same way that Domino’s pizza is the dougy, Americanized version of a thin crust Neapolitan Pizza Margherita. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh though. The 500L’s Euro-creds should be enough to excite those who cling to the notion that l’erba è più verde del continente. It is technically a small wagon, at least according to the EPA. It comes in brown, as well as a shade of brown that looks like coffee with a couple creamers added to it. It’s built in the old Yugo factory in Serbia (errm, that might be too European for some people). You can even get an honest-to-goodness three-pedal transmission, but it’s not very good.

For the rest of the populace that harbors no pretensions to living in the Eurozone, there are two automatic gearboxes; an ironically named “Euro Twin Clutch” transmission, and a conventional 6-speed automatic that will be available later on. Fiat couldn’t really give us a straight answer as to why they offered both, but using my mother as a sample size of one, it’s because she found the DSG in my Dad’s old Jetta 2.0T a bit odd after driving automatics all her life. Perhaps Fiat is prepared for an anti-DCT backlash and they tooled up a run of slushboxes. Maybe they couldn’t get the automatics ready in time? I’m not sure. The “Euro Twin-Clutch” is more like a Powershift than a DSG, but there are subtle hints that this transmission is not a conventional torque converter automatic. Tap the throttle after moving your foot over the from the brake and the revs rise briefly as if you were in a real manual. Shifts aren’t particularly quick or snappy, but they are fairly transparent. The DCT is a better choice than the balky, Novocaine-laced manual, and it does a decent job of keeping the 1.4L turbo engine in its proper powerband. Put aside any notions of the 500L sharing an engine with the Abarth. The acceleration of a 1.4T Dart is a better comparison here.

To its credit, the 500L seems massive inside, likely the result of its goofy looking proportions. Headroom is cavernous and the high driving position makes you feel like you’re in something much bigger than a B-segment car. Although I don’t have kids, I can see the appeal of this car for young families living in urban centers where parking space is scarce; you can easily get a couple car seats in and out of the rear seat, as well as the flotsam and jetsam that goes along with the baby, while sitting having room for groceries, dry cleaning and the pricey espresso maker you just bought at Williams-Sonoma.

Yuppie families aside, I’m not sure who will buy this thing or who it’s intended for. Fiat says it’s a way for current 500 owners to grow into the brand, but I’d imagine that a larger crossover might be a more practical option, albeit a less stylish one – and Fiat seems to be counting on the self-consciousness of their customers to keep them in the brand, constantly referring to the 500L as an “emotional purchase”.

Then again, B-segment tall wagon-thingy market isn’t very big, and the 500L isn’t exactly battling against any heavyweights. The Kia Soul isn’t a bad car, but the interior looks cheap and nasty after you get out of the Fiat, and worst of all for the Baby Bjorn crowd, it wears a Kia badge. The Nissan Cube is utterly dreadful in everyway, and the Countryman isn’t far behind in the “biggest turd on sale today” sweepstakes.

The base model “Pop” trim starts at just $20,195, while the top-spec “Lounge” comes in at $27,445. All trims come with Chrysler’s excellent UConnect system (with varying levels of interfaces, from a small headunit to a large touchscreen), and for the first few months of production, Fiat will throw in navigation, a backup camera and park assist on all trim levels above the Pop. Even if Fiat doesn’t sell a lot of these cars, it won’t matter. The 500L rides on Fiat’s new global small wide architecture, which is expected to underpin a whole bunch of new cars, from the upcoming 500X crossover to some new B-Segment Jeeps aimed at Chinese and European customers. Fiat will make their money back on the platform one way or another, the dealers will be kept happy with some additional product and everyone can go home happy.

Except me. Not until I get my Multipla. That’s a face that only a car writer (or Juke owner) could love.

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Slow Dart Sales Cause Elimination of Shift at Dundee Engine Plant, There’s No Replacement For Displacement Fri, 25 Jan 2013 18:09:49 +0000 Sergio and 1.4L Turbo MultiAir in better times at Dundee. Chrysler Photo

The latest sign that the product planners and marketers at Fiat and Chrysler have muffed the launch of the Dodge Dart is the announcement that their Dundee, Michigan engine plant that builds the Dart’s turbocharged 1.4 liter Multiair FIRE engine has fired or reassigned 58 employees and is eliminating a second shift. The shift reduction follows remarks at the 2013 NAIAS media preview by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne blaming poor Dart sales on the powertrain offerings. “The powertrain solutions we made available to that car, in today’s world, in hindsight, were not the ideal solution,” Mr. Marchionne said. Consumers have been disappointed in sluggish performance of the Dart.  TTAC reviewer Michael Karesh said that 1.4 L turbo motor was “soft south of 3,000 rpm”.

In the critical C segment, where many manufacturers sell 200,000 (or in the case of the Honda Civic >300,000) cars a year in North America, the Dart sold only about 25,000 units since it was introduced in July.

The Dundee plant, originally a joint venture between Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Daimler, is Chrysler’s only American factory that makes four cylinder engines. After the changes, the plant will still employ 750 people. In the personnel moves, fourteen probationary employees were let go (the UAW is appealing their termination) and another 44 were reassigned to other jobs. Chrysler spokesperson Jodi Tinson put a positive face on the plant announcement, since the same factory will soon start building more of the 2.4 liter TigerShark engine that Chrysler hopes will be a better fit for consumers, but her comments more or less acknowledge that product planners made a mistake with the Darts that first hit the showrooms. “We have a new powertrain for the Dart coming online, and so we are rebalancing the mix for the Dart.”

According to Marchionne, another drivetrain improvement for the Dart, a nine-speed automatic transmission supplied by ZF, won’t be ready until 2014.

The Dart is the first new Chrysler product that wasn’t already in the pipeline when Marchionne and his minions were gifted the company by the U.S. government’s task force on restructuring GM and Chrysler. If I’m not mistaken, the production of a MPG small car was part of the government’s conditions on Fiat’s control of the Auburn Hills automaker. The piecemeal way in which the Dart’s powertrain choices are being expanded gives the impression that the car was rushed to market, using whatever they had on the shelf, in this case the 1.4L turbo, originally intended for a smaller car, the Fiat 500.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Versus 2012 Ferrari FF Sat, 01 Sep 2012 13:00:07 +0000  

A few months back, Bertel decreed that TTAC would have no more duplicate reviews. If we wanted to test a car that had already been reviewed, we’d better have a dramatically different take on it. I had a FIAT 500 Abarth for the week. Jack and Alex had already covered it on track and off. I thought someone had a comparison with the MINI Cooper S on the way. What else could I possibly compare the Abarth to that would make sense? It’s not like there are any other high-performance Italian hatchbacks offered in North America…

You’re a single guy (not me) with an appointment to keep (sadly, me) when you happen across a supermodel. You have only a few minutes to spare, but you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t chance a pass, and she’s going to reject you anyway. Except Jeff Cauley is a top-notch dealer with enough of a sense of humor to agree to an “Italian hatchback comparison test.” So here we have all of the insight I could glean from a quickie with “this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy” looping inside my skull.

There are some differences between the FIAT 500 Abarth and the Ferrari FF. We’ll cover those. But the similarities are uncanny. For $1,590, you can grace the fenders of your FF with “Scuderia Ferrari” shields. These are yellow topped with the Italian tricolor.

The Abarth’s fenders include shields as standard equipment. They’re smaller in size, with a scorpion rather than a horse (startled by a scorpion?) displayed sable, but the colors are the same.

A 2+2 two-door hatchback configuration distinguishes both cars from alternatives. The rear seats might barely fit adults, but they’ll do in a pinch, and should serve well with smaller humans. The FF has a considerable edge in cargo volume with the rear seat up (15.9 cubic feet vs. 9.5), but it goes away when the seat is folded (28.3 vs. 26.5).

Matching fitted luggage isn’t available from the FIAT factory at any price, much less $9,967, but there are other ways to contain your empties.

The leather inside the FF is of very high quality, and covers nearly every surface. Nearly every creature comfort is either standard or (in some unexpected cases) optional. Cruise control adds $1,067, a parking camera $3,463, and a dual-screen rear seat entertainment system $5,298. The nav system is as easy to use as that in a Chrysler, perhaps because it’s the same unit. The reconfigurable LCD instruments effectively convey a huge amount of information. (Hopefully they prove as durable as they are functional.) But you can find equally opulent cabins in cars that cost half as much.

Similarly, the Abarth’s decidedly less organic interior materials resemble those in cars that cost roughly half as much (though the red-stitched and upholstered instrument binnacle is a nice touch). Unlike in the Ferrari, cruise control is standard. Nav is provided by a portable unit that plugs into a hole atop the dash, but at least it only adds $400. As with the FF, you’re mostly paying for performance hardware.

What sort of hardware? The FF is powered by a normally-aspirated 6.3-liter engine that produces 660 horsepower (PS) at its 8,000 rpm redline. Torque peaks at a similarly lofty 6,000 rpm, but there’s plenty to be found just off idle, courtesy of the Vette-like displacement. Not that you’ll want to keep revs low. The V12′s tenor wail, more like that of a sport bike than any non-Italian car, is pistonhead nirvana, with never a note out of place. No manual transmission is offered, perhaps because none would be nearly as quick nor as smooth as the rear-mounted seven-speed automated dual-clutch unit. An ingenious all-wheel-drive system is standard. Instead of a transfer case, it employs a two-speed automatic transmission connected to a clutch pack for each wheel to grab power as needed (to maintain stability and traction) from the front of the engine. Is it quick? Of course it’s quick, so quick that you can barely scratch the powertrain’s potential at semi-legal speeds on public roads. In track testing, sixty arrives in about 3.5 seconds. This said, there’s more of a sensation of speed than in some other extremely powerful cars, where you arrive at 60 with little memory of the trip.

Does the thought of clutches that must continuously slip to do their job scare you? Or perhaps your environmental sensibilities cannot tolerate EPA ratings of 11 city and 17 highway? Then the 28/34 500 might be more your thing. For the Abarth, FIAT turbocharges the 500′s 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine to yield 160 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Unless you forget to hit the sport button, in which case the engine peaks around 135 horsepower, the throttle lags, and the car feels unworthy of its fancy badges. So be sure to hit the button to the right of the red-stitched, flat-bottomed steering wheel each time you start the car.

Even with the sport button pushed, there’s little torque below 3,000 rpm even after the turbo spools up. The Abarth’s song isn’t remotely as refined as the FF’s, such that “song” seems an ill-chosen term, but what it lacks in quality it strives to make up for in quantity. Some will find its boom, snap, and crackle overly raucous, but for me the Abarth’s drone is reasonably low when cruising and its exhaust doesn’t bark loudly on deceleration the way the Dodge Neon SRT4′s (tuned by some of the same folks) did. The five-speed’s shifter is mounted oddly high, its shift feel is slightly sloppy, and the clutch vaguely grabs at the very top of its long travel. Despite this iffy execution, a conventional manual remains the best partner for the Abarth’s engine. A good thing, as no automated option is offered. The front wheels are driven all the time, the rears never. As in the Ferrari, the engine’s testa is dressed in rossa.

For a mere $1,445 you can get the FF’s massive calipers (which squeeze 15.7-inch rotors) in red.

The Abarth has red calipers as a standard feature (perhaps because less paint is needed). Its smaller brakes are charged with retarding far less curb weight, 2,512 vs. 4,145 pounds.

Both cars have reasonably raked windshields and so no need for extra-deep instrument panels. But here the similarity of their driving positions ends. To achieve a 47/53 weight distribution, Ferrari mounted the FF’s long engine entirely behind the front axle, yielding a very long hood. For less obvious reasons, the FF also happens to be very wide. Consequently, while the FF might feel lighter than it is, it doesn’t feel smaller than it is. Instead, it feels at least as large as a Panamera, and similar in overall character. The tape measure reports similar dimensions (193.2 x 76.9 x 54.3 inches vs. 195.6 x 76.0 x 55.8). The FF has less length abaft the driver but more inches ahead, and you sit a little lower behind a taller instrument panel and longer hood. But, compared to the driving position in one of the science fiction experiments from Lamborghini, the FF’s is downright practical.

The Abarth’s driving position occupies the opposite extreme. You sit so high that the car feels tippy even though, once the firm suspension takes a set, it’s not. Seat adjustments are far more limited than in the Ferrari, and unless you’re in the left tail of the bell curve you won’t be using the one for height. There’s far less hood ahead of you, and you don’t see the little there is. Excellent for forward visibility, not so good for sporting character.

During my test drive, where the FF’s suspension remained well within its capabilities, the car felt every bit as balanced as one with a 47/53 weight distribution should. The throttle can be used to nudge the rear end around, and the FF feels more lively than the typical all-wheel-drive car, perhaps because in balls-short-of-the-wall dry road driving the front wheels are declutched. The FF’s steering is light yet fairly communicative and shockingly quick (perhaps even too quick for such a large car). Compared to a Porsche Panamera, it takes longer (and longer than I had) to become acclimated behind the control-festooned wheel of the FF. The Porsche, while also feeling like a super-sized sports car, is a more intuitive car to drive quickly. But even in casual driving the FF engages. Once everything is tweaked to taste (a mind-boggling number of adjustments are available, but unlike in the FIAT the settings appear to be retained when the car is turned off) and the Ferrari becomes familiar it would no doubt be the more satisfying car to drive.

Simply due to its could-hardly-be-more-different dimensions, proportions, and weight distribution (64/36), the Abarth handles much differently. Contrary to some other reports, understeer isn’t excessive, but you’ll never forget that the FIAT is a tall, nose-heavy, front-wheel-drive car. Despite its much more compact dimensions and lesser weight (1,600 vs. 1,950 pounds) over narrower front tires (205/40ZR17 vs. 245/35ZR20), the Abarth’s steering is less communicative and lacks the quickness I expect in a tiny hatchback. No surprise given its much shorter wheelbase (90.6 vs. 117.7 inches), higher center of gravity, and far less sophisticated suspension, the Abarth also doesn’t ride nearly as smoothly as the Ferrari. The FF might also have the Panamera beat in this last aspect.

The FIAT 500 Abarth starts at $22,700. The 17-inch wheels add one grand. Leather adds another. A convenience package, nav, and red mirrors plus stripes (a box I’d uncheck) bumped the tested car’s price to $26,200. On the one hand, this seems a little steep given the car’s size, performance potential, and amenities. Another thousand will get you a roomier, much more capable and considerably more enjoyable MazdaSpeed3. On the other hand, the Abarth’s price is well under one-tenth of the Ferrari’s. The FF is theoretically available for just $298,750. But options added over $60,000 to the car I drove, and over $100,000 to another in the showroom. Air freight (not included in the sub-300 price) added $5,000 to a car that had been shipped to Michigan, $9,000 to one that had originally deplaned in Arizona. It’s not clear if the gas guzzler tax is included in the base price or buried in a substantial “other options” figure (both cars included far more items than could fit on the window sticker).

So, which Italian hatchback is the best one for you? The FF is an exercise in what happens when cost isn’t much of an object and the sheet starts clean. You fit a highly-tuned, naturally-aspirated V12 for seamless power, mount it far back for balance, pair it with an automated manual for quick responses, and employ all-wheel-drive on an as-needed basis for traction. The apparently unavoidable downsides of all this optimization are size, weight, and cost. Enough money fixes the last, and the second isn’t terribly evident, but the first doesn’t ever go away. The FF is very much the ultimate expression (until its replacement arrives) of the GT concept. For similar performance in a smaller car, you’re going to have to give up some cylinders, the rear seat, a lot of luggage capacity, or all of the above.

Perhaps you want a tidier hatchback that can be more fully exploited on public roads at legal speeds. Or your budget simply doesn’t extend north of $300,000. But you also want Italian style complete with red highlights everywhere the Ferrari has them and tricolor fender badges. Then the Abarth is the obvious choice.

Cauley Ferrari in West Bloomfield, MI, provided the FF. For those with smaller budgets, Cauley also operates a used car dealership with its heart in the right place—you’ll find no boring cars on the lot. They can be reached at 866-353-8629.

FIAT provided the 500 Abarth with insurance and a tank of gas.

Michael Karesh operates, a provider of car reliability and pricing information.

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Review: 2012 Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2.0-liter Turbo Diesel Tue, 31 Jul 2012 15:48:47 +0000

We decided to take a family vacation this summer in Italy, starting in Florence and driving into rural Tuscany to spend a mellow week in a rental villa near some friends. I reserved a “Ford Focus or equivalent” with Hertz and, after a thoroughly unpleasant hour in the queue (“not exactly” indeed), they handed me the keys to an Alfa Romeo Giulietta with a manual transmission, two liter turbo diesel. Forza Italia! I now had one week with the sort of car that American TTAC readers often like to grouse about their inability to buy at home.

First up, the snout. To my American eyes, modern Alfa Romeo cars are very striking. You’ll not mistake them for anything else… at least if you’re looking from the front. That upside-down-triangle grill is loud and proud. While the earlier Alfa 159 accompanied it with a thin headlight bar that gave the resulting car an angry, sharp, purposeful appeal, the Giulietta softens the grill with rounded headlights and front fascia. More than one native Italian we met took positive note of the car.

Enough about styling. How about practicality? The hatchback is big. It’s not as deep as the trunk in our Acura TL but it’s usefully taller, and definitely has more usable space than a VW Golf. All our bags fit comfortably back there with room to spare. Many of the little details of the Alfa are comparable to what you might find in a Golf: switchblade key, comfortable cloth seats with limited manual adjustments, baseball-sized shift knob, etc. Still, the Italians couldn’t help themselves with style over substance. My daughter, 7 years old, had to reach up as high as she could to open the back door, since they moved the handle up next to the C-pillar. My wife, five feet tall, had trouble reaching up to close the hatch when it was open. As the driver, I appreciated the tilt and telescoping wheel. I didn’t appreciate that the clock was in tiny lettering that my passengers couldn’t see.

Interior room is great. The backseat has plenty of space for real adults. The driving position has you sitting relatively high. You have a very good feel for your four corners, which is deeply necessary when navigating some of the smaller streets in old Italian cities and towns.

On to the driving! The diesel has all the benefits and drawbacks that you’d expect. The low redline means you’re shifting much earlier than your gasoline-trained instincts tell you. Likewise, you can run at a much lower RPM than any small gasoline engine would ever tolerate. The computer nags you to shift early, seemingly trying its best to keep the engine under 1200rpm. At a low engine speed like that, you can put your foot down and damn near nothing happens at all. The engine’s personality completely changes around 2000rpm, when the turbo spools up and you suddenly feel the power. Shift before the redline and you’re still in the power band and life’s good. This contrasts, for example, with the Hyundai Veloster (1.6 liter non-turbo, manual) that I test drove a few months ago for giggles. Wind the Veloster up to the redline, shift, and you’ve got nothing. The Giulietta does much better (as, I hope, does the Veloster Turbo). For what it’s worth, the Giulietta’s gear and clutch feel are nothing particularly special. There’s none of Honda’s awesome snickety-snick shifting, and the Giulietta’s clutch grab point is a bit nebulous.

The real standout feature of the Giulietta is its suspension. During our vacation, we ranged from cobblestone streets to zippy autostrada, from smooth twisty cutbacks to bumpy gravel side roads. The Giulietta’s suspension is all about trying to preserve some dignity when faced with punishing roads. Yes, you’ll feel it when driving over crap, but the Giulietta damps out a lot of the vibrations while still keeping things relatively tight. The few times I did some “spirited” driving through the twisties, the car felt comfortable and composed. Still, this is no racing car. Does the Giulietta have “passion and soul” and lovely growling exhaust notes as Top Gear’s James May notes of earlier Alfas?  Maybe the gasoline engines do, but for the diesel, no. It’s a nice car, but you won’t fall in love with it.

Deep down inside, I’m a gadget guy, and this is where the Giulietta let me down. The base-model stereo in our car had no aux input for my phone. According to the owner’s manual, you only get that ten-cent jack with the much pricier “Blu & Me” package. (And, at least on the Fiat 500 I once played with at a Texas dealership, Blu & Me doesn’t include Bluetooth A2DP for stereo music streaming. Boo, hiss!) This was probably the most obvious place where some Fiat Group beancounter blew it for everybody.

Once I figured out how to convert the onscreen menus to English, I saw a long list of adjustments, but no way to fix the things that were most annoying. Foremost, the car raises holy screaming hell if one of your passengers unbuckles before the car has come to a complete stop. Also annoying: the car insists on asking you to shift early and often. What you can do, however, is change the car from “normal” to “dynamic” mode. According to the owner’s manual, this increases max torque by 10%, which you’d never notice. However, it replaces the shift indicator light with the Alfa “DNA” logo. Yes indeed, 10% less guilt definitely improves driving dynamics.

Other gadgety features: the Giulietta will turn the engine off when waiting at a light. Once you push the clutch in, the engine starts back up all by itself. Despite this, if you were dumb enough to turn the key with the car in gear and the clutch engaged, the starter motor happily tries to drag the car along; the ignition doesn’t require you to have the clutch pedal down. (Yes, go ahead, ask me how I figured that out.) The Giulietta has a hill holding feature that works pretty well. It has a rear sonar parking assist to help you nudge your car as far back as it can go. The lights and wipers also have automatic modes. It even auto-restarts the engine if you stall it. (Yes, sigh.)

What about mileage? About half of our driving time was on the autostrada, half on local twisty roads. According to the trip computer, we averaged 5.8 l / 100 km (40.5 mpg). This is the same as the Giulietta’s official “city” mileage rating. (Wikipedia has all the stats.) The Giulietta’s official “combined” rating is 4.7 l / 100km (50 mpg). My freeway driving was pretty sedate, since I wasn’t keen to get ticketed by the autostrada’s ubiquitous speed cameras, so this means that mountain driving, with the turbo spooled up and driving with proper engine braking, is unsurprisingly detrimental to this car’s mileage. At the end of the trip, before I handed the car back, I spent roughly $100 filling the tank for 800 km of driving, with maybe a quarter of a tank left. (What great range!) To drive the same distance and style in my Acura TL, with it’s super-unleaded-mandatory V6, I would have expected to have averaged 20 mpg, yielding roughly the same dollar-cost-per-mile, assuming you’re comfortable with my comparing U.S. gasoline prices with a big V6 sedan against European diesel prices with a smaller turbo 4-cylinder car.

In Europe, the value proposition of the Giulietta is clear: high mileage and excellent interior space in a car that fits into smaller places while giving you decent amounts of “sport” and “style”. Today, in the U.S., the closest car you can buy to the Giulietta is the new Dodge Dart. It’s the same basic platform, but of course you can’t get the diesel or the hatchback. The big question: if cars like the Giulietta diesel or the comparable BMW 180d Sport were offered in the States, how well would they sell? Based on my week in the Giulietta, I’d imagine they could do quite well.

Giulietta, front fascia Giulietta, side profile Love it or hate it, you won't mistake the Giulietta for anything else. Giulietta logo Oddball rear door handles. Giulietta, rear view This Giulietta had the optional automatic climate control, which did an admirable job. Giulietta dashboard Giulietta steering wheel The cost-reduced stereo is a bad joke. Switches below toggle the front and rear fog lights, the engine start-stop system, and the door locks. The "DNA" switch lets you select "dynamic", "normal", or "all weather" driving programs. 6-speed manual transmission Not much to see in the engine compartment. The Giulietta cuts a striking pose.

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Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth – Take Two Fri, 20 Jul 2012 14:23:51 +0000  

Abarth was founded in 1952 as a “one-stop-shop” for Fiat performance gear. What does that have to do with the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth? Nothing. Seriously. In 1971 Abarth was purchased by Fiat, by the 1990s the “brand” had deteriorated to a trim level on questionable hatchbacks and by 2000 it was “dead trim walking.” In 2007 Fiat decided they needed a performance brand once again and resurrected Abarth with the inexplicably named “Fiat Grande Punto Abarth” and (more importantly) a complete line of clothing and accessories. Despite the apparent soft start for the brand in the Euro-zone, Fiat tells us they held nothing back for the launch of Abarth in North America. Our own tame racing driver Jack took the Abarth for a spin on the track back in March but this time we’re pitting Italy’s hot hatch against a bigger challenge: the daily commute.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Unlike the Mercedes takeover merger with Chrysler last century, the Fiat/Chrysler tie-up seems to be bearing some interesting fruit. No, I’m not talking about Chrysler’s use of MultiAir in the Dart, or the cozy relationship with ZF Friedrichshafen AG (ZF transmissions), I’m talking about Fiat getting Chrysler’s engineers involved in Fiat designs. Say what? You heard that right, the North American Abarth is not the same car as the Euro model and we can thank Chrysler. Because Fiat knew there had to be some changes for North American consumption, they told the SRT group to think outside the “Americanization” box. The result is an Abarth that borrows heavily from the Euro model but has some significant improvements. Yes, improvements.


With just over 40,000 Fiat 500s of any description driving around on our shores, the design is unique enough to cause traffic to slow and heads to turn. As you would expect, there are plenty of go-fast tweaks on the outside of the small Italian. Out back we get a larger spoiler, ginormous dual-exhaust tips, rear diffuser and a different bumper cover. Up front the changes are more pronounced. In order to make the engine and intercoolers fit, Fiat stretched the nose of the 500 by 2.7 inches. The result of the rhinoplasty is a peculiar “trouty mouth” side profile caused by the hood stamping remaining the same. Despite this faux pas fopah (I kid, I kid), the rest of the 500′s sheetmetal is cohesive and attractive, in a way the MINI Coupé can only dream of. Rounding out the sport treatment is a 15mm reduced ride height with unique 16-inch wheels standard, and optional 17-inch wheels (the 17s are wrapped in low-profile performance rubber.)


Fiat and the SRT team tweaked the interior for Abarth duty, but the basics of the base 500′s $15,500 interior are still here. That being said, all the touch surfaces in the Abarth are close to haptic perfection with one of the best steering wheels and shift knobs available in a vehicle under $40,000. I should point out that the Abarth’s most logical competition comes from MINI, a brand known for blending expensive switchgear and steering wheels with cheesy headliners and carpet. With the Abarth’s interior bits only a notch below MINI, the decidedly lower sticker price forgives just about everything in my mind. When it comes to hauling luggage, the 500 somehow trumps the MINI Cooper with 9.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats in place and 26.8 with them folded (vs 5.7 / 24 cubic feet in the Cooper.)

Not all is perfect inside. The American Abarth gets unique front seats that are (oddly enough) more heavily bolstered than the standard Euro seats, but the distinct lack of lumbar support made them uncomfortable for my average sized 6-foot 180lb frame. While the Euro Abarth has optional Recaro-themed sport seats and plenty of after market alternatives, American buyers have somewhat limited options if they choose to replace the seats. This is important if you intend to track you Abarth and need to install a 5-point harness. Still, I keep returning to price. Mini’s JCW seats aren’t more comfortable, and since the Abarth is considerably cheaper, you can more easily afford to fix this deficiency. Like the regular 500, the rear seats are small, but thanks to the 500′s roof profile and the shape of the rear “foot-wells”, it is entirely possible to fit four 6-foot tall adults in the 500.


Like base 500 models, all Abarths are equipped with “Blue & Me.” This system combines Bluetooth integration and rudimentary voice commands. If you were expecting SYNC-like iDevice or USB control, you’ll be disappointed with the 2007-era interface. It’s too complicated to explain in print, so if you’d like to know more, check out our TTAC Quick Clips video of the base 500C. Also standard on the Abarth is Fiat’s seven speaker Bose audio system which uses a compact subwoofer under the passenger seat. Sound quality is excellent, not just for the price class the Abarth plays in, but for vehicles twice the Abarth’s $22,000 base price ($25,000 as equipped.) While the audio system’s balance is very good, with such a small driver in the sub, if you are into big bass, install your own beatbox.

Because 6 years is an eternity in the electronics world, you can’t get a fancy integrated navigation system like MINI (and just about everyone else) offers. Fiat’s solution to this problem is an oddly integrated TomTom navigation unit. I say oddly integrated both in terms of the look of the odd dashboard “docking connector” (checkout the video above for more information) as well as the unique way it integrates with the vehicle. Yep, that’s right it integrates with the car in a way your Garmin won’t. Once you pair the TomTom (with the custom Blue & Me software installed) to the 500 you can use the steering wheel buttons to command the TomTom. In addition to remote controls the TomTom will also display trip computer and media player information. While this approach is novel, it is also seriously kludgy.


As with the rest of the 500, the engine isn’t an Italian transplant. Say what? The 1.4L four-clinder turbo engine is built in Michigan. Building a new assembly line in Michigan afforded Fiat the opportunity to make some improvements under the hood. While the basics remain the same with twin intercoolers and MultiAir VVT on tap, the IHI turbo has been swapped for a larger Garrett GT1446 that bumps performance in an important way. Power increases to 160HP from 158 and peaks at a lower 5,500RPM instead of 5,750. The big deal is the torque curve which drops from a sharpish peak at 3,000RPM to a 170lb-ft plateau that stretches from 2,500-4,000RPM (150lb-ft when not in “sport” mode). Thanks to the MultiAir system, the turbo’s 18psi (maximum) of boost can still be enjoyed with 87 octane gasoline (although Fiat is quick to remind us that 91 is recommended if you plan on tracking your Abarth or running in hot climates.) In an interesting nod to performance junkies (as well as those that want their turbo to last a lifetime) Fiat incorporates an “after run” electric water pump to cool the turbo after the car is shut off. Sadly Fiat missed the opportunity to add an extra cog to the 500′s transmission, instead using a heavy-duty version of the same 5-speed manual as the regular 500. Unlike the Euro Abarth models, there is no “automated” version available so working knowledge of a clutch pedal is required.


The Abarth is a flat-out blast to drive. This is not only thanks to the 60% increase in power and 70% increase in torque, but also to the low-profile tires, 40% stiffer springs, and lowered chassis.The Abarth may look like a tall vehicle, but with a curb weight of only 2,512lbs “chuckable” is the best way to describe the handling. As you would expect, Fiat tossed in a quicker 15.1:1 steering ratio and tweaked the power assist for a sportier feel. While the ratio is “no big deal” to me, the tweaked electric power steering is more important. It is still numb, but hints of feedback can now be felt through the tiller. Despite having a less fancy “elegant” suspension setup than the MINI, the little Italian is remarkably planted on poorly paved mountain roads inspiring an unexpected level of confidence.

While all these changes make the Abarth an absolute blast in the corners, they take a serious toll on ride quality for your daily commute. Unless you live in some hitherto-unknown pavement-nirvana, potholes and broken pavement are a way of life in the “land of the free.” After a week with the Abarth, I may still have had a smile on my face, but my back and kidneys had a different opinion. That being said, the Abarth is no harsher than the MINI JCW models and actually handles broken pavement with more finesse.

I’ve saved the final change made for our market for last: the exhaust note. This is perhaps the most controversial facet of the Abarth, since Fiat tuned the system to be louder than the Euro hatch. I found the drone on a long highway commute to be annoying, but passengers and our Facebook fans thought it was pure sex. Go figure.

Much like the MINI competition, straight-line performance isn’t what the Abarth is about. As you would expect with 0nly 160 horses under the hood, the Abarth scooted to 60 in just over 7 seconds. With the right driver I have little doubt a further two tenths could be cut from the time, but managing front wheel spin and traction would be essential to reducing your time. To deal with the increased weight of the North American Abarth, the SRT team cranked up the front camber to a -1.5 degrees up front. Thankfully for those interested in tire life beyond 5,000 miles Fiat has an alignment spec which allows for a decent amount of personal preference.

The Abarth is destined to make Fiat fans very happy. It’s also destined to give MINI shoppers that are willing to look at another brand a serious dilemma: is a comparable MINI worth an $8,000-$10,000 premium? Being the cheap bastard that I am, my answer is no. Consider that the MINI Cooper S scoots to 60 in 6.6 but doesn’t handle quite as well, and the MINI JCW models may get to 60 faster and handle as well as the Abarth, but they cost nearly 50% more. While I find the Abarth just a bit to extreme for my soft-suspension-loving backside, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is one hot little hatch. Fiat: you have my number, call me when you stuff this engine into the 500c with some softer springs.


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Fiat provided the vehicle, one tank of gas, and insurance for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.63 Seconds

0-60: 7.05 Seconds (6.8 sounds plausible with a professional driver)

1/4 Mile: 15.3 Seconds @ 91 MPH

Average Fuel Economy: 26.71  MPG over 541 miles


2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior 3/4, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior side, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior side, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior front side, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior rear 3/4, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior rear, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior front, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior front, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior wheel, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Exterior grille, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, gauges, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, dashboard, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, shifter and HVAC, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, shifter and HVAC, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, shifter, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, steering wheel, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, steering wheel, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, driver's side dashboard, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, dashboard, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, rear seats, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, rear seats, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, cargo area, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, cargo area, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, Interior, cargo area, Photography courtesy of  Alex L. Dykes 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth MultiAir Turbo engine, photo courtesy of Chrysler North America 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth MultiAir Turbo engine, photo courtesy of Chrysler North America 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth TomTom Nav unit, photography courtesy of Alex L. Dykes Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 81
Generation Why: Fast Fashion Comes To The Car World Tue, 17 Jul 2012 13:00:24 +0000

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…




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Vellum Venom: 2012 FIAT 500 Gucci Convertible Fri, 09 Mar 2012 13:39:50 +0000


Gucci is no stranger to OEM trim packages for major manufacturers. The House of Gucci originally lent its unique Italian flavor to somewhat of an Intercontinental Bastard: a leaf sprung, Chevy Nova based Cadillac with a Spanish name.

That car is the original Seville, but the 1979 model. And while hideous, the sheer audacity of the Gucci Seville puts every Seville after 1985 to shame. That’s because the second-generation (1980-1985) Cadillac Seville made for the most Gucci worthy platform on the planet. It’s Hooper body throwback design was dying for something as ludicrous as Gucci’s graphics.

But the nicest Gucci for people looking for the basics of this designer brand in a non-offensive wrapper was the 1989 Lincoln Town Car Gucci edition.  The canvas top was solid blue, white paint, and sported a very tame (by Gucci standards) leather and cloth seat design.  This car was a looker, plus the Lincoln Town Car was a machine to be respected on presence, durability and value.  Not so with any Caddy from this era, which sported powertrains about as durable as knock-offs of said designer’s handbags. The sensible Gucci?  Well, perhaps not.

But now we have the FIAT 500 Gucci. Perhaps it’s because both designs are Italian in heritage, the meeting of these two brands is rather seamless. Too bad I can’t say perfect.


The front of the new 500 is cute and pretty enough, and Gucci’s chrome bumper guards don’t necessarily add or detract from the package. From here there’s no reason to question the 500’s staying power against the MINI Cooper.


Not so as we start moving across. Note the ratio of sheet metal in the wheel arch to the wheels. Note the sheer bulkiness of the side view mirrors. This car is becoming less cute. Which is far less cool than a MINI Cooper.


Don’t get me wrong, those Gucci wheels are pure decadence and deliciousness.  And making them body color is even cooler, fashion statement wise.  The B-pillar badging is totally worth bragging about. What lets the whole package down is the fact that the FIAT 500 is taller and clumsier looking than the MINI Cooper. See that body side crease right above the door handle? If the greenhouse started there and the roof line ended accordingly, this would be a very pretty, unquestionably cute vehicle.

Instead, FIAT gave us a dumpy little crossover, an alternative to a Suzuki SX4…but only in styling terms, of course.


Once again, imagine the FIAT 500 if the crease in the middle was where the greenhouse started. We’d have a serious threat to the MINI’s lock on cuteness and fashionista approved style.


That said, the details on the FIAT 500 Gucci drop top do not disappoint. The Gucci fabric for the roof is pretty slick, even though I seriously doubt most men would publicly admit this. But it is true: so go ahead and feel good about it.


Here’s a shot of that B-pillar. Yes, it does make you feel a little more special when you enter the 500’s cabin. And that’s precisely why designer editions of regular vehicles exist!


I don’t normally want to photograph the inside of a vehicle for this series, but the Gucci’s trimmings are worth the effort. The “Double G” leather, two-tone design, Gucci stripe inserts and matching seatbelts are like nothing seen on a modern car.  In this age of boring gray, tan, black or an interesting color merely used as an accent (I’m looking at every car with brown seats but still with black carpets and dashtops) the Gucci 500’s trimmings are a serious breath of fresh air. I like it.

I suspect the polarizing nature of the Gucci combined with the Italian cute factor of the 500 make it a perfect pairing. But if only that belt line went down, since it needs that to be a beautiful car.

Put another way, I wonder what it would take to get a Gucci trimmed MINI Cooper instead. That would be a winner.

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Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Mon, 05 Mar 2012 16:15:00 +0000 It’s a strange, strange world out there. Image trumps reality, corporate positioning trumps national identity, the fake conquers the real. Want proof? Consider the Fiat 500 Abarth. The now-iconic television ad features some hapless beta male enduring a strangely erotic tongue-lashing at the hands of a beautiful Italian woman who then mysteriously turns into a chunky little Italian car. Makes perfect sense. Except the Italian girl (Catrinel Menghia) is Romanian, and Italian car which was supposedly tuned by an Austrian racer turns out to be a Mexican car with an American hot-rod engine tuned by Detroit racers. This makes slightly less sense.

Luckily the Abarth itself doesn’t require much in the way of context in order to be enjoyed. If you’d like some, feel free to check out our previous reviews of the naturally-aspirated 500. Finished? Fantastic. We’ve reviewed the little Fiat from an economy-car perspective in the past, but now it’s time to exchange the pocket protectors for my Impact! Carbon Air Draft. Buckle up: it’s racetrack time.

The first thing you need to understand about this 500 Abarth is that it isn’t really a 500 Abarth. In other words, it’s not the Euro-market performance 500 brought over and Americanized. Rather, it’s the North American 500 (charmingly referred to as the “NAFTA 500″ by the PR folks) with a thorough performance makeover. The differences in weight and structure between the American and European base cars meant that the suspension calibrations had to be done again from scratch. Camber was increased to a very aggressive -1.5 degrees up front. Good for the driver, bad for tire lifetime. Those tires, by the way, are sixteen-inch Pirelli P7s stock, with seventeen-inch P Zero Neros as an option. Those of us who remember the days when the P7 was the performance tire will smile every time we see them. Koni FSD shocks are specified to hold up the front end. That’s a bit of a Mopar trick.

The Fiat MultiAir engine is turbocharged, retuned, and treated to a full SRT-4 upgrade kit’s worth of forged pistons and special rods. Your humble author had real deja vu listening to the engine guys talk about the changes made; it’s like going back in time to 2003 and hearing what was done to the Neon. The changes yield 160 horsepower from the 1.4-liter mill, which is assembled in Dundee, MI. A few years, I opined that the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 should be properly called the Ford Mustang SVT; this Fiat 500 could wear the SRT nameplate with equal pride. One part that does come from Fiat: the underwhelming five-speed manual, which features equal-length driveshafts in this application.

As with the old SRT-4 Neon, considerable effort has been expended to upgrade the “touch points” facing the driver. I grabbed a zero-options Abarth for the seventy-mile drive from the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas to Spring Mountain Raceway in Pahrump, NV, knowing that all the basic goodies were included. First impressions: the shifter and steering wheel feel positively exotic, dontcha know. It’s an upscale, enjoyable experience to snip through the Strip traffic, but there are a few bugs in this Italian wedding soup.

Problem Uno: the electronic throttle. The Abarth has two fuel/boost programs: regular, and Sport. The non-Sport mode limits torque and reduces the aggressiveness of intake openings, ostensibly for maximum economy. (34MPG highway, by the way.) In practice, selecting this mode hobbles the car with unacceptable throttle lag. Rev-matching on downshifts becomes almost impossible; the engine simply hangs on to revs like an early three-liter E46 Bimmer, which is to say in the most stubborn, miserable, EPA-test-conscious manner possible. There’s no reason for this other than to create a tangible gap between normal and Sport modes. It’s trickery, it’s fakery, and it’s unworthy of the car.

Also unworthy of the car: the dumb-assed instrument panel, which has concentric ring gauges for revs and road speed. Ray LaHood would burst his aorta watching the dull red needles move on a dark blah background. It’s almost unreadable and it’s a worse distraction from the road than playing Angry Birds for cash while driving. In recognition of this, the SRT guys threw a shift light in the Abarth. On cloudy days, or at night, and if the driver is positioned just so, the shift light is somewhat visible. After a few miles I resigned myself to operating the FIAT based on the audible cues from the megaphone-muffled exhaust, which snorts, snuffles, and backfires its way along at a volume somewhat beyond the capacity of the base stereo to cover. That’s another Neon SRT-4 trick.

Part of the drive to Spring Mountain is a forty-mile freeway drone, and here the Abarth acquits itself surprisingly well for a car with less wheelbase than a CJ-7 Jeep. Crosswinds don’t terrify and the relatively high seating position turns out to be a bit of an asset. While this never feels like an overpowered car — fifteen-second quarter-mile, remember — there’s enough thrust on tap to make merging and overtaking absolutely worry-free. A sixth gear wouldn’t go amiss, though, and it would certainly do something for that highway fuel economy.

I’m told that the Mopar FIAT team developed the Abarth at Nelson Ledges Road Course, where it turned a 1:23.6 pretty consistently. That’s about what Car and Driver extracted from a 1996 Boxster 2.5 back in the day, and it’s a competitive laptime for SCCA ITB racing, so it’s respectable. Nelson Ledges isn’t exactly a racetrack for the timid.

Spring Mountain, on the other hand, is a racetrack for the timid, or at least for the talentless and well-funded, so it’s here that we are given a chance to run some P Zero-equipped Abarths around for a few laps. The front straight of the 3.1 mile course is chicaned, making the top possible speed about 95mph on the back straight. In other words, we’re almost autocrossing. As you’d expect for a 160-horsepower car, the 500 feels almost sleepily slow on-track, although the constant mish-mash of mild off-camber turns helps keep the interest level up.

My concern regarding the 500 as a trackday car had been that the handling would be tamed to keep its very short wheelbase under control. Luckily, that’s not completely the case; the Abarth is free to wag its tail under braking, particularly trail-braking, and through every one of the artificial elevation changes. A few times during my short lapping session, I am caught out by mistaking one slow blind turn for another one, and every time this happens there’s plenty of chatter and slide from the back while I correct my mistake. It’s charming, and it’s fun.

The Abarth’s relatively aggressive camber does manifest itself in a rather numb-feeling wheel during hard acceleration. Nor is the “torque transfer system” a substitute for an actual limited-slip differential — a mistake the Chrysler guys rectified during the 2003-to-2004 model year changes to the Neon SRT-4. Full-throttle corner exits are slightly annoying thanks to the “tunnel vision” caused by the stiffening of the steering and the separate-but-equal brake-driven adjustments to front-wheel traction.

The overall on-track impression is that the FIAT feels bigger than it is. That’s fine, and it’s reassuring, but compared to cars like the current Jetta GLI which seem to shrink on the move, it’s not ideal. Still, you could do a lot worse for your first trackday car.

Among the ad hoc segment known (as of right now) as “Little Retro Cars That Feel Sporty”, the New 500 Abarth is clearly ahead of the VW New New Beetle Turbo but probably a touch behind the New New MINI Cooper S. I wouldn’t expect it to keep ahead of a MINI on a road course or frantic backroad. Consumer Reports occasionally recommends the MINI but has slapped “Not Recommended” ratings on the non-turbo 500 and Beetle. There’s little objective reason to choose the 500 over the MINI.

Luckily for the FIAT/Chrysler folks, this isn’t a segment which operates on rational thought. If it did, none of the entrants in said segment would exist. The pricing is competitive — $22,000 plus destination — and the little Abarth has plenty of virtues, from the way it looks to the way it feels to drive. It seems to be worthy of both the FIAT and Abarth labels. What track rats around the country really want, however, is a small car that is worthy of the SRT label. Something at least as fast as the old SRT-4 Neon, only with enough refinement and interior quality to silence the naysayers. More power than the Caliber SRT-4 in a platform that deserves that power. Something like the, ahem, Dodge Dart. This Abarth is a nice sign of life from the SRT guys, but we aren’t looking for a sign of life; we’re looking for absolute domination. Over to you, gentlemen…

IMG_6028 IMG_6027 IMG_6026 IMG_6025 IMG_6024 IMG_6023 IMG_6022 IMG_6021 Not exactly setting the world on fire. IMG_6019 IMG_6018 IMG_6017 IMG_6016 IMG_6015 IMG_6013 IMG_6012 IMG_6011 IMG_6010 IMG_6009 IMG_5984 Four cylinders, some waiting. Three little birds. IMG_5980 IMG_5979 IMG_5970 IMG_5936 IMG_5935 IMG_5934 I'd love to chat, but I have to go get it in. IMG_5932 Fiat 500 Abarth. All photos courtesy of Jack "Attempted Murder Was The Case That They Gave Me" Baruth IMG_5930 Concentrically lame. IMG_5927 IMG_5926 IMG_5923 IMG_5922 IMG_5921 IMG_5920 IMG_5919 IMG_5918 IMG_5917 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 150