Aside// Home for me still is and will always be Toronto. I try to make it back for a visit at least twice a year; once in the summer, the other at Christmas. Normally, after only few days back I go through Milano withdrawal, sitting around my parents house getting the itch. But this time was different. I was home for the entire month of August and yet I didn’t miss being able to roll out of bed and leisurely stroll into my breakfast spot for a macchiato. I didn’t miss the beaches or the fantastic drives getting there and I definitely didn’t miss the heat. Maybe it was the new addition to our family – my adorable three month old niece that kept me distracted and busy being a gushing uncle. I don’t… know. About the only thing I did miss was having my own car. It’s a nostalgic, sentimental feeling when asking your dad to borrow his car when you’re 30 years old, not to mention embarrassing. So for one weekend in August I decided to rent my own set of wheels: the Fiat 500.
I’ve driven the little topolino before here in Italy so I was genuinely excited to take it out on the ever more congested streets of T-dot to see how it would fare. My enthusiasm quickly turned to disappointment upon picking it up from the rental place. I forgot that rental cars in North America, regardless of the size, are all automatics. With my enthusiasm now dissipated I reluctantly threw it in D and headed back to the city.
Those first few kilometers felt really uneasy like meeting an old friend and realizing something’s changed, something’s different. It didn’t feel at all like the 500′s I’d driven in Italy. I blame it all on the auto-box and suspension setup. Then I found myself trying to find all the other North American changes made to it like trying to pick out all the differences in your old friend who’s now deviated so much from your memory. I’ll get to those changes later on.
Pulling into my parents’ driveway, my dad was the first out to meet me grinning like an idiot. What? You miss Italy that much? Let me take it around the block. For my dad, a test drive around the streets of our neighborhood is enough to decide whether or not to give his seal of approval. After ten minutes he returns bemused with his verdict: It’s tight. It’s bigger on the inside than it seems. Should be manual. I guess… that’s a pass?
The fun factor was the one impression I was hoping to hear from him but didn’t. However, dad’s never driven the manual therefore doesn’t know how much more fun potential lies beneath that retro body work. Nonetheless, he admitted he would definitely consider buying one – for nothing more than running errands with it. Right.
Just then, my sister arrived in her brand new Volkswagen Jetta with baby in tow. Is this the car you wanted me to get, Ber? Aww, it’s so cute! I love it! Can I drive it? Will the baby seat fit in the back? As it turns out, the baby seat fits. The stroller however, does not. Regardless, off we went for yet another round of the neighborhood proving ground where my sister found it fun, immediately. You sit so high! It feels so light too, she added. I love it! She added some other thoughts on the car back in the driveway but I was too busy playing with the baby and wasn’t listening.
So my dad thinks it’s as practical as a glorified shopping cart and my sister loves its looks and feel. Now it was time for me to put it through its paces in the city. Everything in the car works well. The air-con, the rather hi-fi sound from the lo-fi speakers, the power moonroof and “sport mode” – another of the Nor-Am changes. Located on the dashboard to right of the steering wheel, is a button labeled “SPORT”. Pressing it makes the steering feel more resistant, heavier, more communicative. In Italy, this is the default setting. Over there, the same button is instead marked, “CITY”, which essentially does the opposite; making the steering feel lighter for use in built up areas where one would dry-steer more often such as maneuvering in and out of tight parking spots.
The more seat time I had behind the wheel the less I cared that it was an automatic, especially in traffic. Although the auto-box significantly dampen the overall charm of the car. Street parking was a breeze. See in Milan, street parking isn’t marked with fancy little corners perfectly framing the space a car can occupy. No. There, it’s still customary to nudge your way into a spot. In Toronto though, the spots are so long that with a little practice you can easily “front-in”, not unlike lazy SUV drivers, and without having to hop the curb in the process.
I ended up settling on the University of Toronto campus to snap some pics where almost every passer-by did give the car an affectionate glance, presumably for it’s size and cuteness factor. For the average North American male driver looking for economy car this might be an issue. Its size for me though, was never a “thing”. I didn’t feel emasculated by it nor was I intimidated by other, larger cars on the road. But then again I might be looking at it with my Euro glasses on. See here in Milan, we already have the Abarth version on the road, matte black examples and the cabrio. See the playboy of style himself, Lapo Elkann, step in and out of one and its cool factor is solidified.
Back to the 500; a car with everything you need and nothing you don’t. Leaving the campus I headed through some old stomping grounds before making my way back home. Along the way you really forget that you’re in a “mini” car. There’s plenty of head room even though the front seats are elevated some inches from the floor of the car. Sitting so high up, yet with ample shoulder and head room, you really do get the feeling that you’re driving a larger car. Of course, one look over your shoulder is enough to remind you that the rear window is but a few feet away. Not that I’m discounting the back seats. In fact, there’s more headroom for rear passengers than the back seat of a MINI.
Despite the relatively small 1.4L MultiAir engine, it never felt laggy or slow. Put it in manu-matic mode and the lil’ power plant is happy to rev to 6-7rpm, if you’re into that kinda thing. The shifts are jerky, yes, but there’s less lag shifting between gears than a Corvette C6 with paddle shifters.
Over the next few days I drove it as much as possible to get a sense of what living with the 500 as a daily driver would feel like. Surprisingly, it never felt inadequate or cumbersome or out of place even in market where it wasn’t intended to sell. It never required any excuses either. In the end, jumping into the 500 is like throwing on a pair of your favorite jeans – it’s just easy and works in almost any situation.