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FIAT's 500e is an odd vehicle, in that it's one of the industry's better EV efforts and yet it's publicly loathed by FIAT's own CEO.
Though sold only in California and Oregon, a number of 500e's are coming off lease, needing new homes. Unlike many Americans in late 2016 who swore they'd move to Canada, FIAT 500e's are actually following through on those plans, aware of Canada's love of cheap and cheerful compacts.
A couple diminutive expats ended up at a nearby lot, one of which was a bright, juicy orange with a white accented spoiler, air dam and mirrors. Despite being a fairly old vehicle, this colour combination is akin to a Scaramucci-esque botox and bake, turning this familiar 10 year old design into a charismatic creamsicle-coloured cherub.
Though a dated interior, the 500e's cream white dash and matching faux-leather seats spruce the space up enough to take eyes off of the hard plastics. Orange accents on the doors and the seating add a playful, premium flair, albeit once your hand's drawn to them, do you realize this is still an economy car.
Buttons and dials are close at hand and easy to use, and felt relatively satisfying to press, save for the one blank 'dead' button below the climate controls. I wish companies would make the effort to turn dead buttons into something, even if it's redundant functionality.
A single digital display occupies the gauge pod, providing easy to read speed, mileage and remaining power information. Like some other electrics and hybrids, the 500e provides feedback on your driving; green for being energy efficient, red for not. It's not as gamified as Ford's use of green leaves in their system but it works well enough.
Using manual controls, finding a comfortable seating position for my 6'3 frame was easy, with legroom to spare. The seats didn't feel as if I'd slid into a penalty box, and I felt well supported. Aside from the chunky B-pillars, the seats provided a commanding view of the road, moreso than some other cars I've driven in this class.
Rear space is adequate for a grocery run, and with the seats folded down, the 500e is surprisingly spacious.
The Cinquecento With Zip
Upon starting the vehicle, an other-worldly digital screech pierced the cabin for over three seconds and my nightmares forever. The sound was similar to someone holding a microphone near a speaker. This apparently was an issue with the head-unit which the dealer promised would be fixed. However, upon looking through some paperwork, it seems attempts to fix the issue had taken place by the prior dealer. Having something like this happen on a fairly new car speaks volumes about FIAT's quality.
But after you hit 'D' on the centre console and hit the road, the 500e's gremlins took a back seat in what is a genuinely fun runabout.
Acceleration from 0 - 50km/h is brisk, and I found myself taking the right lane at red lights to get the jump on everyone else. While nowhere as visceral as a Tesla's take-off, the FIAT springs forward with just enough brio to put a cheeky smirk on your face, not unlike the one you had when you drove a go-kart for the first time.
Dancing through traffic is a breeze with the 500e's instant torque and diminutive proportions. Zipping in and out of lanes, and around city corners is good fun, despite the hard, mileage-oriented tires and extra 600 lbs from the batteries, as well as the large B-pillar on the left side which creates a sizeable blind spot.
The 500e's steering is engaging enough for most of us, and the car would likely be an entertaining cliffside drive alternative to its Abarth cousin.
Parking the FIAT is simple, with it's small stature and included sensors making it easy to whip in and out of stalls, and in-between cars, even with the blind sports impeding vision. Best of all, the 500e's driver likely won't have to hunt for a spot very long, with plenty of EV-specific stalls in parkades.
With about 150 kilometers of range, the 500e's is suitable for the average Canadian commute of 17km to work.
(Insert Stereotypical Italian Phrase Here)
I didn't have an opportunity to take the 500e on the freeway, nor charge it. Range is a respectable 150km, which is competitive considering a current-year base model Nissan Leaf and standard Smart Electric clock in at 135km and 160km respectively, while the FIAT offers arguably more spirited handling and panache.
At used prices hovering around $15,000 CAD and fairly low mileages, the 500e makes a great deal of sense as a primary car for people living in or adjacent to a city.
I have two major concerns:
First, is that FIAT's battery warranty is not applicable in Canada. This means that owners will have to pay out of pocket in the event of issues. Dealers are being fairly up-front about this, however some of their ads promise 'free powertrain warranty' or 'free lifetime engine warranty,' which don't apply to the battery system and while likely from a template, are dubious.
Second of course, is FIAT's own reliability track record, which reinforces my first concern.
I travel a lot for work and rent cars 40+ times per year. After several years of dealing with substandard rentals (calling most of them mediocre would be a complement….and a lie), I realized that reserving a “Premium” car was the only way to be guaranteed a decent vehicle. The ‘Premium’ class can be anything from a Taurus Limited, Impala LTZ or Toyota Avalon to a Volvo S60.
Recently, I had to fly to Memphis (from Atlanta) for a few days and made my rental reservation the day before I was arriving. I booked a Premium, but when I got to the lot (where I could usually pick a car using my Fastbreak card and be gone in a few minutes) there was nothing that fit the bill. Usually, at least with Budget, that means a free upgrade to a Grand Cherokee or Volvo XC60…but this time I only had two choices- a Chrysler 200 or Nissan Altima. My disdain for CVTs is only surpassed by my hatred of the Chrysler 200 (especially the 4-cylinder base models in rental fleets). So the Altima was, by default, my only choice.
My only decision was whether to pick the hideous dark brown (Java Metallic) or medium-dark red (Cayenne Red). The black interior of the red one made the decision for me because beige rental car interiors can be especially grotesque. I’ve had some rentals in the past with beige or light gray interior that should have included a bottle of penicillin (use your imagination)!
My rental was a 2.5S model, which is effectively the base model. Going off on a bit of a tangent, there is a trim level below the 2.5S simply called the 2.5. It’s only $400 cheaper and it lacks cruise control, backup camera, NissanConnect infotainment system, the ‘request’ button to lock/unlock doors without fumbling for a remote/fob and even a cabin air filter. It also loses two speakers (4 vs 6), illuminated visor mirrors, one seatback pocket, auto-on function for headlights, USB port and individual tire pressure monitor display for the TPMS. Considering that the 2.5 only accounts for 1.2% of the 62k Altimas currently in stock at dealers (29.5% are the 2.5S, like my rental), it defies (my) logic that there’s only a $400 difference in price for so many features. Just the manufacturing differences building such a small number (roughly 4000 using the 2015 sales total of 333k) of cars with different visors, no seatback pocket on one seat, different center control displays, etc. make no sense to me. Ironically, the price of the 2.5 is $182 higher on TrueCar than the 2.5S (in Georgia, at least).
But back to my review…
I’m not a fan of Nissan’s current design “language” and the Altima is no exception. Car & Driver shares my opinion and noted, while it shares a family resemblance with the Murano and Maxima, “this styling language still seems awkward to our eyes…especially if there’s a Mazda6 parked nearby!” It lands in third place, in my eyes, as the least attractive looking mid-size sedan following the Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry. But people rarely buy a car like this for looks.
The interior was a mix of pleasant surprises and disappointments. The trunk was huge and there was more than enough room for my 6’2” 240# frame. The charcoal cloth seat fabric looked and felt nicer than expected. The driver’s seat was comfortable during the 15-20 minute trips I drove to/from my hotel and the company I was auditing. But I suspect the lack of lumbar support would be painfully obvious after an hour or so. Those are the only positive things I can say about the interior.
The interior controls and layout weren’t horrible, but the Mazda6, Accord and Fusion all do it much better. The car I drove had just over 12k miles on it and had more squeaks and rattles than I expected (possibly due to a previous accident?) On uneven pavement or even small bumps, the shuddering of the dash and squeaking plastics were disconcerting. The materials looked and felt more appropriate for a Sentra than Altima (except the aforementioned seat fabric). There were a few noticeable wide gaps between panels that only reinforced the ‘low quality’ impression. A final note is the display for the audio system and backup camera in the center stack. The image quality of the backup camera was fine, but the display for the audio system looks like it was from 10+ years ago.
The actual driving experience was significantly better than expected in most ways. The 182hp 2.5L had plenty of power for this class, but the sound at higher engine speeds was not pleasant. Then again, I’m biased because I used to redline my early-mid 90s Honda VTECs to redline just to hear them sing. I doubt many owners push it hard enough to notice. The truly surprising thing was the CVT. In the past, most CVTs simply revved to the optimum engine speed for acceleration and efficiency, based on throttle input. Under full throttle, that usually meant revving to around 5000rpm and staying there until you reached your desired speed. In the Altima (and even worse in the Sentra and Versa), that meant enduring droning (to the point of being ‘ear rape’ in the words of my best friend) and vibration from the engine. So I was amazed when the CVT in this Altima revved up to 4-5k rpm, then “shifted” dropping the revs and starting the climb to 4-5k rpm again, feeling just like a regular automatic. At the first opportunity, I had to check the Nissan website to make sure that they hadn’t suddenly realized that CVTs suck and started using regular ‘geared’ automatic transmissions again! It still has a CVT, but it is now programmed to mimic the operation of a conventional automatic with specific, fixed gear ratios. The result is surprisingly effective. CVT performance is a major complaint from owners of most Nissans and it appears that they’ve taken note and, more importantly, taken action.
Ride quality was very good and it was very composed and comfortable on the highway. Altimas prior to the 2013 redesign were sportier than most mid-sizers when it came to handling and steering feel. But the current model has followed the example of the Toyota Camry, making the ride softer at the expense of handling prowess. The steering was numb and provided no feedback and the tires squealed in protest in curves taken at even remotely aggressive speeds. I have no doubt that my 2012 Mazda CX-9, despite being 1200lbs heavier with a much higher center of gravity, would beat it through a handling course. But again, 99% of Altima buyers (at least at this trim level) won’t be concerned about the handling limits because they’ll never approach them.
The Altima wears the #3 sales crown among mid-size cars in the U.S. The Toyota Camry is the best seller (429k in 2015), followed by the Accord (356k last year) and the Altima sold 333k units. Those three models represent more than 1,000,000 sales last year! BTW, I’m willing to bet that the Accord would be the top dog if fleet sales were excluded from the totals.
But my point is that the Altima must be doing enough things right to sell as well as it does. I’d actually like to drive the 2.5SR (or 3.5SR would be even better) because it would handle better, look better and improve on most areas where I found fault.
Stay tuned for my review of the 2017 Ford Fusion Titanium AWD in the next week. I’m heading up to visit my best friend in Pittsburgh this weekend and he just took delivery of his new company vehicle earlier this week. We already have a 480-mile road trip planned and I’ll be doing the driving, so I’ll get a good feel for the ‘refreshed’ 2017 Fusion. I’m looking forward to it….
Quick Drive: Smart Fortwo Electric Drive Cabriolet
Shocker! Smart’s charged up cabrio is stupid fun!
Moseying on down to the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association's 2015 ElectraFest last week, I had the opportunity to test drive an electric car. The July heat called for a convertible and the smart fourtwo electric drive cabriolet was ready to for a summer fling! This is based on a 20 minute test around town.
Smart Aleck Smart Elec
Fossil-fueled smart’s aren’t renowned for performance pedigree, and when it comes to acceleration, they’re absolute dogs.
Thankfully, the electric powertrain jolts a little pep into the Smart’s step, making for a driving experience that’ll win the little car some unexpected fans.
Tromp on the accelerator and the Smart scoots its butt from zero to 60km in just over 4 seconds, sending yours right back into the seat! The silence of it all is a surreal sensation, doubly so with the top down, where all you hear is wind whooshing by.
The ordinary steering didn’t detract from the overall zippiness of the vehicle, but the spongy brake pedal did, limiting feedback, halting the sportiness and reminding me that this was still an economy car - just one priced at $30K. The regenerative braking system was likely a contributor too, although the Smart ‘gamifies’ the experience by challenging the driver to maximize brake energy with readouts and a dial.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
Climbing into the smart was easy and at 6’2, I had no trouble finding a comfortable seating position. The eye-catching red seats still weren’t enough to belie their budget roots, with a somewhat hard feel and thin padding.
The cabin is decidedly minimalist, with a few extra gauges popping out of the dash to monitor the powertrain. Everything is laid out logically, but I didn’t have an opportunity to play with the audio system. While the interior’s pleasant to be in, the materials and dash are not up to scratch compared to more modern vehicles.
Surprisingly, the rear pillars and retracted top made rear visibility a challenge on par with my Avalanche.
Penny Pinchin’ Penalty Box
Operation costs of an electric vehicle depend on where it lives. In Vancouver, where Tesla’s are as common as Camry’s, ‘Hydro’ rates — a term derived from B.C.’s power utility which draws its electricity from hydroelectric generation — are very affordable, and the cute cabrio requires just two cents per kilometre. For someone commuting 20,000km yearly, that works out to about $460 annually.
However, the rated 109km range falls short compared to the likes of Nissan’s Leaf and BMW’s i3. The eight-hour 220V charging time is comparable to the Nissan, however this doesn’t take into account fast-charging options.
And much like power costs, an electric car’s price can vary on where it lives too. At $30K, the convertible Fortwo Electric is nearly $10K more expensive than its gasoline cousin. However, manufacturer and government incentives can knock off up to $8,000 in B.C., with similar amounts in other provinces.
My Two Cents
Despite the short dance, I left the smart fourtwo electric with a good impression, thanks to its perky drivetrain and drop-top style. The regenerative brakes do require getting used to, and the interior needs updating to match the likes of Hyundai and Chrysler.
If offered another drive or even a longer-term test, I’d jump at the chance.
Just picked this up for my weekend road trip to LA. Initial impressions--huge, quiet, smooth,
comfortable, hard to see out of (esp. towards the rear). More notes to come.
Update: Had a good weekend w/ this truck. Drove on a variety of freeways, 2 lanes, winding mountain roads, cities and small towns in Central/Northern AZ and So Cal.
Impressions: All in all, a very good road trip vehicle...lots of cubbies and storage areas inside, power supply points, usb sockets, etc. Great ergonomics and seating position. Felt and drove very car-like, not truckish at all. My previous GM full size experience was a weekend w/ a Yukon a couple years ago, on some of the same roads. The previous generation Yukon felt more truckish, though the cabin felt bigger.
Pros: Good steering feel
Adequate power for passing on long grades (as found on I-17)
Very nicely done inside.
Very quiet, very little wind noise
Smooth, controlled ride..very little truckish bounciness
I liked the column shift, much preferable to center console mounted shifter that would waste space
Power rear hatch and rear window (I didn't realize the rear window opened on these)
iPod and phone integration w/ MyLink was easy to set up
Good on gas..didn't calculate the mileage, but it seemed like it was reasonable.
Cons: high liftover into the hatch area. The rear floor is raised 4-6 inches above the hatch opening for no apparent reason. Though when both seat rows are folded flat, it is relatively flat load area. It seems the previous generation was lower, with more available height?
Smallish rear window--had to fold down the 3rd row for better visibility (easy to put the seats up/down, though).
low front air dam that scraped on curbs a couple of times
couldn't figure out how to engage the parking brake (must be electronic/automatic)
couldn't figure out how to dismiss a message about needing an oil change from the information display
was surprised to see a keyed ignition instead of push button start (not really a 'con' but an observation)
All in all, I think the Tahoe would make an excellent all-around daily driver and road trip vehicle. Alas, I have to return it this morning and back to the reality of my 15 yr old Jeep.
This past Fri-Mon I had a '15 Malibu LT for a rental, picked it up in Columbus, Ohio and drove to various places in Eastern Ohio and Western Pa, in and around Pittsburgh and east to Monroeville and the PA turnpike a bit.
I'd driven a few of the previous generation Malibus ('08-12), but this was the first of the current generation I'd driven.
Interior impressions: well equipped, all the expected cabin features in a midsize car. Hard plastics on the doors and dash, but nice to look at--brown and light tan two tone. I like the brown. Good HVAC controls w/ dual zone climate, etc. Gauges well positioned and easy to read. I liked the blue lighting behind the chrome trip strips in the dash. Tire pressure monitoring is a nice touch. Still has the annoying GM unlocking of doors when you shift to park (never liked that feature).
Comfortable w/ plenty of legroom and headroom. Since I didn't sit in the back, the typical complaints I've read about rear seat room in this car didn't matter. Lots of room back there for empty water bottles and my coat (it was cold Fri/Sat in Ohio and Pa).
Exterior: familiar, kind of anonymous but pleasingly clean. Looked very good in the dark red, I like the profile of this car, though the high tail makes for a bit of blind spot in backing up.
I did a lot of freeway driving on I-70, I-77, I-79 etc this weekend as well as stuck in city traffic in Pittsburgh and enjoying the hilly streets and roads around the city, muddy Ohio back roads, etc.
Generally very quiet around town. Noticed the start/stop engine shut off. Some tire and wind noise at 70-75 mph on freeway, but not excessive. The car felt very solid and tight overall. Seemed to have more than enough power to get out of it's own way in merging and passing. Did notice the transmission taking a while to shift up on long hill climbs a couple times, though.
All in all, with the addition of a sunroof (I'd keep the cloth seats), I could live with one of these as a daily driver for a few years. I'll admit I haven't driven many of it's contemporaries (had a rental Camry and an Avenger in the last 18 months), but it seems like a perfectly fine all around daily driver and road trip car.
I'm looking forward to seeing where Chevy goes w/ the 2016 model.
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