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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 don’t usually take my vehicle to the dealer for service. But I just had a set of $1100 Michelins installed on my 2012 CX-9 GT and Discount Tire doesn’t do wheel alignments. My dealer recently sent me a coupon for a $49.95 alignment, so I decided to take advantage of it.
While I was waiting for my car, I ventured into the showroom to check out the all-new 2016 CX-9 that was just released in the last month. They had a top-of-the-line Signature AWD model on display, which had a sticker of $45,215. The Signature is only available with Auburn-colored Nappa Leather interior and has real aluminum and genuine Rosewood trim. It even has very cool looking LED grille accent lighting. Everything is standard and there are no options. It was impressive, to say the least.
I decided to take a quick test drive in a CX-9 Grand Touring FWD. The main difference between it and the Signature model in the showroom is the ‘regular’ leather interior (black in this case), no Rosewood trim and can be had in FWD or AWD, while AWD is mandatory on the Signature. The sticker price on the GT I test drove was $41,070. Like the Signature, there are no options…. everything is included.
The original CX-9 was old in automotive terms, introduced in late 2006 as a 2007 model (nine model years is ancient). One of the primary obstacles in developing a new CX-9 was the lack of an engine to power it. The previous CX-9 was powered by a Ford-designed, Mazda-assembled 3.7L V6 good for 273hp @ 6250rpm and 270lb-ft of torque @ 4250rpm. It was a great engine with plenty of power, but it also guzzled gas (my 2012 is rated at 17/24mpg and I average just under 18mpg per tank).
The 2016 CX-9 uses a turbocharged version of the 2.5L found in several other Mazda products. Mazda states that it produces 227hp on regular gas and 250hp on premium (@ 5000rpm in both cases). Regardless of the fuel used, it is rated at 310lb-ft of torque at a very low 2000rpm. On the surface, 227hp (or even 250hp) in this size and type of vehicle is at or near the bottom of the class. But the torque figure beats most of the competition by 40-50lb-ft. Again, just looking at numbers, the use of a 6-speed automatic appears to be a weakness when 8- and 9-speeds are common. But when you have that much torque at such a low engine speed, a good 6-speed is more than sufficient.
Since I’m a repeat customer (and a current CX-9 owner), they let me take the test drive alone. That particular vehicle had almost 500 miles on it, so I didn’t feel quite as guilty pushing it a bit harder than usual. The salesman readily admitted that they only used regular gas, so it was only good for 227hp. I was expecting a significant difference in performance compared to my CX-9, and I was pleasantly surprised. My CX-9 is decently quick off the line but I have to rev it pretty hard if I want truly quick acceleration. If I need a quick burst of power for passing or merging into traffic, foot to the floor is the only way to go. But the new CX-9 pulls strongly almost from idle. There’s no need to push it past 5000rpm and power actually falls off between 5000rpm and the 6300rpm redline. In normal driving, it seriously feels like a big V6.
The Aisin 6-speed automatic in my CX-9 is one of the best I’ve ever experienced. It always seems to be in the right gear in any given situation and will downshift two or even three gears in a split-second when you put the pedal to the floor. The 6-speed in the 2016 CX-9 performs just as well and, to my surprise, the need for downshifts is even less common. In situations where mine would downshift from 6th to 4th, the new one managed to stay in 6th and get the job done.
The Achilles’ heel of the old CX-9 was fuel economy. As I mentioned earlier, mine is rated at 17/24mpg and I average just under 18mpg. The new model has a much improved rating of 22/28mpg (21/27 with AWD) and several tests I’ve found online show AWD models achieving 22-23mpg in real world driving. A 4-5mpg overall improvement is very impressive and also among the best in the class.
The other major strike against the pre-2016 CX-9 was the dated interior design and technology (or lack thereof). It debuted almost 10 years ago and, despite updates in 2010 and 2013, it was still behind the curve. The new interior looks and feels more like a near-luxury vehicle than any Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango or Enclave/Traverse/Acadia I’ve ever seen. The seats are exceptionally comfortable and the assembly quality is excellent. The entire vehicle feels even more stiff and solid than before and the old model wasn’t too shabby in those areas to start with. The controls are well-placed, intuitive and even the ‘infotainment’ system (which I tend to hate in many new cars) was usable without reading the owner’s manual.
It’s safe to say that I find the new 2016 Mazda CX-9 very impressive and a worthy successor to the first generation. While it is exceptional, no vehicle is perfect. But my quibbles are few and somewhat trivial. The way 98% of people drive, the new model is just as quick or quicker than before. But flat out acceleration from a standstill under full throttle feels slightly slower. I haven’t seen any published stats on the 2016 FWD, but estimates of the 0-60 time are in the 7.5-7.8sec range. My 2012 FWD was tested at 7.1sec, a slight but not insignificant difference. I also like the sound of my V6 better than the new turbo-4. Neither of those would be noticeable to the average buyer of this type of vehicle and it certainly wouldn’t deter me from buying one either.
The new CX-9 has the potential to be a superstar among Large/3-row Crossovers! But the original CX-9 was also outstanding when it was introduced but, at best, sales were mediocre. The only year from 2007-2015 that it topped 30k was 2011, when 34,421 were sold. Most years were around the 25k mark, but just over 18k units were sold in 2014 and 2015. In comparison, the Toyota Highlander has sold over 100k units year since 2010 and almost hit 160k in 2015. The GM trio (Buick Enclave/Chevy Traverse/GMC Acadia) sold 279k unit combined in 2015 and the Ford Explorer was just a few hundred sales shy of 250k. Even the mediocre Nissan Pathfinder sells over 80k per year.
Obviously, there is a huge market for 3-row SUV/Crossovers and Mazda has a great opportunity for sales growth. While they have an excellent grasp on developing and building great cars, they don’t really know how to market them! Mazda also has one of the smallest dealer networks among non-premium/luxury brands…. (second only to Mitsubishi). I hope that they remedy those two shortcomings rather than allowing another exceptional vehicle to remain off the radar for the vast majority of consumers!
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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