Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Fiat 500 has arrived in the USA

In the midst of high gas prices and a trend toward smaller vehicles, the Fiat 500 is still a head-scratcher.  One simple reason:  price.

Per this story on, the Fiat 500 will have a 101-hp engine starting at $16,000, topping out around $21,000.

While this vehicle is not meant to compete with, say, a Honda Civic - which has grown in size in lockstep with the Accord to the point that the Accord is now a "full size" car - it'll still be difficult to find a market for the upstream trim level, which will likely surpass $20K.  For $20K, you can get a Civic with decent features and the gas mileage will be about the same in an auto transmission: 34/27 for the AT Fiat 500, and 38mpg highway for the 2011 Civic coupe.

I can understand the novelty of such a vehicle but feel it will have a limited market, appealing to hipsters looking for something different as well as the article's protagonist - Boomers who are of Italian descent or who used to own a "CinqueCento" back in the day.

Still, one can hardly blame Marchionne for not showing all his cards in Fiat's first romp back in the States since 1984.  It didn't cost Fiat much to re-enter the market, having brought no cash to the table when obtaining a stake in the bankrupt Chrysler back in 2009.  So, much like with the Alfa 8C Competezione, he's aiming for a very targeted campaign, hoping they sell out, and having this car be, in effect, free advertising for the next wave of more sensible Fiat vehicles. 

Here's to hoping Fiat sells out the 500 at all of the 130 dealerships at which it will be offered, and we see more Fiats and Alfas in the coming years.

Update, and Ford C-Max vs. Mazda5

Can't believe it's been nearly two years since I wrote in this thing.

Back then, I owned a Benz and my wife a Lexus.  My wife still has the Lexus.  After my insurance nightmare with the Benz E-320,  I sold the Benz in August of 2009, our first child was born that same month, and a few months later we were down to one car and had a new house.  That forced us to stay conservative as it pertained to vehicle purchases, so I bought a used Mercury Sable LS Premium for cheap money as my daily commuter car.  It's a nine mile commute with no traffic congestion, so it didn't make sense even to go with an older Benz where you don't know if the air conditioner or heater core is going to go at any time.  Not that Benzes aren't reliable, but I didn't want to tempt fate.

And of course, wouldn't you know it, less than a year in I had to replace the transmission on my Mercury.  I was playing with house money given the payment was so cheap and I wanted to trade it in soon anyway, but it hurt big time to have to shell out $2K for a car that cost me only three times that.  The Ford-made Duratec engine is great for what it is - not nearly as peppy as our 3.0-liter V6 in the Lexus, but torquey enough to pull the floaty whale through tough waters when necessary.  But the trannys, I heard, had plenty of problems in the Taurus and Sable in the early 2000s.  I just figured with only 63K miles on the thing when I bought it, it shouldn't be an issue - and was wrong!

We plan on trading our Mercury in this year for either a new Ford C-Max or a new Mazda5.  Both are mini-minivans and both are based on Ford's worldwide C platform.  Think longer-wheelbase Focus with a minivan rear end and the sliding doors to go along with it.

For a family that will likely grow from three to four in the next couple of years, it's a hell of a lot better price-wise than going for a huge Odyssey or Sienna - while nice, loaded up those things can cost upwards of $40K and we simply cannot afford one new with the features we want.

Before having driven either car - and I do expect the Mazda to drive better than the C-Max only because the Mazda3 has such a large enthusiast base with testimonials about how it handles as close to a BMW as any compact car has a right to - the C-Max may edge out the Mazda5.  (Both would be 2012 models as the C-Max hasn't landed for sale yet in the States and the Mazda5 skipped the 2011 model year).

One thing not considered here is price.  Let's assume that a C-Max SEL will cost roughly the same as the Mazda5 Grand Touring.  With the Mazda5, we will need to add a couple grand in for a roof cargo container, a DVD entertainment system should we opt to buy one, and any other dealer options.  Same with the Ford C-Max, but we do expect the C-Max to come with more electronic gadgets as standard in the SEL trim.

  • Electronics:  if you click on the above link for the C-Max and toy around in the mini-site, you'll see a lot of cool gizmos available on the C-Max:  factory-installed DVD, factory navigation, SYNC, etc.  Ford has been pushing to really load up their cars with as many electronics as possible.  It's really neat in the Edge, and the difference is astounding when you get into a Limited or SEL with navigation vs. an SE without any cool electronic features. It's a joy to plug in a route or play with the radio in the Limited, but the SE looks very plain in comparison.  My 63-year old father uses the bluetooth hookup with ease for his cell phone, and when he calls me from the car the sound quality is great - expect more of the same in the C-Max.  The Mazda5 falls short here as you can't get factory navigation, can't get a factory installed DVD system, and has nothing like SYNC.
  • Design:  The Mazda5 has the C-Max beat here.  Ford's new designs overall have been great; the refreshed Edge looks better than the original.  But Mazda's designs aren't so bad either, and the 5 looks fantastic compared to what now looks like its pedestrian predecessor.  The C-Max doesn't have the cool new grill gracing many of Ford's newer models.  While I understand it's hard to find room for that type of grill on a compact car with a smaller hood, there's still a stark difference, and the front end looks more like a Fiesta.
  • Upstream features:  We are likely to get the most loaded version of either car as we can.  Beyond the interior comforts, where the C-Max wins, it will also bring the Hands-Free Liftgate, likely to be standard on the SEL trim.  This is a neat feature - all else being equal, with Mazda5 not even having a power liftgate for the 2012 model, this is pure, convenient joy.
  • Seating:  The C-Max is being billed as a "5+2", because there is a stowaway middle seat option. It seems likely, though, that this stowaway middle seat will not have LATCH (few cars have three LATCH seats across the second row as it is).  And it may make more complicated what may already be a tight squeeze to get to the third row of seats.  Neat feature, but if I had the option, I'd probably stick with the Mazda5 orientation:  Six-seater, pure and simple.  Two kids, each with their own bucket seat, in the second row, with the third row available for kids who are in booster seats (no LATCH logos on the third row of either car, so assuming it won't be available) if necessary.  Mazda wins here, but it's not a big win because you can simply keep the Ford's middle seat in the second row stowed.
  •  Dimensions:  The Mazda's dimensions have been published as the car is available now, but the C-Max's haven't.  Will Ford make the dimensions about the same?  It could just be the design cues, but the C-Max looks smaller to me than the Mazda5.  While we aren't buying the car for cavernous cargo room, we wanted a car with a third row that folds flat more for cargo space than the expectation we'll have three or four kids, or need to haul lots of kids around all the time.  How easy is it to get to the third row in both cars?  Does the sliding door open past the second row of seats so you could sneak back there from the outside?  These are things we'll be looking at when we hit the showroom floors.
 If the Mazda5 drives better, one thing for us to consider is that my wife will be doing most of the driving.  She doesn't care about driving dynamics, so that might not even be enough to steer us away from the C-Max given all the other goodies one can get.  This is a long term car for us, and despite the six seats, we will likely keep the third row folded flat most of the time for shopping trips.