Retro runabout

BY Clayton Seams. Apr 15 04:00 am

In my driveway are two retro cars, cars that hearken back to the 1960s heydays of the automobile, when nobody had heard of Ralph Nader and it was expected — even welcomed — that driving a car for more than an hour might make you smell just a little like gasoline.

Both are retro green, with chromed hubcaps and cheery faces sporting round headlights and dashes of chrome. One of them is my 1969 Chrysler Newport that takes about five minutes to start, gets nine miles to the gallon and has all the body control of a waterbed mounted on bowling balls. The other is a Fiat.

The 2016 Fiat 500 1957 Edition is certainly not the fastest 500 variant but I’ll be darned if it isn’t the happiest. In an age where even Miatas have angry eyebrows, the 1957 Edition is unique in its complete lack of malice or aggression. From its pear-shaped profile to its surprised headlights, every detail on the little Fiat is cute and likeable. Even the hazard light button is attractive.

My girlfriend — and, frankly, every female I asked — was smitten with the styling. Most of the males decided it didn’t have enough brake-cooling ducts or spoilers for their taste, but I love the look.

The 1957 Edition is, strictly speaking, an appearance package to dress your Fiat in a retro tribute to the original 1957 Fiat 500. The package is available in a pleasant, light non-metallic blue or in pistachio-gelato green like our tester.

No matter which colour you choose, you get colour-matched alloy wheels that fool your eyes into thinking they’re pressed-steel wheels with chrome hubcaps, like those on its 1957 namesake. Completing the look is a white roof and white mirror caps, while all the exterior Fiat badges have been replaced with retro badges featuring Fiat’s ‘50s-style font. It’s a cohesive appearance package that adds charm to an already pretty car.

The charm continues inside with an ivory-like plastic dash insert and some very cool chocolate brown leather seats with proud stitching, and a white leather-wrapped steering wheel that complements the colour of the dash. While the infotainment unit is slow to respond, its menus are uncomplicated and easy to use, and the colour scheme of the interior is spot on. If only it was designed to fit humans.

I’ve never considered myself to be an especially oddly proportioned person, but I found it hard to get my towering 5-9 frame comfortable in the Fiat. It seemed like I could choose to have my arms the correct distance from the wheel or my feet the correct distance from the pedals but not both. I took to driving with my arms out like Fangio and my legs jammed uncomfortably close to the pedals. The wheel adjusts up and down but doesn’t telescope; this is a big drawback for driver comfort. The steering wheel also hangs about 1.5 centimetres right from the horizontal centre of the seat, not enough to be really noticeable, but enough to annoy some special part of my brain .

Once you’ve arranged your limbs inside the 500, the driving experience is, much like the aesthetics, completely cheerful. The naturally aspirated 1.4-litre, in-line four has all the punch of a watered-down Shirley Temple, but with such a pleasingly buzzy effervescence that I didn’t really mind. The 500 is a party to drive and corners far better than any car with a profile resembling the Eiffel Tower has any right to do.

The steering, while completely numb, is nicely weighted, and the engine loves to rev and sounds rorty while doing it. The taut suspension keeps the little bean in control during back-roads blasting. The 500 is a willing partner in the corners and is miles more fun to drive than other subcompacts. But sadly, there’s a party pooper in the car, and that party pooper’s name AISIN, the six-speed automatic transmission.

Now, I’m not a keyboard-furious “save the manuals” type of person who dismisses automatics out of hand, but this six-speed unit needs some serious work. During my time with it, it sometimes shifted so harshly that I wondered if it was broken. Sport mode seemed only to make the shifts more pronounced and uncomfortable. It also had a nasty habit of hesitating when a driver decides to accelerate briskly from a slow roll to make a left turn across traffic — not the moment you want a transmission to stumble.

During normal driving, it’s mostly smooth enough to fade into the background but any acceleration is met with one or two sluggish downshifts. Considering it’s a $1,495 option over the five-speed manual, you’d be better off to save your money.

Part of the reason I enjoyed taking the Fiat out into the country so much was that it took me away from the potholes and expansion joints of the city. The price for its sure-footed handling is a surprisingly firm ride. The stiff springing is exacerbated by the rather large 16-inch wheels and the low-profile tires that surround them; the big wheels look great, but ride comfort suffers measurably. Perhaps a 15-inch wheel would be a happier compromise.

The wheels are just one of the many concessions the Fiat makes for style. The buyer of this car, and especially the jovial 1957 Edition, will be someone who wants a well-trimmed, fashionable car that’s easy to park downtown and fun to drive. The Chevy Spark, Honda Fit and even the Ford Fiesta are much more pragmatic choices, but I doubt those who buy this car will cross-shop those models. The closest thing the 500 has to a natural competitor would be a Mini. Both are sporty, retro-styled cars with compact footprints and relatively similar pricing.

When a car is priced in the same neighbourhood as a Mini, you know it won’t be cheap. The Fiat 500 Pop has a reasonable base price of $18,995, and the 1957 Limited starts at $25,995, both before the $1,745 destination charge is added. But with premium audio, automatic transmission and other options, the little Fiat came to a whopping $29,995 as tested. That’s a lot of money to pay for a sub-compact with a less-than-perfect transmission.

While there are many more practical and cost-efficient choices in the sub-compact realm, hardly any of them offer the same charm and style as the Fiat. It’s a car that makes people happy; it looks different and it drives like an over-exuberant Labrador puppy. It certainly has its flaws, but it’s a car designed to make you smile.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

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