Fiat 500 - A Brief Review
A few years ago, I had a chance to test drive the modern version of the Fiat 500 when it first came to America. It was, predictably, terrible on American roads. It may be a perfectly fine car for tootling around coastal Italian villages, but here in the USA, it was no different than any of the other gimmicky micro cars that have tried, and failed, to catch on here. American roads are just too big and filled with too many big, powerful cars to make driving the 500 anything other than terrifying.
But this past Summer, I was planning a trip to Europe and discovered that the Fiat 500 figured prominently on the rental car menu. I was excited. Here was a chance to test the little car in its native land, through neat little villages and winding country roads. I’d get a rare opportunity to experience the Fiat 500 as it was intended to driven.
So, when I arrived at the rental car counter at the Orly airport in France, you can imagine my surprise when the rental car agent refused to rent a 500 to me. He told me that it was crap (merde). When a Frenchman tells you that a small hatchback is to crappy to be rented to an American, let me tell you: you take him at his word!
So there ends my review of the Fiat 500.
However…. I will review the car he did allow me to rent: the Renault Megane.
Specifically, the 2015 Renault Megane Sport Diesel.
In order to understand this car, you must first understand driving in Europe. Many Europeans scoff at big, gas guzzling American cars that can only go in a straight line and can’t handle curvy roads. Americans, in turn, scoff at the little goofy, egg-shaped cars that everyone drives in Europe. The fact is, both make cars that are suited to their particular needs.
America is big and wide and Americans think nothing of commuting 60-100 miles each day to work. As a result, our roads are big and wide and so are our cars. And why not? America is one of the world’s largest oil producers and fuel is cheap, while taxes are low. Why not make cars that are comfortable and smooth with big, powerful engines?
Europe, by contrast is small. A typical American morning commute could cross three European nations. Their cities and villages are laid out in much the same way as they were 1000 years ago, when the primary concern for city planners was making sure that an invading army couldn’t fire an arrow down the entire length of a city block. Plus, Europe has barely any oil, meaning that they have to import almost all of their petroleum products, mostly from countries that don’t much care for Europe. That, coupled with high taxes, results in fuel prices that are 2-3 times higher than they are in America. Typical European cars, then, are small, with little revvy engines. The egg shape and goofy little wheels that Americans find so humorous maximizes interior space so that a European family of five can fit into a vehicle Americans would consider a sub-compact.
In Europe, true “sports cars” are rare. I know what you’re thinking. Ferrari, Porsche, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Aston-Martin, Alfa-Romeo, Bugatti… But the truth is, you almost never see those cars in Europe. Most of the exotic sports cars that we associate with Europe are made for export to billionaires in America, the Middle East and China. Only a handful of aristocrats and soccer stars actually buy those cars in Europe, and they keep them mostly hidden away in places where peasants are not allowed to go.
The concept of a “suburban sports car” – a sporty two-seater coupé that you drive to work every day and fetch groceries with on the weekend - has never caught on in Europe. The high cost of fuel and taxes make such a car impractical. Instead, Europeans have embraced a class of cars that has never really caught on here in the USA – the “hot hatch.” These are small, inexpensive, generally practical hatchbacks with sporty performance.
The Renault Megane is one such “hot hatch.” And practical it is. Even though it’s tiny enough to navigate medieval streets no wider than an American sidewalk, it manages to have a spacious trunk and rear seats that fold down to carry quite a bit of stuff. The front seats are large and inviting. It has a diesel engine that gets about 40 miles to the gallon. You really could use this car every day.
Yet, despite its practicality, the little bugger is a blast to drive. First, even though it's a tiny European hatchback it feels like a bigger, heavier car. There’s no wobbling about on skinny little doughnut tires – the car feels planted and secure, even at high speeds. The steering is stiff and responsive. On the A-roads (analogous to American interstate highways), the car cruises along effortlessly with enough power to pass when necessary.
So, obviously, I couldn’t resist testing it out on the grand theater of the automotive world: the crucible in which factory showroom cars are tested and measured; the proving ground where no flaws can be cleverly hidden, no limitations can be excused away… the autobahn! Smooth, well maintained, and designed for unlimited speed, the autobahn is the Western world’s only uninhibited road system, a truly “free" way with no speed limits.
A few years ago, if you had told me that you wanted to take a small, French hatchback into the left lane of the German autobahn, I’d have thought you were making a joke. And not a very funny one. The left lane of the autobahn is the domain of S-Class Mercedes-Benzes, high-end Porsches and Audi A-8’s: cars with 500 horsepower and up.
Not only did I manage to get Megane over into the left lane, the little car managed 180 km/h (about 111 mph) with relative ease. It was just nearing the top of its capabilities (I could probably have squeezed another 10-15 mph out of it at the redline), but still, there was no shaking or buffeting – it was just as smooth and planted as it was at 70 mph. Frankly, it got to be a little dull.
The real fun occurred when we drove from Austria to Germany over curvy mountain roads. The cornering and grip of this little car was amazing, and while the heavy diesel engine inhibited low-end acceleration, it still managed to power its way out of the curves more like a true sports car than a practical hatchback, and I felt no fear when hard breaking into tight, hairpin turns.
There are some downsides, of course. First, like a lot of small, inexpensive cars, the manufacturer has loaded it up with electrical gizmos, most of which are over-complicated and make no sense at all. For example, we drove the car for three days before we managed to figure out how to work the cruise control: there are two separate controls that need to be activated, one of which is on the steering column and the other on the center console because… that makes sense. To someone. Likewise, the radio, sat-nav, rearview camera display screen, and central computer make up a control panel that's far to complex to operate while driving.
There are other problems too. Even though it’s a small car with large windows, the visibility is not very good, with a giant blind spot over the driver’s left shoulder. And although the car cornered very well, its turn radius is not nearly as tight as it needed to be – a fact I discovered while making an 80-point turn in a German parking garage. To top it off, the back seat is a token gesture and the car was constantly issuing warnings.
Over-all, though, it’s a fantastic little car and I had a great time driving it. But it begs the question: why can’t Europe send these over instead of silly little joke cars like the Smart and the Fiat 500???
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