First Impressions

At time of writing, almost to the hour, I’ve owned my Fiat 500 just over a week, so I guess now’s the time to start writing about it properly. I suppose that I should also explain why I came to sign on the dotted line for another new car; well the over-riding reason was that I’d fallen well and truly out of favour with my then current Fiat a Grande Punto T-Jet (120) Sport. I’m sad to say that the Grande Punto is the first and hopefully last Fiat that I did not enjoy owning. I’ve owned five Fiats all later than model year 2000 and one Alfa Romeo, I’ve also been lucky enough to drive other Alfa’s and Fiat’s too, so while I’m not presumptuous enough to call myself an expert, I’m also not new to the brand. Since I got into Fiat’s I have seen their quality in all areas increase markedly and bought the Grande Punto (GP) with no reservations or worry, but I think I got what I’ve heard described as a lemon or a friday afternoon car. Within the first year it needed a new wheel bearing and drive shaft and it was discovered that an engine mount was missing, that meant the whole engine was shifting when turning making a very unpleasant and disconcerting noise. In its third year, outside of the comprehensive manufacturer’s warranty, it needed new front suspension components and worst of all and quite unbelievably an entire new clutch assembly and gearbox. Had I covered 100,000 or possibly 40,000 to 50,000 miles I would not have batted an eyelid regarding maybe the clutch if not the gearbox, but I’d done less than 25,000 miles in a car that had not had its third birthday. The bill would have been well into four figures, but the dealership got in touch with Fiat who sent one of their what I imagine to be men in black suits to assess the problems. Thankfully this mysterious man from Fiat UK signed the cheque for the work, quite rightly too. I must say the dealership D Salmon of Colchester was very supportive throughout, even when I was getting quite stroppy with them because of the stress these sort of problems bring. I got the my Grande Punto back and it ran fine, but I felt I’d always be waiting for the next thing to go wrong and it was for this reason on the off-chance that I went into D Salmon one day looking at the used 500 and Panda’s. I’d owned a Panda and my Mum also has an 07 plate and I loved the fact that you could drive it on its door handles or just potter about, either was fun. There were plenty of tasty Panda’s and 500s to choose from, including a lovely red Panda 100HP, this blog could have been about another car entirely! After falling for said Panda and a couple of 500’s, I uttered the words “what about a brand new 500?” and a couple of days later some different finance figures had been put together. The figures themselves were very reasonable and coupled with the next to nothing running costs of the Twinair, the deal was done, bye-bye Punto

I ordered the Twinair at the end of February and was told there would be about a 12 to 18 week wait, so I was surprised to get a phone call at the end of March to say my car had been built and shipped and would be ready for me early April – result. The specs are in a previous post so I won’t repeat them again, apart from to say that a worry over my colour choice did creep in during the wait for delivery. I thought that I had ordered one of the dark metallic greys only to realise at too late a date to change that it was actually a special pastel paint. Now, the 500 can be a girly car and is driven mostly by women, but I’m sure enough in my masculinity for this not to put me off a 500. I bought one because they are an excellent town and city car and just a good car full stop. Nevertheless, the word pastel did make my stomach turn slightly, so I just hoped it wouldn’t be too insipid a colour in the metal; thankfully as my 500 came into view driven out of D Salmon’s workshop I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It didn’t look like a girls car, not in my opinion anyway.

The hand over by D Salmon, my second car from them, was relaxed, efficient and overall a very pleasant experience. I got a very good deal on fitted 500 logoed car mats, an iPod spool lead and a model car for my son all for less than the price of the mats alone. A healthy amount of fuel was also in the tank. How that Dominic Littlewood ever got free mats and a full tank of fuel out of any dealer on that TV programme he used to host, the name of which escapes me now, is beyond me! Already being familiar with the 500 and the placing of all its major controls, it is of course near identical to the Panda on which it is based, I didn’t have to hang around for long having things explained. What I did get a demonstration of, however, is the stop/start feature, this being the first car I’ve owned or indeed driven with this fitted. It’s pretty simple and works thus; if stopped in traffic or at perhaps a set of red lights that you know won’t change for some time, you knock the car into neutral and the engine stops, with a symbol illuminated on the dash to let you know the start stop technology is in operation. As soon as you touch the clutch to engage first gear again the engine restarts. Of course it starts much quicker than a normal start as you don’t touch the key and the fuelling and ignition is already pre-primed. The other clever thing about this is that, as long as conditions allow, all ancillary functions will continue when the engine cuts out, so your iPod track, CD or radio is not interrupted and perhaps more importantly neither is the air conditioning. Note, if conditions allow – like anything else on a modern car a myriad sensors and the ECU have the final say if these electronic guardians think there is a danger of not having enough juice to run all ancillary functions and start the car again, the feature will disable itself. In real terms, having not been stuck in any really heavy traffic yet, the start/stop works just as expected i.e. most of the time. Only today in temperature of 25c when I had the radio and the air con on cold fan speed three, did it not engage and I don’t think that was unreasonable. The whole idea of this of course is to cut emissions and improve fuel economy and I’m sure it’s this that helped Fiat’s engineers achieve CO2 g/km of 95 and around a 60mpg consumption figure. It’s too early yet to try to form a realistic opinion of how this helps in real world ownership, but of course that’s why my blog is here.

So, I hot-foot it home, where I knew I could relax with the car and check out all the little details. Within in metres of leaving the forecourt and its speed bumps, I knew that one thing was a vast improvement over my Grande Punto, ride quality. The suspension and chassis set-up in the GP was quite frankly abysmal. It crashed over the smallest bumps as if it had no damper or body control at all; it was ok at medium to high-speed on smooth surfaces but of course those are becoming fewer with the state of UK roads, so in real world ownership it was almost embarrassingly uncomfortable. The 500 on the other hand absorbs and isolates the driver from those imperfections and while not in the league of Citroen or Jaguar for ride quality, it is the best riding small Fiat I have owned or driven yet.

The other thing that I felt good about was the sound. I would describe it as a gruff buzz, which in print doesn’t sound appealing but trust me it is, unless your familiar with two-cylinder engines in cars and lets face it who is as there hardly common, you won’t have heard anything like it. Some sound clips will grace a later blog.

At home my attention turned to admiring my choice again and noticing how the subtle two-tone alloys really complement the tech house grey paint option.

I’m also chuffed with the grey/black check cloth (no cost) interior option, which again makes this quite a mature and stylish looking 500.

Next step was to ensure my geeky but functional ‘life-style’ stuff worked – in other words my iPod and mobile phone. Fiat launched blue&me a few years ago, a joint venture with Microsoft it is basically an entertainment and telematics technology that allows you to play music via USB memory sticks, MP3 players, iPods and to synchronise with any mobile phone via bluetooth for seamless hands-free calling via the steering wheel controls. While all Fiat’s with blue&me I’ve come across work, there were problems in the early days with some makes and models of mobile phone and also, perhaps not surprisingly for a Microsoft product, Apple iPods and iPhones. However, each iteration improved and this is the best yet. My iPod plugged in and played perfectly and is controllable via the steering wheels controls. My Windows Phone 7 based mobile (Samsung Omnia7) also synched perfectly and copied my contacts to the blue&me memory. It did this too for my wifes Sony Ericsson and can tell the difference between the two – simples as the meerkats would say.

First impressions were good and I did not do much else with the car that day, other than to fill the tank ready for my trip to the West Midlands the next day, about a 140 mile journey. I will experiment with different brands and RON ratings of petrol, to try to ascertain what difference if any they make to engine performance and consumption, but for the first fill it was regular Tesco 95 RON.

Details of the first week of driving soon…

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