Monday, October 31, 2011

Why the Fiat 500 will do well (a long ramble)

A hip lady-friend of mine recently blogged about the Fiat 500. She said:
"I have never really been a car person.  My dad picked out both of the cars I’ve driven, and they’ve been good cars in the sense that they get me from point A to point B without any scarring or wreckage. 
But then I saw this little thing.  I want that car.  This is the first time in my life I’ve written that down.  I want that car.  It’s so wee!"

We at the Grassroots Motorsports office have been waiting for one to come through the press fleet. We saw a white one in the parking lot at the office a month or two back, and EVERYONE was talking about it. "Is that our press car?" "It's a stickshift!" "Where did it come from?" "I love the interior." We all fought over who would drive it first. We've been waiting for one to come through the press fleet for some time.

We later found out that it belonged to the meter reader lady from the electric company. It was her personal ride. We all gave her props for driving a stickshift, she enthusiastically proclaimed her love for it, and left.

One showed up at an autocross this summer. It wasn't there to compete; someone just drove it to the event. There were at nearly all times at least four guys gathered around the thing. When the owner was near it, a bigger crowd gathered to ask questions.

All this for a kind of slow, technologically unremarkable, somewhat expensive subcompact car. Why such a fuss? 

It is incredibly cute. Sure, your average Camaro shopper wouldn't be caught dead in one, but I'm sure the reverse is also true. But that's less the point, so much as its whimsy. It's fun just to look at. It makes people smile, stop, and have a closer look. The Mini Cooper and New Beetle did these things, but I hesitate to say that they did it so universally.

I thought at first that it was too expensive. It starts at the same price as the Ford Fiesta ($15,500), a considerably larger car. But, while the Fiesta might be more practical to own and perhaps are more capable as a performance car, its fun really only kicks in once you're whipping it around corners and really making use of its delightful chassis.

With a car like this, the whimsy, the thrill, the joy, comes from the minute you sit in it. You get into it, smile, and ask, "So, what can you do?" The same thing happened with my sister when she bought her (also smaller than a Fiesta but 30% more costly) Mini Cooper several years ago. She wasn't a car person, but she became an enthusiastic driver. She learned to live with its small cargo space. She'd tell stories of playing cat-and-mouse through traffic with other Mini drivers. It also helped that she got a stickshift, I think, but part of it had to be that the car made its existence clear to its owners.

Not many cars do that, or have ever done that terribly often. Even if something is fun to drive, a cheap car will rarely actually say hello. It'll have the same speedometer you see in every other car in the world; the switchgear will look the same; it'll all be in that familiar industrial-plastic black.

Guys are fascinated. Gals think it's adorable. If this car is half as fun to drive as it is to look at (foreign reviews indicate as much), it'll sell as many as Fiat can make. It might even help get more kids interested in cars and driving who previously just thought of it as an expensive mode of transport. I only hope the take rate on stickshifts is high.