Dios mio, but these streets are narrow! Squeezing a car through the walled medieval town of Cuenca, Spain, is hard, not least because it was built on the edge of a cliff, its founders determined to keep invaders out.
Little thought was given to how automobiles a thousand years later were going to navigate the citadel. Good thing we’ve made the right choice for a 10-day vacation driving around the country: the super-compact Fiat 500.
Known as the Cinquecento, the tiny Italian auto putt-putted upon the European scene in the late 1950s, energized by a 500-cc motor that had about as much power as a modern electric shaver. Since 2007, the reprised 500 has become an urban fixture in cities like Rome.
This winter, a North American version marks the return of the brand to the States, starting at $15,500.
When I first envisioned my motoring holiday, I had ideas of Maseratis and Bentleys dancing in my head -- until I considered European gas prices and scrunched roads.
With 38 miles per gallon highway, the savings meant better hotels, better food, more wine. Besides, I was curious how the mini chariot would handle hundreds of zigzagging miles from Barcelona to Madrid via Valencia and wandering in between.
The 500 is more miniature pony than Italian stallion, running on a 1.4-liter four-cylinder that makes only 101 horses and 98 pound-feet of torque. That’s reasonable when you consider it is smaller than a Mini Cooper, the car’s obvious retro-Euro competitor.
Cute and Fluffy
It’s a cute thing, all rounded edges and oval headlamps which look like bright eyes drawn on a Disney character. Even the names of the three models -- Pop, Sport and Lounge -- point to its inner fluffiness.
The Lounge is the top model, starting at $19,500, with an automatic transmission and glass roof. Stability and traction control, plus seven airbags, are standard on all.
North American-spec cars include tweaks to the suspension, interior, gearing and additional noise deadening materials. (Apparently Europeans don’t mind road noise, while Americans don’t like to be reminded we’re actually moving.)
What I found most impressive was the car’s comfort, despite my six-foot frame. It fit all of our luggage in the rear hatch and neither my wife nor I complained of butt fatigue. There’s plenty of upfront leg- and headroom.
Our car was a five-speed manual which hummed along the Spanish autopistas capably despite the rather handicapped wheelbase, which measures a mere 90.6 inches. (Consider that a Honda Civic has 106.3 inches between its wheels.)
World’s Best Paella
We shot along the coast from Barcelona to Valencia, with a stop in the small town of El Saler, lured by tales of the world’s best paella. (A secret ingredient sometimes found in the local rice dish: turnips.)
Valencia is a playful town where a glass of wine costs less than bottled water, and after two days we decided it best to get back on the road, heading out of Catalonia toward the interior of Castilla-La Mancha.
The two of us have a habit of looking for the road less traveled -- lucky she’s a master of maps as the Fiat had no navigation system -- and we found ourselves on lanes of broken asphalt and errant dirt tracks. At one point we picnicked on hard bread and Manchego cheese by the side of a sparkling stream, the Fiat’s rear hatch raised toward the sun.
La Mancha’s mountainous regions are a playground of hills and curving byways where my steering wheel was in constant motion. No wonder Don Quixote tilted at windmills here; I suspect he was just dizzy.
The 500’s suspension held up incredibly well, giving me no reason to gripe on even the most swooping of slopes. It is game and brave-hearted, a car nearly better than it should dare to be on these challenging roads. It doesn’t drive as sharply as a Mini, a car which shows its BMW underpinnings, yet it’s admittedly less harsh.
Perversely, the 500’s poor turning radius was a constant annoyance. Attempting to park or make a U-turn, I found myself reversing, creeping forward and reversing again. (European garages are the size of broom closets.)
On our eighth day of the tour, we found ourselves in Cuenca, a magical fortified citadel straight out of Lord of the Rings. Located on that cliff and bisected by two river gorges, its high crenulated walls seem impregnable. The 500 slip-streamed around the skinny streets as easily as a Vespa.
In the U.S., the 500 will compete against cars like the $15,100 Honda Fit, which it outclasses in style and ride, and the Mini, pricier at $20,100, though arguably still slightly cooler and better handling. The 500 will stand out for its quirkiness and Euro flair, a mostly modern take on a classic.
Find yourself in a place like Cuenca, however, and be sure: It’s an urban scooter at its best.
The 2012 Fiat 500 at a Glance
Engine: 1.4-liter four-cylinder with 101 horsepower and 98
pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Five-speed manual or six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 9 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 30 city, 38 mpg (manual); 27, 34
Price as tested: $18,200 (estimated).
Best feature: Front comfort despite tiny size.
Worst feature: Poor turning radius, interior is spartan.
Target buyer: The Italian car fanatic on a Fiat budget.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)