Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Grazie, Jeremy Clarkson, grazie

© Simon Poulter 2015

It's more than likely that when people think of an Italian car it will be a Maranello-born, Pininfarina-designed work of automotive art in the Devil's own shade of rosso that first comes to mind.

Then again, for those who grew up in the 70s playing Top Trumps, it might be another marque, the [now] Volkswagen-owned company that designs garishly coloured Batmobiles for posers in Dubai and parts of Kensington. And those of a more romantic persuasion (or, simply, a petrolhead) might, first, think of a cute two-seat 'Spider', created, it would appear, exclusively for open-top drives along the Amalfi coast.

The irony of this, I suppose, is that you hardly ever - or in fact, never - see Ferraris, Lamborghinis or drop-head Alfas on Italian roads. This is because they are the most impractical cars to own in Italy: there's nowhere to park anything that large, nor would you for fear of getting it perpetually dinged. Furthermore, you can't manoeuvre them around small hill villages and they cost the Greek national debt to run. That's if you can afford to buy one to begin with.

Top Gear goes to Luca

Most Italians - on visual evidence at least - instead seem perfectly happy flitting about in small Fiats that can be parked, can pass other cars in a city street without requiring the application of butter, and are, ultimately, cheap to run. More importantly, I have noticed, you don't need a zillion horses under the bonnet in Italy to overtake on the wrong side of a mountainside road when a large pair of balls and an engine not much bigger than a lawnmower's will do just as well.

Car ownership in Southern Europe has always struck me as being more about practicality and need, rather than status and one-upmanship. Southern Europeans don’t appear to suffer from the license plate envy that plagues the north, where the brand and the newness of the vehicle is forced on everyone else as a sign of affluence.

Although I wouldn't actually tell a local this, small is actually beautiful. Or beautiful enough. No one thinks any less of someone bombing past in a Panda, especially when the hair, the dangling cigarette, the mobile phone and the sunglasses are all cocktailed just right. And I'm speaking, of course, of both genders.

For all of Southern Europe's economic and political complexities, simplicity reigns when it comes to getting around. Which is why I now have to go off at something of a tangent here and lay into Jeremy Clarkson. I realise that I won't be the first to do so (and I'm adding myself to a list that includes senior BBC executives, one junior BBC producer, caravan owners, truck drivers, Argentina, Mexico, Burma and the man who designed the Vauxhall Vectra), but damn him.

Because I had been planning to use my mini visit to Italy this week to write about a car which, in its own small way, exemplifies - or at least was intended to - what happens when Italian design, simplicity, practicality and personality come together.

So what does Clarkson go and do? Write a magnificently funny review in this week's Sunday Times of the new and exhaustingly named Fiat 500X MultiAir Cross, that's what.

It had me trumped, not that I am Jeremy Clarkson, nor this The Sunday Times. But to save you some of my blah-blah, Clarkson noted how Fiat has allowed the 'new' 500 to evolve from a respectful pastiche of the original 1957-introduced 500's cute, bubble-like charm, into an exercise in over-inflated marketing.

In case you haven't been noticing, or in case you simply haven't cared, since Fiat introduced the modern 500 it has spawned several versions, including the maddeningly bulked up MultiAir Cross, which has had so much added to it, it reminds me of OJ Simpson in The Naked Gun 2½ accessorising a small pistol to the extent it turns into a piece of anti-aircraft artillery.

These variations come on top of the myriad colour and trim options that Fiat offers on the base model with the intention of having new purchasers customise their 500, less car as fashion accessory. Just this last week, Fiat announced a range refresh for 2016, with new interiors and a few other extras to keep turnover going until the current design and chassis comes to the end of its planned lifetime.

Millions of 500s have been sold around the world, including the United States, where it reintroduced the Fiat brand as well as capturing the wallets of revisionist, fashion-conscious Californians ditching their gas-guzzlers for, even, electric versions of the car. The sight of Fiat 500s about on LA's freeways is puzzling. Because unlike the hefty BMW Mini that has also found favour amongst Angelinos, the 500 is not a motorway car at all.

This I have found driving one around in its homeland. Which it isn't all that suited to either. Indeed, the 500 may be, like its celebrated ancestor, excellent for zipping about city centres shouting "Ciao!" at strangers, but take it out on the autostrade and you may as well be riding a Roman chariot pulled by Eyeore. My 1.2 litre rental has a larger engine than my own very first car, a Fiesta - which managed motorways quite adequately - but is hopeless at doing the two most essential tasks on Italian roads - accelerating ahead of tailgaters and getting up hills.

Come off the motorways, however, and indulge the winding roads that Tuscany seemed to have been invented for, and the Fiat 500 becomes quite enjoyable. It'll never break speed records, and on even the mildest of inclines, if you drop your speed you have to start off again in first to gain any traction (much to the "amusement" of the driver immediately on your back bumper), but it is flighty and, dare I say it, fun.

It is also effortlessly chic, like one of those chain store secrets fashion writers like to praise to show they actually have the common touch. And that might be where Fiat began with the concept behind this car, the concept so infuriatingly amusingly written about by Clarkson on Sunday. The 500 isn't for people who are bothered by cheap plastic interiors, switchgear and trim of the quality of toys found in cheap crackers bought on Christmas Eve from the corner shop.

© Simon Poulter 2015

The 500 is also not for pedants like me who can't live with cars where there are menus for everything - one menu button for the stereo, another menu which doesn't seem to do anything at all, and a third menu just to change a beeped speed warning. Which is redundant, because this is Italy.

Don't, either, buy a 500 if you plan to transport luggage. Or children. Or deliver pizzas. Because the boot is no bigger than a clutch purse, and the back seats were designed to accommodate only Ant-Man*.
*Topical cinema reference

But if you can excuse the plasticky cheapness of it all, and the luggage capacity of a charity donation envelope, as a holiday rental car, the 500 is ideal. It reminds me of my first ever holiday hire - an original Renault Twingo, which once had me bombing about a Balearic island like a supercharged go-kart. I loved that car and, even now, have a fondness for the simplicity and proportional efficiency of the first generation Twingo, attributes I can see in the Fiat.

If I may, then, somewhat tenuously return to Jeremy Clarkson, four years ago he and his Top Gear wingmen Richard Hammond and James May pitched up in the maze-like Tuscan city of Lucca, where I am today, for one of the show's challenges.

Starting out in the elliptical Piazza del'Anfiteatro, they had to drive three hot hatches - a Citroën DS3 Racing, a Renault Sport Clio 200 Cup and the Abarth C version of the Fiat 500 - out of the walled city's labyrinthine streets.

Hammond made a complete mess of the exercise, abandoning the car and setting off on foot, where he then managed to get further lost. May, as I recall, ended up on the city's wall ramparts, which was funny, but unlikely seeing as the entrance ramps are quite comprehensively bollarded. Clarkson, as usual, won the test.

Having navigated my way through Lucca yesterday, they could have completed the exercise in three minutes and by simply turning right out of the entrance to the square they came through. But Top Gear was Top Gear and that wouldn't have been anywhere near as funny.

I can, though, concur that Lucca is not car friendly or logical. One-way signs take you this way and that, and don't even think about using GPS, such are the narrow streets of this medieval town. But despite all this, the 500 was, in fact, the perfect companion, turning tight corners with ease, not scraping bicycles or pedestrians, and managing to keep me cool in the process, despite the temperature getting silly. That, on reflection, is the essence of Italian driving.

The Fiat 500 may not be the best made car in the world, or the fastest, but in a world of Smarts, the Volkswagen UP!, the Ford Ka and Lancia Ypsilon (which share the same chassis as the Fiat), and the many other fashion-orientated city cars that all manufacturers now seem required to sell, if you're going to want to drive around a city, especially a very old, seasonally hot, Tuscan city, the 500 is probably the one for you.

No comments:

Post a Comment