There are times in life when you just want a basic thing. A regular cup of Joe versus a tall half-skinny half-1 percent extra hot split quad shot latte with whip. It's almost expected that whatever you do in life now, you are going to be throwing a curve ball. While a curve balls can be interesting and effective, after a while they just get damn boring. Customized, specialized, compartmentalized just so, just for you because you deserve it,! You are a special little, unique snowflake in the universe and don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise! All flash, no substance is what you can end up with if you maintain that course for too long . An intricate answer for a simple problem, existing only to impress itself and the easily misguided in this world.
You may ask "Okay, I get that, butbefore you yell at me, telling me to get off your lawn, Ontop, what does it have to do with cars?"
The answer is everything actually. While I love cars that have ridiculous power to weight ratios, large engines with enough torque to affect the axis of the earth when you hit the gas, most of the time, I don't need that. I don't need a car that has more computing power than it takes to keep the ISS in orbit. What I need is a car that will simply function to get me, some of my stuff and varying numbers of my family from point A to B without draining my wallet and without the need to visit my local mechanic on a regular basis. That being said, I don't want the automotive equivelent of an unsalted cracker either. There has to be a balance.
Which brings me to this. I am in the position of having to get a new car, since gas prices in California are always a consideration I thought I'd go take a few "city cars, micro cars, what ever you want to call them, out for a drive to see if they've changed over the years or if they still earn their "econo-shitbox" moniker.
Since I'm trying to keep this on the lowest budget possible, I'm sticking with cars in the $15-18k range.
First, the Fiat 500 Pop edition $16,000
Let me start by saying, like many Americans, I'm still haunted by the last time Fiat's were available on this side of the Atlantic. My brother was the proud owner of a Spyder that spent most of it's time being worked on than it ever did on the road being driven. There is a very valid reason the Fix-It-Again-Tony joke remained strong over the years. That being said, let's get on with it.
I took my son with me, because there is nothing like a little kid hitting button and getting fingerprints on everything to distract a salesman while I look at what I consider to be important features on a car. Also, to test out the reality of rear seating.
While I wasn't sure what I was getting into, I was very plesantly surprised by the 500. Despite is small exterior, you don't feel cramped in this car. Please remember, I'm only 5'9 so I'm not cramped in most cars. My friend Mike, who is 6'5 might have a different opinion. As tight as it would be for him, I still think he'd be able to squeeze in without too much difficulty.
The ride of the car was not bad for such a small wheel base, and the 101 hp was more than enough. I usually go with manual transmissions in my cars, and so that is what the one I tested had. On surface streets I had no problem, the gearing was tight and shifts felt sharp. On the highway, merging from the exits into the ridiculous traffic we have here in SoCal was not a problem.
The sound system was nice and not too gadget-y, I'm sure you could get that, if that's your thing. Interior noise was quite low, which I've learned is a fairly rare thing on small cars. The steering was adjustable, the "city" setting tighented it up to the point that you could probably turn it in an area with the circumference of a penny. Turn the city setting off and the steering losens up to something a litlle better for highway driving. Over all it was nice and tight, but not so sporty as to feel out of place during a normal commute.
Would I buy one with my own money? Yes...All of this was much, much more than I was expecting. The real test for Fiat in America will be how these little cars do once they hit the 100,000 mile mark. I know it isn't fair, but that's just how it is here in the USA.
Next up, The Mazda 2 Base Price $13,980
Again, this was a time where I found myself in a rental car. I was looking to save some bucks, so I went with the econo option, so I was given a Mazda2. I know everyone on this site always says that Miata is always the answer, but I have to say, if you need to carry more than one other person, the sporty little 2 is a contender for the default answer. I know that a lot of others reviewers would say the Fiesta, which shares a lot of the Mazda2's platform is a better option, and if you like a lot of bells and whistles, it probably is, but there was just something the little 2 had that is hard to put your finger one. It was just more...fun.
The radio was basic, the cabin noise was a little louder than I would have liked but those were secondary issues for me. Again, I took my kids around in it and they just loved the back seat area. Not sure why, they just did.
The rear seats were spacious enough for two kids and would probably seat two large adults fairly well. The rear seats folded down, so if you need more space than the little "storage area" provides, it's not a problem if you have no other passengers.. The Mazda2 is a car that would be pretty easy to live with on a day to day basis. Sadly, I wasn't able to test the stick shift on this one, I had to go with the slush box, but, to that end, it was not a bad experience. The gear shifts were so smooth as to be almost unnoticeable.
The handling on the Mazda2 was unreal for such an inexpensive car. While I hate to be cliché, it really did feel like it was riding on rails. I've never been in such in an economy car that handled so well. Mazda has done well in keeping the fun factor high, even in it's most basic model.
The little 100hp that the little four cylinder put out felt like more because of the high revving nature of it's engine. Mazda didn't scrimp on the ZoomZoom in this area of the 2 either.
Would I buy one with my own money? Probably, but I might ad a few extra creature comforts, and, being a Mazda, you know it's going to be a long lived vehicle if you take care of it.
Last call: Chevy Spark
What a festering heap of shit. I mean this from the botton of my heart. I drove the Sonic (another story for another time, but in short, I liked the Sonic well enough) for a while during the same week I had the aforementioned Mazda2, and I was really expecting more. The car felt really cobbled together. The steering was not as tight as one would expect from a car so small, the ride of the car was, loose, and not in a good way. It felt as though it would be blown over by anything stronger than a dog farting in the passing land. And speaking of the passing lane, you wouldn't ever need to worry about it because of the anemic nature of it's little 1.0 67 hp engine, you will never be in that lane. Even with the manual 5 speed and my food buried all the way to the floorboard, this car was pointlessly slow and the interior noise was unacceptable, even for other cars in the same price range.
The control cluster, while, okay, looks as though it were designed and installed by Playskool. My tween aged daughter, arbiter of all things cool (in her mind) said, that she could see what they were trying to accomplish, but they missed it by miles. I agree. I cringe a bit when I hear the guys on Top Gear describe the interior of a car as being plastic-y, but in this case, they wouldn't be wrong. Sitting behind the wheel of this car can be likeened to what it must feel like to be inside of a gallon milk jug.
I haven't loathed a car this much since I owned a Daewoo Lanos..(that is my shame).....Oh, that's right, these are built by GM Korea, formerly known as Daewoo Motors. I know they build the Sonic as well, but if I were in charge of GM, I would desperately try to have the Spark branded as something else, if for no other reason than to avoid the embarassment of the associations that will soon be made with this car.
The verdict: I wouldn't buy this car with someone else's money, much less my own.