(All photos © Sean D Sorrentino, 2012)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Aren’t FIATs supposed to be crap?

Though everyone thinks that FIAT means Fix It Again Tony, it actually mean Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or “Italian Automobile Factory of Turin.” FIATs have a poor reputation in the US, probably because the FIATs that were imported into the US back a couple of decades ago were total garbage. They must have improved a bit since then.

I picked the FIAT Punto as our rental car mostly because it was the smallest and therefore cheapest car available to us. Less money spent on car rental means more money to spend on other things. There are only the two of us, so really all we needed were two seats, a roof, and a secure storage location for our luggage. As much as I wanted to tool around Slovenia in a BMW, I couldn’t justify the expense.

As you can see, the Punto isn’t much to look at. It’s your typical four door Euro hatchback. Ours was grey, which turned out to be about the most common vehicle we saw. It seemed that everyone had a grey hatchback, though there were several makes and models to choose from. I couldn’t really tell them apart without looking at the badges.

What was surprising was that it was a diesel. I understand that diesel cars are more popular in Europe, for the lower gas mileage. This is certainly important when you live with governments that artificially raise the price of auto fuels to an even greater extent than we do in the US. We were paying about 1.65 Euros per liter, which works out to an arm, and most of a leg per gallon. Since there is no earthly reason that fuel should cost so much, I can only assume that the governments are getting rich taxing the fuel so much. Watching the dials on the fuel pump spin was a bit like watching a slot machine whirl.

In any case, we were in the parking deck in Venice before I realized that the car was diesel powered. I started the thing up and then decided to stick something in the back when I realized that the engine idled pretty rough. It sounded like a diesel. Checking the gas cap, sure enough, “Diesel Fuel Only.” I thought that was pretty cool. Once I started listening to it, I could tell from inside the car, but it didn’t announce itself as a diesel the way some of the older cars do.

It also has a engine cut-off so that if you are waiting at a light and take the car out of gear and let off the clutch, the engine shuts off. This is supposed to save you gas. It sounds like a much cooler feature than it really is. It’s really a pain in the backside. I was taught not to let out the clutch at lights, so that you can make a quick departure if something is coming your way. That meant that I was in Ljubljana before that particular feature made itself known. I’d been driving it for 4 or 5 days at that point. The engine cutting off at a light is disconcerting. It took me no time at all to figure out what had happened, but it was still a bit of a shock. Then you had to plan your departure at the light so that the car had time to restart before you slapped it into gear.

That brings up two bigger issues. The car had a standard transmission. I am about to offend a lot of people, but I don’t really care. Sometimes you need to hear that you are wrong. Standard transmissions suck. There’s no earthly reason for anyone to drive a standard transmission. Maybe back in the day when automatics were spotty, but not now. They’ve really worked out all the bugs. “But, But, But,” you say, “standard transmissions save gas!” Baloney. It is technically possible, with perfect driving, to achieve slightly better gas economy with a standard transmission than with an auto. But you don’t drive that well. No one does. I once looked at a pair of Mustangs side by side. They were identical except for the transmission. The auto got rated slightly lower in gas mileage. At least I thought that they were identical, until the salesman pointed out that the differentials had different gear ratios. The auto was geared slightly lower, and therefore got slightly worse gas mileage on the highway. Mostly people need to stop pretending that they are Mario Andretti and get the automatic. It saves a whole lot of trouble in traffic and you are less likely to roll backwards into me at an uphill light.

The other problem was that it didn’t have cruise control. Here’s another one of those things that the “I want to do it all myself” people get wrong. I think that cruise control should be mandatory. I don’t give a damn what you set it to, but please, set your cruise control. You can’t maintain a steady speed. I know you can’t because I drive next to you with my cruise control on and you can’t maintain a steady speed. Cruise control is your key to never receiving another speeding ticket again. In the US, I set my speed to 5 MPH over the speed limit and wave at the cops as I drive past their radar traps. I consistently get to my destination faster than my GPS says I will, and I don’t worry at all about getting pulled over. In Europe, I didn’t dare speed. I have no idea what the threshold for getting pulled over is, and I didn’t want to find out. I would have really liked to be able to set my speed to 130 KPH on the motorways and just not worry about anything.

These, however, were minor complaints, and easily rectified by ticking the right boxes on the order forms. Where this car shined was going over Vršič Pass. As terrifying as it was, once we figured out how to turn off the traction control so we could spin our wheels up the final climb the car never put a foot wrong. Because it was so lightweight it had very little trouble maintaining enough traction to stay under control all the way down. There were several times that we rode the ABS all the way into and through a corner. The little car just turned in and went where I pointed it without complaint. I liked the car before the Pass. I loved it afterwards.

As for carrying capacity, it did well. My wife had one of those standard sized suitcases that no one uses anymore. It even had those stupid castoring wheels on the bottom that don’t work for rolling, take up space in the trunk, and break off at the slightest provocation. Hers died in Piran. That case laid flat in the trunk, and there was space on one end for my panel loader travel case. Her identical panel loader laid on top of her suitcase, leaving room for my daypack sized backpack, our jackets, and our dirty laundry. When we closed the hatchback, the little cover came down and it looked like there was nothing in the car. For such a tiny little car it did great for trunk space. Inside, we had no issues at all. I am 5’10” and still somewhat over 200 lbs. My wife is 6 feet tall and used to play girls tackle football. Neither of us is what you would consider svelte. We fit just fine, with no dueling elbows. An armrest between the seats would have been nice, but that’s probably no further away than just another check in the box at ordering time.

Of all the things on the car, there was just one thing that was just plain stupid. There were options I would have liked to have, like the auto transmission, cruise control, and an armrest, but these weren’t stupid engineering decisions. The only thing I found that just drove me up the wall was the key fob. Here it is closed.

And here it is with the key deployed.

It was a sort of switchblade key. This sounds like a good idea. It’s actually stupid beyond belief. If it actually stayed folded up when you put it in your pocket it would be nice. Unfortunately, the idiot who engineered it made the FIAT logo push button way too easy to activate. That means the key spent almost all of its time in my pocket in the open position. Someone please tell the FIAT engineers to either abandon this stupid idea or at least recess the button and make it harder to activate.

All in all, a good little car. If FIAT decided to sell the Punto in the US, and the wife decided to buy one, I’d endorse the decision in a minute. My automobile decisions are made for me by my company, but the wife has been looking for a cute little hatchback for a while. So you marketing execs at FIAT, now’s your chance to get back into the US market. You’d probably sell at least one, to my wife.

Federal Trade Commission Disclaimer:

These blog entries reflect my personal opinions about the locations The Wife and I visited during our travels. I have not received money, freebies, or any other inducements to provide positive coverage of anyone, anywhere, or anything. In fact, no one on this trip knew or had any reason to know that I am a blogger. I do not work for the Tourist Boards of any country, nor am I employed in the travel industry in any way.


  1. LOL, good review of the Punto, and it's a strange little car. One thing you have to remember is no one drives far enough to NEED cruise control over there... And the stick? That is the default for all Euro cars, as it's cheaper. Even Mercedes come with a stick as standard unless you specify automatic! Enjoy the trip Sean!

  2. You're also forgetting that sticks are cheaper to work on.

    -The Wife

  3. I took some time and read your blog through. It is always interesting to see fellow blogger's perspective on local places.

    I am glad you enjoy (or have enjoyed) your time in Slovenia and made it to many interesting places within our diverse little gem of a country.
    I guess it is a bit late to offer some local advice and you also seem to manage quite good without it. ;)

    Greetings to you and to "the wife" from a Slovenian fellow blogger.
    Keep traveling and keep blogging!

    1. The Wife and I had a great trip. We enjoyed the things we saw, but the best part was the people. We were treated very well by everyone, almost as if we were part of the family. Now I just have to win the lottery so I can buy myself a nice little house in Bovec and spend my time paragliding and skiing.

      Make sure to say hi if you're ever in North Carolina.

  4. I am glad you enjoyed your trip! I guess people really are nice and welcoming. I suppose everything might stay like that until the country is overrun with tourists.
    I guess that might happen quite soon though. In my opinion in 5 years time quite a few things will change.

    Thanks for the invitation. Even though the chances are really slim, you never know - I have a few friends living on the east coast... If you happen to come back again someday and need some off the beaten track recommendations, you know who to contact.

    Oh, and don't forget to buy that lottery ticket. ;)