You’d be surprised at what cars can do.
Did I say surprised? I mean shocked. Maybe even mouth-open, flabbergast, foot stomping, stuttering, spittle raining, gob smacked.
It’s a scientific fact that everyone on the planet has a story about how their jalopy once circumnavigated the lower quarter of the US on low gas, no oil and two working brakes. It’s not comfortable, but gall-darnit, it’s possible.
Cars exceed our expectations — even the expectations that we’ve set way before we’ve ever set foot in the car.
How about taking a car — derided for its prissiness — up the tallest road in America? More accurately: How would a 2012 Fiat 500 handle itself at 14,000 feet? Cue “Ride of the Valkyrie” please.
To be fair, Edmund Hillary, we’re not. I doubt he had air conditioning through Antarctica. We have that, a telescoping steering wheel and a lunch purchased at a nearby bakery that Hillary would have traded three sled dogs to eat.
But the idea is apropos: A 100 horsepower commuter car — at home on city streets, — surely would huff, puff and struggle up a road that saps more power than a cruise liner tied to the rear bumper. At 14,000 feet, engines gasp for nonexistent oxygen, transmissions run hotter than 1,000 suns and twisty roads induce more nausea than romantic comedies.
Gear up, we’re both about to be surprised.
To start, the Fiat 500 certainly doesn’t look the part of mountain explorer. The car looks rugged like a Brooks Brothers catalog, making it a winner among crowds that prefer Louboutin to Land’s End. (My penchant for French press coffee and incompetency with anything mechanical should clue you into the category I fall under.)
Nevertheless, the Fiat 500 is attractive to nearly anyone. The short 90-inch wheelbase and 60-inch height gives the car a small, but tall, compact appearance wherever it roams.
The exterior is also void of acres of black plastic that rear its head on cars of the same price (the Fiat 500 starts at $16,200) with body color panels all the way down from summit to skirts. The front nose is snubbed somewhat and lacks a wide-open mouthed grille, which to me, reads approachable instead of aggressive. Think wide-eyed surprise on a teenager’s face, mouth closed; there you go.
Despite its small stature and tall approach, the features outside are actually quite soft. The roofline descends to the rear hatch thanks to a wide C-pillar that washes all the way to the rear tires. The button-cute rear hatch is easily accessible and efficiently packaged.
Inside, the round features outside make their way inside. The instrument display smartly displays RPM and speed on the same dial, and the center console is similarly compact. Body color materials finish out on the passenger’s side, which is livable but maybe not my first preference to wake up to everyday.
Seating for three is possible, considering the front passenger sits further forward than the driver, but you’d probably want to limit adults in the back to one and behind the passenger. Oy, my knees hurt just thinking about sitting behind someone like me.
So how does the Fiat 500 drive? Back to the mountain.
At 101 horsepower and 98 ft.-lbs. of torque, the Fiat relies heavily on the five-speed manual or six-speed automatic to wring every drop of power out of its mill. The car will go from 0-60 mph in around 11 seconds in both specs — not blinding, but I maintain that it’s more fun to go fast in a slow car than the other way around.
At mile-high altitude, the car juts in an out of traffic with ease and speed, albeit hammer down. Tossing the car around city traffic is fun, even borderline nostalgic for old 500s darting through the streets of Rome. At 5,000 feet, the car is producing around 80 percent of its horsepower capacity — dependent on weather, barometric pressure and other things — but at 14,000 feet that number can drop to about half.
Here’s the surprise: the Fiat does just fine.
A car with 100 horsepower doesn’t blow anyone away, but considering the small compact car weighs almost half of a big three-row SUV, it can get away with such a small figure easily.
I doubt there’s a person alive that would say that the Fiat 500 is overpowered — and I’m certainly not — but often I’m wooed by gaudy horsepower numbers and acres of cylinders. The Fiat 500 is fine with 40 percent of its hands tied behind its back.
Call it cheerleader-cute, but don’t call it cheap.
The Fiat 500 has enough inside and out to surprise just about anyone.
Aaron Cole is a syndicated auto columnist. He knows he’s wrong, but he’d rather hear it from you. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org