Thursday, June 14, 2018

Coordinated

The Jetta is exactly seventy-nine steps down from here.
Through the windows I have heard cars, trucks, bicycles (sort of), motorcycles, scooters, horses, cruise ships, airliners, helicopters, fighter planes, and people.

Many, many people.

I have already spent more than two hours looking for a reasonable parking spot once. I like to think I am quickly learning the moves of what I am rapidly starting to call the Idiot Dance - the regular shuffle-and-pray ritual that is alternate side parking - and I have gotten supremely lucky more than once so far, but I know it doesn't work in anyone's favor. Our bicycles are waiting in the storage room in the basement.

I can look almost due east into the windows of Road & Track's 8th Avenue office, where Bob Sorokanich is allegedly flipping me off. I am a ten-minute walk away from a ridiculous variety of auto dealerships, from Toyota to Bugatti. I have watched a camera crew document a fuel stop for a Lamborghini Centenario and been honked at by a balding slob in a Lincoln for simply crossing the street, in a crosswalk, with the light.

I marvel at the sheer number and variety of motorcycles parked on my street. It both gives me hope that I can someday soon keep one here without undue fear or annoyance and provokes an ever greater frustration that, again, this summer is so far without significant work and my savings are going towards infinitely less life-fulfilling ends (and the lease and insurance on the Jetta, to be fair). The commute situation for fall may require drastic measures, though, because everything here seems to require drastic measures.

We're trying to sell the Passat, which has mostly been an exercise in parsing wording for Craigslist ads and attracting cashier's-check scammers. It's being kept in a relatively safe place for now. I hope we can find a good home for it soon.

We are back in New York - Manhattan, the collective consciousness's New York, not just one of the boroughs this time - and a few weeks in I remain completely overwhelmed by the unpredictable and unappreciated chain of events that brought us here and the omnipresent absurdity of this life.

No one ever said this would make sense, but no one ever said I'd have to keep waiting this long for a garage, either.

Friday, March 23, 2018

De-reckoning

Photo: some completely random public-domain stock photo website.
This is the time of my Great Unwinding.

Life at this little juncture of reality is, inescapably, stressful. It's difficult for me to come to terms with an increasingly surreal and horrifying outside world, if that's even possible. It's a struggle to maintain the ever-growing intricacies and responsibilities of my career situation. It's frustrating to continuously adjust a net of wants and needs against the parameters of physical laws and social allowances and each other. It's uncomfortable to look ahead and know that the next few months will, again, be a time of upheaval and repositioning.

It's been aggravating, irritating, depressing, numbing. My blood pressure is too high. My knees ache.  My temper has become scarily short and hypersensitive. I haven't slept well in months.

So: Enough. Time for self-care, like everyone seems to be talking about (or was a few months ago when it was the indulgent pop-psych concept du jour). Time to find a center, do what needs to be done and no more, invite well-being into my life*, be at peace with things.

I'm actually making some progress on this concept, too, which is kind of cheerfully anomalous for me. I've essentially abandoned my Twitter account - as of now it's basically notifications of new entries at this here place of deeper contemplation - and dialed way back on Facebook and the news in general. Freeing myself from the world's number-one online stress generator has been hugely soothing, and if my days aren't suddenly filled with enough time to learn Japanese flower arranging or read the Mahabharata in Sanskrit it's still nice to not watch the clock melt away as I become ever more fatalistically hypnotized by an unending reel of humanity's continuing crimes against itself.

I'm going to the gym more often (or was, until this past week or two, and yes, it'll be time to get back in there later today, I promise, seriously, I know). I've essentially given up butter and mayo and potato chips and ice cream. I've stopped making my coffee three times stronger than I should have been making it if I'd bothered to pay attention to the amount of coffee I was actually using to make two cups in the morning.

And I'm loosening my grip on the need to dispute and argue and assert my opinion, which just dissolves tension and confusion and self-doubt and all the rest.

Thing about a lot of arguments: they don't matter. The world will still keep going the way that it's going even if you "win" an argument. You can hold the absolute moral high ground and be the vessel of noble Truth and Sincerity and people are going to shrug and just do whatever they want to do and look for a good lease deal on something painted metallic gray anyway. And unless you can put enough capital behind an ideal to have the invisible hand tip the scales somehow, it's just going to float in space and not be relevant. (Side note tangent to this: Have also pretty much stopped paying visits to upscale car dealerships; got to the point where I was just feeling awkward and progressively more depressed that I literally didn't have any business being in places like those.)

And a lot of the time the essence of an argument verges on a very personal belief or philosophical ideal anyway, as with a recent attempt to educate a bunch of clueless Philistines about the grotesque inappropriateness of consideration of whether the Civic Type R really needs seat heaters. Kind of more intellectual jerking off than anything, which doesn't do anything for the sake of the world and can't be that fun to watch.

And I don't want to be the person who thinks that the two possible opinions on any issue are my own and wrong. Life is more interesting than that, and I can think of a few people who have that particular rhetorical corner covered anyway.

And sometimes you just have to know how to pick your battles, know when to engage and when to acquiesce. And there are plenty of opportunities to recognize these situations and find in yourself the deep placid morality of Non-Ado and just let reality be what it is.

Especially regarding crossovers.

We are at the point in automotive history where the crossover, that lite-FM SUV on a car basis, is the functional market paradigm. Not only have they become the default family vehicle, but they're increasingly a predictable presence in the lineup of just about every carmaker on Earth. Not much mystery here; they sell, and they're profitable, so from a business perspective (and let's be real: carmakers are businesses, not religions) they make sense.

In fact, looking at sales numbers they make an outsized degree of sense. Porsche is now more or less a luxury offroad manufacturer with a sideline in anachronistic street racers. The strongest cases for market legitimacy for a returning Alfa Romeo and a renewed Maserati are the Stelvio and Levante. The F-Pace made for half of Jaguar's 2017 sales. Lamborghini's new Urus is projected to be their most popular product out of the gate. Even freaking Rolls-Royce is teeing up an all-wheel-drive dreadnought that will be the ultimate vehicular lust object for anyone who occasionally takes a Holland & Holland side-by-side out for a bit of sporting.

Can we argue about whether they're the right product for certain manufacturers? Sure, I suppose. We can also argue about whether all personal vehicles should be painted International Safety Orange. Does it matter to anyone? C'mon. We live in a world where BMW can market a slopebacked four-door-SUV as a coupe with a straight corporate face and get away with it. Nothing matters.

So I'm done fighting against crossovers. People want to buy 'em, that's fine. There is increasingly little point in trying to stake a moral claim for the elegant logic of a good sedan or the soul-lifting vivaciousness of a convertible when The People continue to just do what they do regardless.

And that's great! Folks aren't dumb. Solid attributes like cargo space and all-wheel-drive (which may not be totally necessary, but let's let it ride) are desirable. And in these weirdly anxious times, something that gives off a sense of strength and security can't be all bad. A good crossover does an impressive job crawling up Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

I'm not totally immune anyway. We do outdoorsy things, so the ability to chase down a rough dirt road would help sometimes. And like basically every other human being in the industrial world I've got a soft spot for Jeeps. I can totally see getting a good old YJ sometime soon.

So yeah, crossovers? Okay. Good, even. Let it be. Someone wants to make them and people want to buy them and it's a good business decision, sounds fine.

Actually, let's go further: Crossovers are an important part of a good product lineup for everyone in the business. They're trendy! They're expressive! They're practical! They're profitable! Everyone loves them except for sniveling weirdos who read too many car magazines in the 1980s! So: Perhaps every automotive nameplate should have at least one soft-roading utility cruiser in its lineup.

Trick is to have it match the manufacturer's priorities and identity. Even the goddamn X6 has a fair bit of BMW in it, what with the motors and however they figured out the handling.

So who needs a crossover in their lineup, and what should/will it be like?

To that effect, a few predictions:

Ferrari: Spare us; we all know it's happening. The question is how, and the answer will be something like: The silhouette is a heavily tweaked derivative of the GTC4Lusso with an extra pair of doors and a more upright seating position; think Levante, but longer. Add larger fenders covering Z-rated Pirelli Scorpions. The V12 is a given; the all-wheel-drive system is purpose-built, fully integrated with a four-wheel-steering system derived from the 812SF and the newest generation of high-performance traction and stability control, and quietly shares a few pieces with the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The steering-wheel manettino now has "sabbia" and "roccia" settings just in case you miss the point. In testing it will lap Fiorano three seconds faster than an F50, accompanied by an unusual-for-a-Ferrari degree of body motion; after achieving this feat the test driver will disembark and promptly puke his breakfast out all over pit lane both from sheer horror at what he has done and from severe motion sickness. No list price is officially published, but it's rumored that the slightly larger than usual fender shields are a $6,580 option selected by each buyer literally to the person.

Aston Martin: Andy Palmer's group of happy warriors has done away with the flirting and flat-out said they're going to take a run at this market segment, and it's not difficult to see how they could get there: Take the Rapide line which is underselling anyway, square up the hindquarters and add a liftgate, finesse in some fender extensions and rework the suspension for a bit more travel. Float the cheerful promise to (eventually) offer a a manual transmission, which exactly no one will buy but that's how they roll and it's still cool to know it's (theoretically) there.

Lotus: The simplify-and-add-lightness folks have also made their intention to go crossover public, but one understands they'll be coming from a different perspective. Instead of a family mover, a Lotus SUV would essentially be a modernized first-gen Toyota 4Runner prepped as a desert prerunner - all stripped-down low-mass minimalism and snorting chainsaw engine and switch-flick manual transmission and harelike agility and unbelievable fookin'-hell/yeeeeeeehaw fun. Everyone who drives it will absolutely love it, they will sell twenty a month, and it will be pulled from the US market after three years amid mumbling about some previously unannounced DOT waiver expiring.

McLaren: The crew from Woking has sworn they won't go there, but why not? Bruce's New Zealand is sort of a crossoverish kinda place, so there's some thematic ground for a foundation here. And the spec practically writes itself: Reinforced carbon-fiber monocell with four butterfly doors (quasi-suicide rear-hinged in back for extra sci-fi effect). Flat-crank turbo V8 in high-torque tune with revised ratios in the dual-clutch gearbox. A suspension that combines bionic responsiveness with a Citroën DS-like ability to float above it all. It will be severely fast, it will be a high-water mark for materials and performance technology in a crossover, and - owing to McLaren's well-documented dislike of locking differentials - it will be completely useless on anything slipperier than a snowy driveway.

Pagani: If Horacio's Magic Shop has sort of taken the place of an increasingly mainstream** Lamborghini among the affluent and extroverted, then why not chase the entire range of possibilities? Yes! - nuovo LM002! Take the running gear from an AMG G65 and wrap it in Martian canyon-racer bodywork.  Note: Cargo space may be compromised (and heated) by the retention of the trademark four-pipe center exhaust.

Caterham: They've made their name perpetuating one British icon; why not add another? Introducing the Caterham Series IIA, an updated but not debased version of the 1961-1971 Land Rover 88. The chassis is the traditional steel ladder updated (but not too much) with a few CAD calculations and the aluminium body panels are done in-house alongside the Seven's skins. All the rugged glory and mountain-goat adroitness of one of Britain's most famous and well-loved vehicles is available new again! Kit available for $54,700; bring your own Ford Zeta 2.0 and T5 gearbox.

Don't you feel better too?

*: I cannot believe I actually used this sentence.
**: Relatively, I guess.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Touring through the family tree

If for some unspeakable reason Porsche decided to ditch the whole carmaking thing and go into the foodstuffs business, they could probably do fantastically well producing upscale ice cream. Not only do the potential senses of gratification and indulgence delivered by a Badener riff on Ben & Jerry's or, maybe more accurately, New York's cherished Il Labratorio del Gelato align nicely with their current attitude, but they have become the absolute masters at spinning off a seemingly endless variety of pleasantly differentiated product from the same basis.

The newest flavor is of course the 911T, announced Sunday night amid a fair bit of historically-tinged hype. Having taken the lesson of the 911R's triumphant popular reception to heart, the theme is "driver engagement": start with the standard base-model 911, add PASM and drop the suspension 20mm; gearing is shorter and there's a traditional mechanical limited-slip differential; the sport exhaust system is standard; the rear glass and soundproofing are lighter, and the Sport Chrono system is available (it's not on the standard Carrera) in "weight-optimized" form. Interior trim is revised; the pretentious but cute fabric door-release pulls are back. The rear seat has been left out, as has the PCM infotainment system; they can both be replaced at no cost.

All this nets a weight loss of a whole whopping 20 kilograms - 44 pounds - over a comparably equipped standard base 911 Carrera and a MSRP of $102,100 plus delivery, a full $11,000 up from that base Carrera and closing in quickly on the Carrera S.

And this is where I start to get a little confused about what Porsche is trying to say here. The intention to sell this as a stripped-down, more elemental car isn't exactly matched by what has been presented.

As always with 911s, we have history upon which to reflect (with Porsche's active encouragement, in this case). The first 911T - Porsche says that T is for Touring, more about enjoyable driving than racing - was introduced in 1968 as the revised and somewhat decontented Euro-market base model. They came over here in that same market position in 1969, and they were universally loved for their good manners and all-around drivability, especially compared to the more temperamental MFI-fueled 911E and 911S.

And yes, you could tune them a bit if you wanted. Still can.
And doing this makes sense, because - as noted in that video - the 911T wasn't just the lightest but also the simplest of its contemporary 911 variants. Standard gearbox was a four-speed through 1971, standard wheels were rather narrow chromed steelies. The 911T that was produced in 1973 was the first Porsche with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection - again, not for maximum power but for improved everyday drivability. They were the truest thematic continuation of the 356.

So step forward almost sixty years and consider what Porsche has wrought with this iteration of the name.
The corporate tagline is, somewhat predictably, "less is more." Problem is, there's not a whole lot less here. Yes, the lighter glass (which frankly never sounds like a good idea on a street car) and the trimmed soundproofing (which frankly is rarely a bad idea anywhere lately, although turbo cars by nature don't make the most of it) add a bit of brochure attitude, as does the deletion of the rear seats and sound system - the latter of which will likely be spec'd in a huge majority of produced Ts. But then the sport exhaust system and the revised PASM are installed, and Sport Chrono and the GT3's rear-axle steering rack shows up as options. And unlike similar previous exercises (the Boxster Spyder comes to mind) the active aero remains. This is not really a minimalist machine.

But leave that aside, string it all together without the marketing spin, and it starts to make some sense: this is supposed to be the all-chassis version of the 911, more a backroad runner or trackday special capable enough to render the S's 50 additional horses superfluous.

Interesting, but that's not less - and it doesn't make it a T. If anything, it sounds a lot like a base-powerplant version of the Korb-of-goodies approach that is the GTS.

Really, the base 911 Carrera could be called the T going forward and it would make perfect sense, fitting the letter back into its traditional position at the base of the line with the sense of conceptual continuity - a wonderfully enjoyable all-around touring car without too many Le Mans pretensions - fully intact. Maybe it would even grant that model a bit more dignity and identity than it currently possesses as the mere entry-level 911 Carrera (which is not a bad thing, of course, but still).

So granted the presented version of the 911T isn't really a 911T. What is it?

Dispense with the "less is more" sales line. Yes, weight is down (marginally) and the reduced-content interior has a certain vibe, but this is not another 356 Speedster. And then there's the inclusion of all the suspension goodies and the airport gearing and the sport exhaust. No extra power, but plenty of implied handling and responsiveness.

By my understanding Porsche picked the wrong historical reference. This isn't a 911T; it's a 911 Club Sport.
One of Porsche's earlier efforts at pushing back against a growing rep for making plush luxury cars, the late-1980s Club Sport was a 911 Carrera with a batch of weight-saving measures (no radio, no A/C, no passenger sun visor), a bit of engine fiddling, and the upgraded sport suspension, although in that case they kept the MSRP even with the standard Carrera. (The model was an absolute disaster saleswise and consequently is now a prized collectible exemplifying all that is true about Porsche and tradition and etc. Kinda like an E30 M3 except more so.)

And that's what we have here: the standard car optimized for canyon blasts and track days for those who don't want to go full GT3. In that it completely makes sense, and it should have been presented as such.

I'm not even sure how much a truly much-less-is-supposedly-more hyperminimalist 911 would work anyway. Porsche is not Lotus. Porsche has always been at their best when their cars hit a distinct blend of well-managed raciness and everyday usability and high design, like an Eames Aluminum Group executive chair with a tendency towards oversteer. And in an era with heavy regulations and even heavier consumer demands, the idea of recreating something as elemental as a 1973 Carrera RS resolves to daydreaming. I suppose a properly motivated someone could buy a new 911 and strip it out and tune it to the edge of street-registration permissiveness, but that's more art project than manufactured product, and the GT3 covers that territory anyway.

So what is in a name, anyway? And does it mean something when such an identity-sensitive company  starts to blur an identity? Taken on its own terms, the 911T looks to be a welcome (if smallish) shift away from a pure-numbers game and back towards sharper street drivability. But summoning history as a tool means accepting everything that goes with references and associations, and the car deserves to be called what it is. Odds on that in this market the Club Sport name would have worked much better this time, too.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Rapid Rental Review: Peugeot 108

Bon jour. Photos by the author.
The vehicle: Automobiles Peugeot's smallest offering; platform and major components shared with the Citroën C1 and Toyota Aygo, all built on the same assembly line in the Czech Republic. 1.0-liter inline-3, 5-speed manual transmission. Rented from Avis at the Aix-en-Provence train station. (Renting a car in Provence was expensive compared to Paris, at least on Bastille Day weekend.) Unsure about trim level but included such hedonistic excesses as power steering, remote locks, air conditioning, and apparently some form of Bluetooth phone mating.

The setting: One day buzzing around a tinder-dry Provence from Aix to the monastery at Saint-Remy where Vincent van Gogh spent his most insanely productive period to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for God's own Provencal lunch to the cloister and lavender fields outside Gordes, which was not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of this ridiculously lovely and charming corner of the world.

Driving: Start with one absolutely crucial measurement: Curb weight for a 108 is around 1850 pounds. That sub-Lotus Elise mass defines the dynamics of the car.

The foreign press, more attuned to this kind of machine, considers the 108 to be a bit soft and reserved in keeping with its semi-upscale nameplate. For an American driver willing to take the right approach, though, the 108 is a riot. You drive it like a rally car, foot often clamped to the floor out of necessity, reveling in the responsiveness that comes with not having to manage another couple thousand pounds of body weight. Driving it is like using a really good medium-sized kitchen knife: balanced and precise and direct without feeling excessively edgy. Typical front-drive understeer only becomes somewhat apparent when diving for a late waitgoHERE 90-degree turn to some side road. You can place it far over on the lane-and-a-half-wide roads with casual confidence when making room for oncoming traffic, and the tight dimensions are a godsend in tourist-crammed parking lots and undersized street parking spaces.

All this and the suspension tuning maintains the civilized French-car tradition of not beating you up or being irritatingly jouncy.
The one-liter three-cylinder was an unruly little thing. The triple's vibes led me to think it was a diesel at first until I paid attention to the "95 Sans Plomb" sticker by the gas door; it'll rev, making an endearing growl in the process, but you have to stay on it; the torque curve felt anything but linear, with an occasional and strange on/off-throttle minisurge. Refinement issues aside, one is faced with the (inevitable, severe) limitations that derive from the Toyota-designed motor displacing all of 998 cc and producing 68 bhp, even in a featherweight like this. Batting around Provence's austerely picturesque hills required constant and attentive shifting, often into third and occasionally second on some not-that-terribly-steep climbs.

Such histrionics were thankfully aided by a five-speed gearbox that was a joy to use, with a lightswitch shift action through a slightly-too-narrow gate and a clutch light enough for your cat to work the pedal.

Wonderful One uneasily noted that the 108 didn't feel as stable and secure as the 500x on the autoroute, which makes sense given their size and weight disparities, but even in the midst of a midsummer mistral it tracked reasonably well. What was similar to the 500x was a realistic top cruising speed that matched the posted 130km/h, although (again) the two couldn't feel more different in the process - whereas the 500x had decent torque at lower speeds and just seemed to run out of drive at 130, the 108 would eventually work its way up through increasing difficulty pushing the air aside to a point of perceivable strain and a sense that that suspension tuning was approaching its effective limits.
That lightweight vibe was apparent in more than just nimble handling. Close a door with any force and you get a hollow metallic pung in response; the all-glass hatch dropped down with a simple smack against its rubber seal. I will admit that being inside something this light and small brought up a shadowy sense of vulnerability, but Euro-NCAP crash test scores are actually fairly decent.

Sitting: The silly-small external dimensions (137 inches overall, a full foot less than a Mitsubishi Mirage) belie a comfortable and accommodating pair of front seats and a rear seat that is actually usable if a front-seat occupant is of slightly less than average height.
For a definitively cheap set of wheels (as of this writing base price for a 5-door 108 Active in France equates to something well under $14,000) the 108 looks and feels like a quality piece of work. Switchgear is well-crafted and works smoothly. Seats are pleasantly unremarkable. There is no effort to hide the fact that the plastics are plastic, but they also look substantial and well-fitted. The air conditioner isn't overpowering, but on a harsh July day it kept up with the sun and heat.

Peugeot markets the 108 as a city car with the attendant understanding that someone using a city car usually doesn't require much cargo space. There's enough room for two weekend bags or a medium-sized stop at a farmer's market, but this is not a heavy hauler.

Other gripes? Few and minor. None of the cupholders could securely manage our one-and-a-half-liter bottles of Volvic, which seems like a frustrating oversight in a French car. A tachometer would have been nice given the necessity of abusing the gearbox to get the most out of the motor. Was there a trip computer? It would've been nice to fiddle with a trip computer to get an accurate fuel economy reading and so on. (Yes, I'm stretching here.)

Concluding: There was a certain point about halfway through our day - aiming down another narrow road between walls of trees, lining up another blind bend - where I realized I was making a wish list for the car, a short set of if-onlys: If only it had another cylinder, if only it was just slightly better balanced, if only it had a tachometer....

This is not a complaint. At all. When I drove the 500x, I didn't want to fix anything; I just wanted a different car. The 108 was so essentially good - and so much fun in its manic-but-mannered way - from the beginning that you just wanted to make it a little bit better. It's so close to some kind of esoteric ideal, especially an ideal created by someone who has seen too many photos of gaudily-painted hatchback Peugeots blasting through forests and up mountains over the past thirty-something years.

Taken on its own terms the 108 is a joy, proof that light and direct is all kinds of multifaceted gratification. No, it wouldn't work very well on the American market; the whimsy of constant foot-to-the-floor driving with the tiny motor would probably wear thin in a hurry, and I'll admit that it actually is too small if the intention is to regularly carry more than two people at a time. Eventually those personal-preference if-onlys add up to something like the 208, which lines up nicely against the likes of the Fit or the Fiesta - all of which are still just extensions of this idea instead of its antagonists.

Not that this will work in the first place in a market where Ford is apparently dropping said model due to a heartbreaking lack of sales, but that's a shopworn rant by now. Again, take it on its own terms: the 108 makes for some very enjoyable lessons about priorities in driving and life.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Rapid Rental Review: Fiat 500x MultiJet


All photos by the author.
The vehicle: Fiat's cuddly-looking small crossover, built in Italy on the same line with the equally cartoonish Jeep Renegade. 1.6 (I think) MultiJet diesel powerplant, six-speed manual transmission. Rented from Europcar in Gare du Nord train station, Paris. (Note: If you're renting from someone other than Sixt there, ask me for directions. Rental desks are impossible to find for the uninitiated. Also, this is what I got when I reserved a "Fiat 500 or similar"; I expected "similar" to mean size, not model name.)

The setting: Road trip from Paris to Tours, with a side excursion to a conveniently-positioned Le Mans, to check out châteaus and get our fill of debatably functional pre-Enlightenment furniture.

Driving: I strongly encourage everyone who mindlessly repeats the rote dogma about how everyone would/should buy a car (preferably a wagon) with a diesel motor and manual transmission to give this thing a try. The torque curve is more farm implement than road car: a decent slug of thrust right off idle which quickly goes flat as revs climb to even moderate numbers. There's not much sense in running it above 2500 rpm (redline is 4500), and that ironically narrow power band gets frustrating in city traffic where the driver needs to shift almost as often as James Garner at Monaco in Grand Prix. After a while one tends to hold it a gear higher than usual, try to lean on the torque, and hope for the best around the epidemic spread of roundabouts that dot most two-lanes and small town streets.

Very happy otherwise rolling along on b-roads with 70 or 90 kilometer-per-hour speed limits, decent on autoroutes limited to 130 (observation: French drivers are quite respectful of speed limits), strained trying for literally anything over that number. The stop-start system did what it was supposed to do without drawing attention to itself short of the noisy crank to start the diesel; the defeat button is prominently placed but there was no reason not to leave it on.

The shifter is basically easy but has no feel or finesse - you glonk it from gate to gate. Glonking it into sixth requires a bit of annoying extra effort to keep it from slipping back into fourth, kind of like a reverse CAGS. Six gears is about two too many here; the motor happily tolerates skips, shifting 1-2-4-6 or 1-3-5-6 or whatever, with the intermediate gears mostly in play to run the motor in the narrow range that keeps the fussy upshift/downshift light content at moderate speeds. The clutch in this one wasn't as smooth as I would have liked.

Handling is typical crossover blah, slightly top-heavy and deliberate and numb if not outright awkward. Didn't try anything ambitious due to traffic/road conditions and the presence of an ambitious-driving-disliking passenger, but have zero reason to expect anything stimulating as speeds increase. (We did run the length of the Mulsanne Straight, but Joest is perhaps understandably still not returning my emails.) Brakes are surprisingly good: plenty of stopping power, nice modulation.

Switching between Eco and Sport on the drive mode selector between the front seats produced trivial results; didn't see the point in messing with the off-road setting in our travels when the furthest we went off-road was a curbhopping U-turn when we missed the turn to the Mulsanne and the occasional dirt parking lot. Fuel economy seemed at first to be alarmingly bad for a small diesel motor, but the ticking of the fuel gauge was more an indicator of the 500x's small tank than its large thirst. I didn't keep accurate track of mileage, but over the course of about 360 miles/600 kilometers we went through slightly more than one 48-liter/12-and-change-gallon tankful.

Sitting: Driver's seat was a tad narrow for your somewhat ursine author; Wonderful One claimed to be quite comfortable. Okay visibility for everything except backing up where the reverse sensors proved invaluable (and even then having a spotter helped). Seating position is typical crossover, slightly high but not Kenworthish, with a mild step up.

The steering wheel was covered in a downright odd grade of very soft, almost glovelike leather unrepeated in the interior. Flip side is that the stalk controls felt cheap and ill-fitted.

I'd like to have a long conversation with the staff that designed the instrument panel, who apparently prioritized anything other than what one usually looks for in an instrument panel:


That circular center display can be configured through a bizarre variety of settings using the switches on the left steering wheel spoke - longitudinal and lateral g-meters? - but sidelines the speedo and tach to undeserved margin positions. A speedo repeat with huge numbers can be displayed among what feels like several dozen options, but something more like Audi's virtual dash display or even the arrangement in the Camaro would be welcome.

The air conditioner was simply great, with output that approached classic GM pre-R134 levels of frost and controls that weren't too terribly fiddly (although aiming for the right button could require a few seconds of eyes-off-the-road hunting).

The cabin's general comfort and room belies the luggage situation:
All clumsy amateurish color manipulation by the author as well, but at least you get more detail this way.
That's two overhead-bin-sized suitcases and one knockoff Israeli paratrooper briefcase/man purse, and that's it - the baggage compartment is essentially full. You can carry a couple pizzas on top, but anything more cubic is in a bad situation. No idea what you're supposed to do if you have one normal suitcase per passenger who may be sitting in the other available seats; turn our two suitcases sideways and move the man bag to the cabin and you might get a third in there, but Fiat's fondness for stylish curves over sensible packaging means it'll be uneasily close - and forget getting four to fit.

Shutting that rear hatch betrayed a slightly shoddy feel, as if the fasteners there weren't totally holding together. Our 500x turned over 30,000 km while we had it and the finish seemed to be mostly good otherwise, but that weird not-so-little sense of flimsiness makes me wonder about the long-term durability situation.

Concluding: I'm pressed to think of anything exciting or alluring about those two days with the 500x. It did what we needed it to do without meaningful complaint, but without really adding anything distinctly positive - or even distinct - to the experience.

After a certain point I admitted to myself that I would have been happier driving the Jetta. It would have worked at least as well as, and in many cases better than, the Fiat. And this comparison would doubtless hold for any other good small sedan: a Mazda3, a Focus, a Civic, an Impreza. In everything from dynamics to accommodations to build quality, the 500x struggled to make a case for itself.

At a risk of overgeneralization, let's extend this out: if this is at all representative, why do people buy small crossovers? Aside from possible all-weather considerations (which, in my experience seeing numerous ditched CR-Vs around Ithaca, reflect expectations which reality does not match) they're supposed to be capable medium-sized vehicles with plenty of space and comfort. Are they really? Marketing hype and fashion aside, I wonder if a literally measured appreciation would show some pretty harsh truths to the mindset powering the crossover crush.