Sunday, February 19, 2017

One Day, Three Test Drives: Driving the Models We Missed

Fiat 500 Abarth Interior

While we get to drive a host of new cars, many aren't necessarily the spec, we'd personally buy. Sometimes we want a lower trim level, a different engine, and always the manual transmission option. So every now and then my curiosity takes me to a dealership to seek out some of these vehicles. Yesterday was one of those days.

2017 Jeep Renegade Sport in Anvil2017 Jeep Renegade Sport

If we were going to buy a Jeep Renegade, it'd need to have a manual transmission and AWD. And for that to happen, we'd need the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo engine. While we reviewed AWD versions of the 2015 Renegade Sport and a Renegade Trailhawk, both had the 2.4-liter and nine-speed automatic. 

A recent curiosity had me looking at Auto Trader for the 1.4t, AWD Renegades with the six-speed manual and low and behold, a local Jeep dealer had this combination on the lot. It was, however, one of these oddball rigs that had no air conditioning (yes, Renegades can still be had without A/C). I have a feeling it'll sit on the lot for some time until they blow it out at around $15,000. 

Anyway, the turbo Renegade reminded me a lot of our old Suzuki SX4s, albeit with more horsepower. In fact, the 1.4-t Renegade makes 160 hp and a stout 184 lbs/ft of torque (the 2010 SX4 made 150 hp and 140 lbs/ft of torque). The six-speed manual felt much like the one found in the Fiat Dodge Dart (same transmission?); a bit sloppy with fairly long, somewhat imprecise throws. Power was ample but not neck-snapping, but the transmission made it more fun than driving 2.4-liter-powered Renegades. Handling and such was just like the other Sport we drove. 

The test drive reaffirmed that if we were going to get a Renegade, it'd have a manual and a turbo. And yes, a Renegade would still be on top of our subcompact AWD shopping list. 

2015 Fiat 500 Abarth

2015 Fiat 500 Abarth

We drove the Fiat 500c Abarth convertible back in in 2013. This little ragtop won us over with its diminutive size, scrappy personality, and amazing exhaust note.

I had only driven the convertible Abarth and automatic-equipped 500s, never a hardtop Abarth. My local Fiat studio had three used Abarths, all with about 10,000 miles on the odometer. My test drive was in this '15 with 10,000 miles on it, cloth seats, and no sunroof.

All 500 models have a slightly odd upright seating position and quirky ergonomics. But once I twisted that key and heard the amazing exhaust note again, I quickly remembered why this car was so much fun. 

The '15 had a different gauge cluster than the '13 we previously reviewed; it's all digital now. I'm not sure I liked it better or worse. Then again, I was never a huge fan of the 500's gauge cluster to begin with. Regardless, the Abarth is a kick in the pants to drive. For all that's awkward about it, there's something so right. The weird gauges, the odd ergonomics, the somewhat cheap interior are offset by the amazing exhaust, the torque-vectoring differential, and quick handling. And since this was a coupe vs. the convertible, you can't hear the exhaust quite as well. You can, however, see behind you—unlike the 500c, which had a tiny rear glass opening in the top. And if the top was down? You can't see anything, since it blocks sight from the rearview mirror. 

I have to admit, I'm totally in love with the Celeste Blu (vintage light blue) color on brand new Abarths, but don't think I could stomach the $23,000–$27,000 price. But for $14,900, you can buy a lightly used 500 Abarth in whatever color is used on the lot. Yes, I would still buy an Abarth. 

2016 Smart Fortwo Passion

2016 Smart Fortwo Passion w/Manual Transmission

When the revised Smart debuted as a 2016, the company also said you could get a five-speed manual transmission mated to its 1.0-liter three-cylinder turbo mill, which is mounted behind you and powers the rear wheels. Of course, the version we got to review last year was the dual-clutch automatic. And while it's a billion times better than the older Smarts, I longed to drive the manual. Over the year, I've kept an eye on Smart of Portland's inventory, and never saw a manual in the lineup until this week. I had to drive it. 

Sure enough, they had an orange and black 2016 Smart Fortwo Passion with the manual. Somewhat ironically and embarrassingly, I happened to be wearing orange and black. And yes, the salesman noticed. I swear it was happenstance. 

When I opened the car's door, my retinas were nearly burned out by the blazing orange and black interior. However, I loved it. I also loved the transmission in the Fortwo. While the manual shifter had long throws, the gearbox was precise and solid, making the Fortwo a hoot do drive. There's quite a bit of mid-range punch to move the 2,000 lb. lilliputian. Clutch uptake is a bit vague, but once you found the sweet spot, shifts were smooth and easy. I didn't think this car would be so much fun to pilot, but it truly is like a street-legal go kart. The sticker was a tick over $17,000, but Smart is offering 0% financing for 72 months plus $1,000 cash back. That's probably still more than I'd spend on it. Maybe $12,000, but not $16K.

Smart announced last week that it is discontinuing its gas versions for 2017 in favor of electric versions. It's too bad, since the new Smart is so good. I'm glad I got the chance to drive the manual Fortwo before they go extinct. 

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