Shedding a Jaguar for a FIAT 500. Really? Yes Really.

It all started with a visit to my local SMOG Test facility with my Jaguar XJ6. It would end driving away with a new FIAT 500…

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My beloved 1995 Jaguar XJ6, which I had for nearly 10 years and 100,000 miles of dutiful service–wholesaled from mom and dad when they got their new XJ8–would not pass the California emissions test. I imported it here, on a cross country journey from my home in Chicago when I moved here 19 months ago. California made something very clear to me: the state was not interested in my continuing to drive it. As time wore on, growing in its 160,000 mile glory, the catalytic converters and the surrounding sensors were shot. Needless to say driving on expired Illinois plates for a year was rather uncomfortable and really took the enjoyment of the car away from me.

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It was time. The car had too many issues. Rust was now beginning to devour the rear quarter panels from all those salty Chicago winter roads. The driver’s seat was well worn and had developed a hole–that just got worse as I tried many jury-rigs to repair it. The headliner was stapled into place as it would fall into the driver compartment regularly. Whats worse, every time you pulled off the line, the catalytic converters would groan as exhaust flooded them. The absolute best milage was about 25 per gallon which during most traffic situations here was unobtainable.

Perhaps I will be at Barrett-Jackson in 2040 and see this type of car go for all kinds of money, but for now, as it sat, it was going to cost more to repair than it was worth–Kelly Blue Book $2500. It was a nice car–fast, good looking, and still made the automotive neophytes out there go, “ooh, Jaguar”. But it was time.

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In the process of being an automotive journalist, I was able to drive a number of cars in 2012. One stuck out. It was fun, inexpensive, great on gas and was nimble enough to navigate all the aforementioned neophytes in California traffic. The FIAT 500. The kicker was my visit to the press preview of the Los Angeles International Auto Show, where I watched the unveiling of a whole new series of 500s by Chrysler and FIAT executives and some supermodel named Catrinel Menghia.

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It was just a fun car with a fun inspired campaign. The car itself is a legacy model that is well represented by the character “Luigi” in the movie CARS. Further, the legend of ABARTH and its storied racing history was appealing too. I had been to the point of driving my wife’s Jeep as the Jag might have been a one-way ticket to the Orange County Jail. But she needs that SUV to haul around our 3 daughters to school and assorted activities–It was time.

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So begins the fun of shopping for a car–not just driving other people’s cars around. Like most people today, I went to Google and typed in the words “FIAT 500”. What would follow was a purchasing experience steeped in tenacity, and service to match.

The google search took me to my local FIAT Studio in Costa Mesa, called Orange Coast FIAT. I began to browse the choices then of course before discovering the special “internet pricing” required my basic information–which I gave.

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Within 24 hours, I was called by Tommaso Fanelli, the internet specialist at OC FIAT. Fitting name for a guy selling a Little Italian car, eh? I told him about me, why I was interested in the car and what I had for a trade. Tommaso is a very enthusiastic guy. His enthusiasm for the product he sells is contagious. His tenacity to sell you a car is on point–but not bothersome. I enjoyed our chats.

I made Tommaso an offer on one of the cars that I saw on the site–without ever seeing or driving it. Needless to say, we did not get to the deal–and the busy-ness of the holidays began.

During this time I drove the Jag, expired plates and all, and hoped some quick fixes under the hood might get the car to squeak by at the SMOG test. I put in a new set of plugs, cleaned the airbox, replaced the air filter, changed the oil, inflated the now bald tires properly, added some fuel injector cleaner and headed off to the test station. Sadly as I was ready to go, the check engine light came on–probably a sensor or something stupid. Because of the age of the car–1995–no one had a plug-in solution to look at the codes.

A couple of expletives and sighs later, it was back to the OC FIAT website… Almost immediately, I am greeted with an email and phone call from a female representative–and I make the appointment. I did cite that I was working previously with Tommaso, and was told he will be waiting for me when I arrive. One last drive down the 405 with “Mrs. Hobbins”, my affectionate name for the pretty green Kitty Cat–as she always reminded me of a proper British lady.

I have bought many cars in my life. Despite being a professional in the automotive industry, the dealer experience, was not one of my favorite aspects. Period. Like most, despite being a car enthusiast, always saw the car deal as a shady transaction–one that made me feel dirty afterwards. Recent years and many research projects by JD Power and Associates may have changed the experience largely, but in the end, you still have to get to the deal. It is the job of the salesman to get as much as possible for the car and the buyer to try to get the most affordable solution to meet his needs. It is still not for the squeamish.

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The OC FIAT “Studio” as it is called, was less like a car dealership and more like a trendy retail shop. Pretty girls greet you and move you through the initial process including a test drive. To say the least, I was very charmed by Brittany Alexander and Catrina Ratanapratum, who would talk to me about the product–then after the purchase, ultimately take me through all the features. They were more than just a pretty face, they knew the product–and liked what they were doing. Their enthusiasm was apparent.

I drove a couple. The 2013 500 Sport, unlike the model I wrote about last year, now had a turbocharger and flexed a whopping 135hp. It was quick as I ran through the gears of the manual 5-speed. It had alloy wheels and a spoiler. Nice. But not quite the new “project car” I had in mind.

Part of my research on the car was in the aftermarket. There were lots of tuner parts and many more in near-finished development. I didn’t want the factory bells and such. What I wanted was a completely base model–a blank canvass of sorts. Something I could add and tune and develop–and naturally write about my adventures in doing so. So after a test in the base “POP” model which still had 101hp, the Bluetooth connectivity, a decent stereo and comfortable seating, I gave the thumbs up and said those immortal and cherished words a salesman loves to hear: “I’ll take it”– But we still had to get to the deal.

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From the stand point of getting to the deal: including dealer prep, set up, bluetooth connection, licence, registration and that final contract, I went through a number of actual negotiations. But through it all–and I am not the easiest car-buying customer, from my understanding of the sales process–it was rather painless. We reached a dollar amount on my trade, the price of the car. Usually this is where things get stressful. When the money and keys change hands. I love to write, but have never been a fan of paperwork. Fortunately Patty Najera, the Studio’s Finance Director, who writes the contracts, was very thorough and detailed–explaining all the process and putting me at ease.

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It was clear that not only did OC FIAT want to make a deal, they clearly wanted me to be happy. Jon Gray, who owns the dealership and runs the day to day operation, was part of the deal. He made me comfortable–he wanted to sell a car–but he also wanted me to be satisfied. It is fair to say, I didn’t pull any punches on him either. He actually at one point ended up reducing the original agreed price slightly and dropping dealer prep from the bill when I pointed out what I felt to be an inconsistency in the agreement. For a car dealer, he struck me as a stand-up and fair man–something that I have not felt about most I have dealt with.

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I am now 2500 miles down the road and have enjoyed the car immensely. I no longer get frustrated by steadily rising gas prices–the nearly 40MPG has saved me a ton. It is a kick to drive. The only caveat so far is the distance to empty reading which flat lines at bout 35 miles to go–this drives me nuts and scared the hell out of me while driving a long distance between gas stations in the desert on the way to Scottsdale. I get many comments and compliments–people want to check it out in parking lots and gas stops–which I am always “car-guy” happy to oblige. But for all the comments I have received, nothing hit home more than Motor Mavens Editor Supremo, Antonio Alvendia’s, comment when I first drove the 500 into my life: “this will be a great car for you: it has license plates!”

Stay tuned at this FIAT 500 POP model evolves into a Sleeper ABARTH right here on these pages…

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