Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why I Bought a Volkswagen and not a FIAT 500.

I've spent a fair amount of time in Italy over the last ten years of my life, both visiting for short periods and actually living there for longer periods. Since my first visit when I was in high school in 2000, I've always loved the diminutive, iconic FIAT 500. This car, the "topolino" (little mouse), was extremely popular in Italy and throughout Europe in the 1950's, 60's, and 70's. There are still quite a few of them around; one will spot several of them whilst ambling around any European town. I love the classic design, the extremely compact dimensions, and the rainbow of different colors they appear in.

In 2007, 50 years after the release of the original 500, FIAT released a new version of the car, much like VW had done with the Beetle or BMW with the Mini. I first saw the new 500 when I was in Rome in 2008, and I wanted one. Eventually FIAT's business deal with Chrysler meant that 500s would be produced for the US market in 2011. I closely followed the development of this car and hoped to have one when they were available. Not the standard car, actually; the FIAT 500 Abarth was the car I really wanted. Unfortunately this meant waiting even longer; the Abarth models are just now being manufactured, and as of March 2012, none has been delivered to an owner. Still, patience is a virtue, and I could at least see the light at the end of the tunnel. Once I found out that dealers were taking Abarth orders, I went to the nearest FIAT studio and put a deposit on my very own Abarth, which would be built for me and delivered within the next several months. I was very excited, probably more excited than I've ever been about a new car (and I was pretty excited when I bought my 2004 Mazda RX-8.)


Two weeks ago I cancelled my Abarth order and had my deposit refunded. One week ago I bought a 2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI. I'm still trying to figure out exactly how I went from putting money down on a car that I've wanted for the better part of 3 years to actually buying a car that I've never really been interested in at any time in my life.

It went something like this: I've been on a documentary-watching kick recently, thanks to Netflix' large library of instant films and the fact that their service isn't blocked at work. One particularly enlightening documentary almost single-handedly changed my mind about what car I would buy, a 2008 film called GasHole. Basically, this movie reminded me of two things that I already knew, namely that we need to stop using petroleum products, and oil companies are literally the most evil entities on the face of the Earth. I'm not a conspiracy nut, but the documentary pretty convincingly demonstrates that oil companies have gone as far as killing enterprising individuals who invented devices which dramatically improved fuel economy in combustion engines. Of course they have; the world has a finite amount of oil, so the companies who control it need to make as much money from it as possible before it's gone. Unfortunately that means that they put profit before everything else, including the environment and the financial well-being of consumers. They can charge whatever they'd like for their product, because we all need it to live our lives. After watching GasHole I pretty much decided that my opportunity to start doing my part to improve this situation was now.

I looked at the alternative options, which were basically hybrids and electric cars. Unfortunately hybrids are all completely uninspired mongrels which put efficiency ahead of the driving experience. The only affordable fairly sporty hybrid is the Honda CR-Z, which is not impressively fuel-efficient or fast, so in my opinion it doesn't do anything well. It also looks pretty wonky, which apparently is some sort of requisite criterion for hybrid vehicles. Unfortunately there really aren't any affordable hybrid vehicles available for the driving enthusiast, so hopefully that problem will be rectified in the coming years. The second option, electric, is probably the way to go for everyone in the future. Zero petroleum required, and the emissions will be reduced as the power grid becomes cleaner. I'd be happy to drive an electric car, but there are even fewer choices here than with hybrids. Only the Nissan Leaf is an affordable zero-emissions vehicle at the moment. Again, not really a drivers' car, so not something I'd be interested in.

The situation seemed pretty hopeless, until I found a third option - diesel. Most Americans have a pretty skewed and negative opinion of diesel technology. We associate it with trucks, which are massive, soot-barfing abominations. Only because I've spent so much time in Europe, where diesel engines are as common in cars as gasoline engines, do I realize the benefits of diesel-powered consumer automobiles. Diesel engines are 30-40% more efficient than gasoline engines by their design, which uses higher compression ratios in the cylinders. The engines are also simpler, built stronger, and produce more torque, which is actually more important for moving cars forward than horsepower is. Newer diesels have roughly the same emissions as comparable gas engines, so they're not the loud, filthy things they once were. More importantly, nearly all diesel engines can run on alternative fuels. The original diesel engine was actually designed to run on peanut oil, not petroleum-distilled diesel fuel. This means that a diesel automobile can run without petroleum products at all, something which hybrids can't even do.

Still, poor public awareness of diesel engines here in the US means very few choices. Mercedes has an available diesel in their new E class, but that starts at over $50,000. BMW only offers diesel engine choices in their SUVs at the moment. That leaves Volkswagen and Audi; since the latter is a bit pricey for me, that really only leaves VW. They offer a 2.0 liter turbo TDI diesel engine in the Golf, the Passat, and the Jetta. Of those three, only the Golf was really appealing to me, so I started to look into it. I had never really been a fan of VWs before; could I really make the decision to dump the Abarth and buy a Golf TDI? The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. First of all, the Golf is a fairly small car, which is important to me. It's available as a coupe, it comes in a very obnoxious red color, and it can have a 6-speed manual gearbox. All essential for me. Then there's the engine, the real reason I was considering it. A fairly small 4-cyl with a turbo, making a fairly anemic 140 horsepower but a stout 236 lb./ft. of torque. More importantly, the window sticker says 30/42 mpg city/highway. Anecdotal evidence from owners suggests that the actual highway mileage is 47 or better mpg. That's a serious improvement over my Mazdaspeed 3, which is rated at 18/26 but in fact can do 30 mpg highway. Since I commute 90 miles round-trip every day, this will mean buying gas a lot less often, which means less money going to Exxon and the rest.

Another advantage that the Golf had over the Abarth is that it's already available. When I got my deposit back, my Abarth order hadn't even been called in yet, meaning that I wouldn't get it until probably June, which was 4 months from when I put the deposit down. This was important for the value of my current car, which already had 95,000 miles on it and wasn't getting any younger. The only things that the Abarth really had going for it over the Golf were exclusivity (FIAT is only producing about 3000 of them) and the fun-to-drive factor. That said, when I placed my Abarth order, I test drove a standard 500 Sport, which was surprisingly underwhelming. It felt cheap, almost like a toy. It has an antiquated 5 speed manual (which the Abarth also uses) and didn't really inspire confidence in me while driving. I'm sure the Abarth is significantly improved in that department, but that's another problem with it - I can't drive it until mine shows up. If for some reason I didn't really like it, which actually seemed at least somewhat possible given my drive in the 500 Sport, then I'd have no new car, and no real plan-B. 

The Golf, on the other hand, feels incredibly well-built. Everything about the interior feels significantly better made than the FIAT, and it's incredibly comfortable. The TDI shares the independent suspension of the sportier Golf GTI, so it still has competent and enjoyable road manners. It's forgiving without being soft or floaty - a good balance between performance and comfort. With bigger wheels and stickier tires it'll be even better still. I can also pretty easily make it faster - there is good aftermarket support for the TDI engine, and diesels are more safely modified because of their stronger construction.

After just a few days of comparing and contemplating, I bought the TDI. I paid invoice for the car, which made it almost exactly the same price as the Abarth would have been; with the VW I've gotten a lot more car for the money. It's also going to be cheaper to drive, more comfortable, and I can guess more reliable than the FIAT as well. The only thing it might not be is more fun, but I'm willing to sacrifice a little adrenaline for sensibility at this point. I can always change the things I don't like about the Golf; there's nothing to be done about the fact that the Abarth can only run on gasoline, and at the end of the day, that makes it an irresponsible choice.

To anyone buying a new car in the near future, please consider something other than a gasoline-powered engine. The more alternative cars people buy, the more choices we'll have from all the major manufacturers. Consider a hybrid or an electric, or if you're not a boring lump of a person, consider a diesel. You'll be surprised just how much sense it can make - I certainly am.