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On The Road

Four fun(ny) little cars: They’re not for everyone, but these vehicles make a statement

Photo By: Photo courtesy of Volkswagen
Photo Photo Courtesy Of Volkswagen

The Volkswagen Beetle convertible boasts a gas-powered engine and automatic transmission.

One of our friends often wears a T-shirt that declares that “Life is too short to drive boring cars.” Over the past month, we’ve driven four cars that would never be considered boring.

Spanning several different definitions of fun, the group included the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth and the Volvo C30 T5 R-Design Polestar, and two variations of the second-generation new Beetle from Volkswagen – the hardtop and the convertible.

None of these cars would be called all-purpose vehicles – they weren’t intended to meet the needs of a growing family that intersperses Saturday shopping expeditions with long road trips. Nor are they designed to be attractive to the average person – most people would consider the styling of these vehicles to be quirky and eye-catching, at best.

These cars are designed for an independent owner who wants to make a statement while getting from point A to point B.

Fiat 500 Abarth

Let’s start with the smallest of the bunch, the Fiat 500 Abarth. The only (legal) production cars smaller than the Abarth are single-purpose city cars like the Smart Car by Mercedes and its Asian clones.

Built in Italy and marketed through Chrysler as Fiat’s first U.S. market entry, the most striking feature of the Fiat 500 is its magical ability to be larger on the inside than on the outside. Although it looks like an urban runabout, the Fiat 500 is totally practical for long-distance journeys by two adults with luggage, or short trips into San Francisco or down to Big Sur with four passengers aboard.

Our test vehicle last month was the Abarth version of the 500 – Abarth is a well-known European high-performance tuning company – with a turbocharged version of the tiny (1.4-liter) turbocharged Fiat engine. The version we drove – with high-back leather-trimmed bucket seats; comfort, convenience and navigation upgrades; and styled wheels – was stickered at $27,100, including destination charges.

The little giant of an Abarth-tuned engine puts out an astonishing 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, powering the front wheels through a five-speed heavy-duty manual transmission and clutch. Given that the car weighs only 2,512 pounds, the performance is zippy.

The chassis is surprisingly stable even with the short wheelbase, so 80 mph on Interstate 280 feels completely stable, with no perceptible lean on tight off-ramps. And, even with this performance, the little buzz bomb is rated at 31 mpg overall (28 city, 34 highway).

But as any owner will tell you, the ultimate measure is smiles per mile – whether one is in the car or just watching it pass by – and here the car is a real winner.

Volvo C30 T5 R-Design Polestar

The 2013 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design Polestar (whew, that’s a mouthful) hails from Sweden and is a contrast in many ways – starting with the name. Taking the name apart, C30 means it has the three-door compact station-wagon body style, T5 is for the five-cylinder turbocharged engine, R-Design is for the sporty styling touches and suspension engineering that mark this as the high-performance version of the hatchback and Polestar is Volvo’s high-performance tuning partner.

Before putting its blue logo on the dashboard and rear deck, Polestar provided the reprogramming that iced this cake with 30 additional horsepower, taking the engine to an unbelievable 250 horsepower producing 273 pound-feet of torque. Even with this performance, fuel economy is still rated at 24 mpg overall (21 city, 29 highway).

All of this performance is controlled by a pleasant five-speed manual transmission that made each stoplight getaway a satisfying at-one-with-the-machine experience. The car goes from zero to 60 mph in under six seconds.

The R-design provides a balanced chassis with a nice compromise between ultra-stiff handling in high-speed turns and reasonably compliant behavior on bumpy stretches of pavement.

The C30’s large glass rear hatch and station-wagon side windows offer the best visibility we’ve experienced in any small car. The folding rear seats and hatchback actually put major shopping trips or overnight camping trips for two within the realm of possibility.

Although this car is built more for fun than practicality, we think owners will enjoy the range of possibilities inherent in it. Too bad the C30 design will be retired at the end of this model year, just when the competition in its market segment is starting to get interesting.

Volkswagen Beetle

With the two new Beetles we drove, we were offered all of the possible permutations of this new-generation riff on the original small-is-better VW we remember from childhood.

We drove the diesel-powered TDI hardtop with a manual transmission one week, and two weeks later tested the gasoline-powered convertible with automatic transmission.

Both of them, we are happy to note, could be driven off the dealer’s lot for approximately $25,000 fully equipped.

Either way, the design is iconic in the best and worst way – there’s no mistaking that single arc from front bumper to rear bumper for any other car on the road, but we don’t think there’s an automobile stylist in the world who would call the Beetle sleek or attractive.

On the other hand, the design does provide the longest front doors and highest entry space of nearly any car on the road. We’d echo the advice we’ve heard before: If the size label in your clothes has more than one X on it, you’ll find the VW Beetle to be the most comfortable car on the road.

For our money, choosing the right version is easy. We’re convinced that VW is building the best four-cylinder diesel engine on the market today, with fuel economy that makes some hybrids envious, coming in at 31 mpg overall (28 city, 41 highway). Even with the slight premium in this area for diesel fuel and the longer distances between the green-handled pumps, this is noteworthy. So we wouldn’t think twice about ticking the TDI box instead of the gasoline-engine box on a Beetle order form.

Manual versus automatic transmission is a more individual decision. For those who still enjoy the increasingly arcane art of manual gear ratio selection modulated by a third pedal underfoot, the six-speed stick shift is certainly above reproach. On the other hand, for those who have a stop-and-go commute twice each day, or who just can’t be bothered to divide their attention into an additional dimension, the six-speed automatic is smooth and reliable.

Even more idiosyncratic is the choice of convertible or hardtop. It might be enough to say that during the week we had the convertible, its top was down the entire time for the simple reason that the view behind us (via the rear-view mirror and direct sight) was limited to a small space between the two rear headrests. The hardtop, by contrast, had reasonable sight lines all the way around but didn’t offer anything for those days when sky, sun and scene demanded the widest possible access to the outdoors.

Is there any hands-down winner among these four? We certainly wouldn’t offer one. You just have to look at, sit in and drive a few miles in each of these and see which makes you feel happiest. None of them will do everything a motor vehicle might be called upon to do. But unless you always have more than four people with you or routinely haul cargo, any of these might be the kind of car you look forward to driving and look back at whenever you walk off after parking it.

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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