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Guilt tripping at 41 mpg (or less)

My 2017 Fiat 500 Pop

I am a tree hugger, and I confess a terrible moral failing. I love cars.

It was back in the 1960s, as a teenager, when I developed a Jaguar fetish. Having one as the family car would have been as impossible as having the moon. But even in the American provinces, one might occasionally see one — a Jaguar XKE, maybe, or a MK2 sedan. And of course you could see them on television, and in the movies. I would have sold my soul for either of them. I loved Mercedes almost as much. We even had a Mercedes, bought used, in my high school years. It was a 1963 220SE. I still dream about driving that car. In my dreams, it’s a symbol of a precision machine, working perfectly, almost immortal, and thoroughly mine — a good dream symbol for sure. Typically, in the dream, I go down to the basement and discover to my surprise that it’s still there. I turn the key. The dash lights up. It starts, and its sound is like music. German music, for sure. Probably Bach.

As an adult, I have always bought sensible and moderately priced cars. I indulged my unaffordable car fetishes with rentals. Several times, when I lived in San Francisco, I’d rent a Jaguar for a road trip down U.S. 1 to Los Angeles. That was enough to prevent my fetish from leading me into something foolish.

When I retired, I had a seven-year-old Jeep Wrangler, which I bought new in San Francisco. I still have the Jeep. Its mileage is very low. I will never part with it. But I also don’t want to wear out the Jeep. I see the Jeep now as a beast of burden and as a special-use vehicle for bad weather or for outings that involve bad roads. Sometimes it goes a month without being started. To avoid wearing out the Jeep, six years ago I leased a Smart car. It was the cheapest transportation available. Mercedes was advertising Smart car leases for $99 a month. I liked the first Smart car so much that I leased a second one. That lease just expired, and I returned my second Smart car to the dealer just two days ago.

For months, I thought about how to replace the Smart car, since Mercedes no longer sells the gasoline Smart car in the United States. (There is an electric model, but its range is too low to meet my rural needs). Should I lease? Should I buy? I considered the low-end Volkswagen. But I did not like the local Volkswagen dealership. My next idea was the smallest Fiat — the Fiat 500. Fiat now owns Jeep and Chrysler. So I went to the Jeep-Fiat dealer in Winston-Salem to try out the Fiats.

I picked out the least expensive Fiat 500 on the lot and went for a drive. It just happened to be a dignified color — a dark gray. As soon as I started the engine, it had charmed my socks off, and I knew that I would buy it. If you watch some of the YouTube reviews of Fiat 500s, you’ll see that they have charmed the socks off many people. A couple of reviewers compared it with a playful dog. That’s it exactly. Fido.

If you love cars, you look back on the cars you have driven with the same sort of sentiment as old lovers. If you’re my age, those memories will go back a long time.

The first car I ever really drove was my father’s 1952 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery. I was about eleven years old. I’d pilfer the keys and drive the old Chevrolet on the farm roads behind our house. Yes — I knew how to use a clutch at eleven years old. I’m not really sure how I learned, unless my father or older brother taught me. Or maybe I learned on my grandfather’s tractor. Another car that stands out in my memory is my 1974 Toyota Land Cruiser. If only I had kept it! But, having learned my lesson, I will never part with my 2001 Jeep Wrangler.

I strongly suspect that the Fiat will be a keeper. Driving it is a blast. Everything about it inspires affection. Assuming that it holds up well, then both the Fiat and the Jeep will still be stashed under shelter up the hill, still running strong, on the day I kick the bucket.

Should we feel guilty about our automobiles, given the state of the world? Yes, I believe we should. What cars have done — and what cars have done to us — is terrible. But I also suspect that, 500 years from now, people will look at images of our cars, or look at them in museums, and envy the daylights out of us. We actually drove them. Those cars burned fossil fuels and almost led to the end of the world. But they were beautiful.

The 1957 Fiat 500, which inspired the current Fiat design

A 1952 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery, the first car I ever drove (off road)

A 1963 Mercedes 220SE. I was with one on the day it finally died.

My 2001 Jeep Wrangler

A 1974 Toyota Land Cruiser


  1. Dan wrote:

    You’re not alone. I’m the owner of a 4×4 crew cab Tacoma, for practical reasons, and a Chevy C10 square body that is gangster as any truck on the road. But, it’s a horrible gas hog and I’m unloading it this week. I’m considering getting a 2019 Corolla hatchback. They come in a manual transmission which is becoming more rare unless it’s an option.

    Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 9:14 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    I was surprised at the substantial difference in MPG ratings for the Fiat manual vs. the automatic — 5 MPG difference, as I recall. With careful driving, I squeezed 49 MPG out of the Fiat on a 25-mile trip. But it’s much more fun to drive with an MPG of about 41. 🙂

    Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
  3. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Great article, thank you. I have encouraged my wife to buy a similar FIAT, but she declines due to the fact she feels its too small for the California crazy traffic…our little community is now at 47-48k people and the surrounding communities are at least double, traffic has picked up and we now have afternoon backup. Those who arrived here in 1999-2004 have seen the change happen (before our eyes) so much for rural living

    Saturday, April 21, 2018 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

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