BY THOMAS SWICK
Driving into Rick Case FIAT in Davie, I immediately thought of pandas.
“Everybody knows that pandas are cute,” James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic in 2007, reporting from the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China. “Very few people know firsthand how cute pandas are in quantity.”
The cute – no, the utterly adorable – Italian car, which I had spotted occasionally in downtown Fort Lauderdale, was now all around me. In fact, it was the only car I saw. It filled the lot with its softly rounded shapes and its soothing palette of colors: red, blue, brown, light brown (which I would soon learn were rosso, azzurro, espresso and mocha latte). The FIAT 500 – which also sounds better in Italian: FIAT Cinquecento – had turned the place into a kind of miniaturist paradise.
Director Raquel Case knelt outside, feeding a stray cat. “She just arrived two days ago,” Raquel said. “We named her Fiasco.”
Raquel led me into the studio (as the showrooms are called) where a few models were parked, including one from 1969. Vintage FIAT advertisements hung on the walls, as well as black-and-white photographs of the factory in Turin, Italy. I was reminded of the commercial in which brightly colored FIATs drive off Italian beaches and seaside cliffs, only to emerge from the Atlantic and into the U.S.
The company was established in 1899, and had a brief run in the States in the 20th Century. Raquel said that people will come to the studio and say things like “I learned to drive on this car.” Then last year, the Cinquecento arrived on our shores (literally, according to the commercial).
It is not only a car that demands your attention – different from anything else on the road – but one that makes you smile. You don’t often get an automobile that’s both stylish and playful. Or one that so beautifully embodies the spirit of the nation that produced it.
Raquel and I headed out to a model in light green, or verde chiaro. (You’re not just driving a FIAT, you’re learning Italian). The color, like that of a young green apple, was repeated inside by a panel that ran the length of the dashboard.
This was helpful, because the interior seemed to belong to another car – a bigger car. Settling into the comfortable driver’s seat, I was struck by how high up I sat – higher than in a lot of much larger cars. The position gave me great visual range while diminishing the feeling that I was in a small car. As I made my way through the lot, it seemed impossible that I was driving a vehicle the exact same size as the ones we were passing. Raquel assured me I was.
She pushed down the armrest, a neat addition, and explained high-tech features like Bluetooth. I gripped the small steering wheel, which gave me a nice feeling of control. I eased onto Weston Road, headed north, and then got on I-75. After a short while I looked at the speedometer and marveled at the fact that I was doing 70. Again, the FIAT mimicked a much bigger car, achieving high speeds with exceptional smoothness. It gripped the highway wonderfully. The only disappointment was that I couldn’t see myself tooling down the highway in a FIAT Cinquecento. Though I imagined the lovely image I was providing my fellow drivers.
Back at the lot, I tested the back seat (surprisingly roomy), and then Raquel showed me the trunk, and how the two seat backs fold down to accommodate extra-large loads. She told me she has people take the car to Costco and fill it up with goods, an exercise that bystanders, she said, often end up making videos of.
We moved to the sport model, the FIAT 500 Abarth (named for the automobile designer Carlo Abarth). Turbo engine; 160 horsepower; a logo with a scorpion on it. Still, from the outside it was as cute as a panda – one with a rear spoiler. Inside, the small steering wheel had a flat-bottom. “Like a Ferrari,” Raquel said, adding that FIAT owned Ferrari, as well as Maserati and Alfa Romeo. As I stepped on the gas, the Abarth sounded a bit like a Ferrari.
I turned onto Weston Road, which now became the Via Veneto. And I was Marcello Mastroianni, on my way to pick up Sophia Loren.
Rick Case Fiat, 3500 Weston Road, Davie, 866-981-7351, www.rickcasefiatusa.com.