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Arrivaderci, 500

September 5, 2019
Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat 500 (Orin O’Neill photo)

You’ve probably heard by now, the Fiat 500 and 500e are about to be discontinued in North America.

Conspiracy theories to the contrary, the 500 is going away because nobody’s buying them. Recent monthly sales totals hovered in the range of 300. Nationwide. Total monthly sales for Fiat USA hover in the range of the total for one medium-metro dealer for one of the volume brands.

Not too long ago, Daimler pulled the plug on smart (no caps, please). Nobody was buying those, either. They sold a grand total of 27 fortwos in August, in all of the United States.

As for MINI (all caps, please), that whole idea peaked in 2007; sales have followed a steady downward trend since. The automotive media have lately reported on MINI dealers telling BMW that having to maintain a separate store for the MINI brand is killing them financially; a few BMW franchise holders have been granted permission to sell MINIs alongside Bimmers.

In each case, everyone who wanted one now has one. The case of Fiat was particularly puzzling, because anyone who’d heard of or remembered Fiats from when they were sold in the U.S. prior to the mid-1980s would most likely have very negative feelings about them: poor quality, lack of reliability, a poor dealer network. Apparently, the thinking was, Americans like gelato and pasta, so they’ll buy new Fiats by the boatload. Slam dunk! What could go wrong?

Toyota and Hyundai have become major players in North America because they had a plan; part of that plan was committing to the long haul, taking the 20-odd years to establish their brands necessary for success. Early Toyotas and Hyundais were pretty awful, but their plans also included continued, aggressive product improvement.

The really sad part is, Fiat now makes some rather nice cars. They’ve had to compete with Toyota, Hyundai and all the other major Asian players, and they’ve upped their game tremendously. I’ve seen lots of them in person, and even driven a few. Badged as Chryslers and/or Dodges (as they are in Mexico), I believe they would’ve sold well.

If you bought a Fiat 500 brand new, you have my deepest sympathies, at least financially. It’s pretty easy to find used ones selling for new-Vespa money. Back in 2011, I called the then-new 500 The Ultimate Scooter Upgrade. A perfect garage companion for your Vespa GTS and your Ford Transit Connect (The Ultimate Scooter Hauler).

The reason I started this here blog was to show that a scooter could be an alternative to a car, if not for primary transportation, then as the second vehicle. I subscribed to conventional wisdom of the time, which said once gas hits $5/gallon in the U.S., Americans would switch en masse from four wheels to two. I have been called the Rick Steves of scootering, and hoped to cash in the way he did with European travel.

But as time went on, it became apparent to me that there ain’t gonna be a scooter revolution.

For starters, gasoline (petrol, essence, benzin, etc.) isn’t ever going to hit five bucks in the U.S. Where I live, a gallon goes for $2.699, give or take; on the West Coast, $3.699 seems to be the sweet spot. In the latter case, that’s about where the price should be, taking inflation in the years following Fuel Crisis I into account. And that’s still quite a bit cheaper than in most of the rest of the wealthy industrialized world.

Electrified vehicles have multiplied in number, and increased exponentially in range since my first post here. The car companies are all pretty confident that price parity between combustion and electric vehicles will be achieved in five years. Or less. A fuel cost of nearly zero (how much does the juice coming to your house cost, per kilowatt/hour?) beats the heck outta gasoline, even at 72 mpg, the GTS’ and PX’s usual consumption. If you go hybrid, 50 mpg is quite possible, and for most people seems plenty good enough.

And really, if you don’t have to, why would you or anyone put up with exposure to weather? You’re warm (or cool) inside a cocoon with lots of room for people and stuff. Not to mention far better protection if some inattentive fellow motorist makes hard contact with you.

Truth is, a cold, hard crunching of numbers will show that, on a cost-per-mile basis, a full-size SUV will cost you less to run than a scooter. The money you save on gas and insurance will be more than offset by the cost of parts and service. And a place that offers those parts and services has become far more difficult to find.

The only good reason to get a scooter is that you want to ride a scooter. Years ago, that was true in the circles I navigated in. Now, not so much. The scooterists I knew back in the day have switched to bicycles or motorcycles. If they ride at all.

  1. Tekweenie permalink
    September 5, 2019 6:24 pm

    I agree generally, but here in Chicagoland I see all kinds of scooters on the street. And if you get downtown or even close you’ll also see electric skateboards and sadly, the Bird and Lime invasion is being tested. I don’t see a full scale scooter invasion, but certainly alternative transportation to the car is being embraced by lots of folks.

  2. September 5, 2019 7:28 pm

    There’s a Fiat dealer not far from where I live. Every time I drove by it I could see any number of cars lined up in front of the service entrance.. Kind of disconcerting.
    As for scooters I think it depends on where you live and how you want to use it.
    Back roads, quite country highways, casual 40-50 mph cruising enjoying the scenery is what I like best. No freeways or congested city streets.
    Planning to get a Honda PCX150. Should provide a good amount of fun, economy and
    reliable performance. Dealers are everywhere. My AAA Roadside just in case.
    Don’t have to worry about anyone wanting to steal it.

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