Friday, July 27, 2012

La Contessa says, "Fiat accompli!"

Who would have dreamed that the car company responsible for such machismo metal as the Challenger and the Barracuda would one day be rescued by a little Italian? These days, FIAT definitely doesn’t stand for Fix It Again Tony!

But La Contessa knows that life – vita mia - is full of irony, and relishes it. Almost as much as I adore the new Fiat 500, which in the old days we called Cinquecento. Ti adoro! My tail wags just to think of that August I spent with Cousin Giuseppe in Cassino, Frosinone. Giuseppe was the love child of a liaison between his maman and the local firehall’s Dalmation, and he has the lovely spots to prove it! A proud member of Italy’s Vigili del Fuco (The Firewatchers),  he lives with a fireman who collects the Cinquecento in all its charming derivatives. Our favourite is the Ferves Ranger, a 4WD Fiat used – yes - in fighting fires.

Enough reminiscing! Back to our new Fiat 500, which pays homage to its cherished ancestor in many styling cues, from the wide-eyed headlights to the friendly silhouette. Inside, everything is compact and thoughtfully placed – although it took us a bit to get used to the centre dial, where speedometer, gas gauge, temperature gauge, clock, speed, odometer, tachometer, radio station, gear and the outside temperature are contained in a six-inch diameter readout. Anima mia, a model of efficiency.

Where Fiat plans to install the espresso machine, we can’t imagine. Not the trunk, which is too tiny to fit more than a weekend’s luggage for a single pup like myself. Was that perhaps the inspiration for JLo’s commercial? Was there a hidden message equating JLo’s ample booty to the teeny Fiat trunk? Oh wait, that whole commercial was a fake, right ...

As we cruised along Little Italy, we slid back the sunroof to breathe in the summer breeze, loving the screen that kept our fur in place. We stopped for a gelato, and took a few minutes to check out our little tesoro. Red is our favourite colour, and it sprang up in devilish little details, from the FIAT badge to the calipers in the natty 15-inch wheels, and even inside the engine. Tootling along busy College Street, we loved squeezing between the 506 College streetcar and a silly Purolator truck, nipping in and out of traffic, and pulling u-turns in front of Escalades. Che divertimento!

And we loved the 101 HP engine – how those Italian engineers must have sweated out that one extra HP. Perfecto for city traffic and the urban lifestyle – that’s how La Contessa rolls. Call us a chick, call us a girly girl, but don’t call before noon because we’re busy being fabulous.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

La Contessa gets bitten by a Bug

There were certain members of La Contessa’s family who swore never to ride in a Volkswagen because they considered it Hitler’s little car. But from Hitler to the hippies who made it a counter-culture icon, the Beetle has always been one of the more controversial and therefore beloved of my vehicles.

When we heard the new 2012 Beetle redesign was out, ach du lieber! we were thrilled. We loved the original reincarnation, especially since it was immediately dubbed a “chick car.” Why this is a marketing kiss of death, we’ll never understand. The 2012 version is truer to the original Beetle, with a less rounded, flatter silhouette and sitting much lower. In fact, it’s more butch and sporty than the first reincarnation, although the original Beetle never was. Our model was aptly named Tornado Red, and indeed, with 170 hp - yes, I checked under the hood! it tornadoed rather than beetled down the highway.

We decided to take a jaunt to Kitchener, which as you know was once named Berlin, with a hefty number of Germanic people and influences. As soon as we arrived at the Concordia Club and saw the German flag waving at us, we thought of  Cousin Ute, who was born in the German town of Wolfsberg, home to the massive Volkswagen plant. She lived with the groundskeeper of the castle that was appropriated from the Earl of Schulenberg by Hitler to create this town. It’s rumoured that the groundskeeper is a distant relative of the Earl, but who knows?

Sch├Ątzchen Ute is a font of knowledge about all things VW, and despite being a glamorous and modern Berliner now, always rides in a Beetle. She told me that it wasn’t necessarily Ferdinand Porsche who designed the Beetle, but possibly a Czech designer named Hans Ludwinka with whom Porsche apprenticed – or even a Jewish engineer named Josef Ganz. Really, Hitler wasn’t much of a car guy – he didn’t even have a driver’s licence.

Furthermore, plans for the Beetle to go into mass production were somewhat sidetracked by Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The Beetle as we came to know it owes much to to a little known British solider, Major Ivan Hirst, who stumbled across a couple of prototypes in the Wolfsberg factory – which was due to be scrapped by the victorious Allies and used for war reparations. Hirst realized the factory could be better utilized for producing cars for the British army and the assembly lines started beetling along.

Isn’t Ute a clever girl? I thought of her as I examined the lovely red Beetle, with its black interior and snazzy red accents. The dash was smaller, and can no longer accommodate a game of solitaire, gott sei dank! But we missed the bud vase, a fun, playful touch so absent in today’s car designs. The tiny glove compartment must have been lifted out of an original Beetle, so teeny it could barely accommodate my muzzle. Yet, the trunk was roomy enough to fit several cases of beer and wurst.

We had a glorious time with the 2012 Beetle, and hope people realize the monicker “chick car” is actually a lofty compliment – one that translates into style, affordability, and all the power you need. And that truly is wunderbar!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Share and share alike

Is it any coincidence that a few days after car2go launched its carsharing service in Toronto, the T-Dot was named as the world’s eighth most livable city? Toronto was the only city in North America to make the list – by no less an authority than The Economist.

Tipping the scale in Hogtown’s favour was its greenery and clean air – not so much, the urban sprawl and lack of cultural assets. 

Providing a plethora of transportation alternatives is one way that Toronto has been working on its status as a livable city – this keeps pollution down and parks from becoming parking lots. And with car2go, there is now an ingenious way to carshare, only paying for the time you use the car – even if it’s as little as 5 minutes. Their blue and white smart fortwo cars are easily found through a free smartphone app, with no reservation necessary. All a subscriber needs is a membership card and a reason to drive. It’s just ingenious.

Other carsharing programs in Toronto include the pioneering all-Canadian AutoShare, which launched waaay back in 1998, and the U.S.-based Zipcar. The differences between the organizations are less important than the fact that they offer individuals an affordable way to drive a car. As in other urban centres, it’s increasingly expensive to own a car in Toronto – in 2010, Toronto was the second most expensive place to park in Canada, with an annual rate of $336.26.

But there’s more good news. The Montreal-based bike-sharing Bixi program, proudly marked its first anniversary in Toronto in May, and proclaimed its membership of 1,000 had taken over 550,000 rides. That’s a lot of people riding through rain, sleet and snow as well as sunshine.

It’s all part of the collaborative economy, which is based on sharing. That’s a welcome trend away from conspicuous consumption, and takes an altruistic bent towards business. Naturally, its most enthusiastic participants are young folk, who are concerned about the environment, rabid social media users, and perhaps a little less than flush.

Possibly they are also not so quietly rebelling against the excess and waste that they grew up with – one study found that the average household in the U.S. has $3,000 worth of items lying around unused.

Do we need to define ourselves by our possessions? Maybe -  it’s better to define ourselves by who we share with...