Saturday, March 5, 2011

Does this fit you through the shoulders?

A visit to southern Switzerland was the perfect opportunity to see first-hand how a 1.2 Liter car would work out as wheels and home for 10,000 miles. I asked for a Fiat Panda at the rental car counter and should have been tipped off when they asked "Is your jacket size a 46 or 48?" Then, "Anna, can we have the silver Panda taken out just a bit on the driver's side?" Uh oh. To give you an idea of how this class of car stacks up, the silver Panda is parked among mid-size European cars in this picture (4th from the bottom if you didn't guess). The first test was loading luggage. The large suitcase could only fit in the back seat. Lesson: pack light in soft bags - check. Next, pick up Keeley in Bergamo and take the back roads to Como and then the highway to Lugano. Winding roads through the foothills and the autostrada were no problem. Plenty of power. Lesson: it's all about the gearing - check. Next test... load up the Wolfpack, a group of Franklin College women, and check ground clearance, power and handling. With a total of 7 passengers (they claimed they could fit in 2 more easily) we would have had minimal sag, enough power to get up the steepest hills, and still corner with caution... if it had actually been legal or safe to do this test run. Lesson: roof-top cargo will be limited more by center-of-gravity issues than weight limits - check. Final test... how does this speck of a car handle poor driving conditions? To test this we set off for St. Anton in Austria. Mid-way at San Bernadino pass as darkness fell we hit a hard driving (gorgeous) snow storm. 5+ inches of snow on the road, both hard packed and new, semi's stuck in the middle of the road and insane 4wd Audi drivers careening in all directions to pass, explore the ditch, or see what pointing the wrong direction might by like. No problem for the Panda - no skids, no slips, no drama. Lesson: new highway tires can handle the worst condition on paved roads, and knobby tires are a good idea for the dirt and mud in Mongolia - check. We pulled in to St. Anton safe and sound having made good time despite the snow. Final verdict? I ended up developing a real fondness for this class of car. Comfort and performance are remarkable for something light enough that we can use sweat, muscle and foul language to get out of a rut. Oh yes, and it's small. Very.

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