Fiat 500 vs. Honda CR-Z: Imagining Replacements for our Protege5


Let’s put our special hats on – y’know, the ones with the ostrich feathers and Swarovksi sparkles all dipped in yellow gold – and play “what if”.

Car enthusiasts play this game with alarming frequency, but rarely in public. The internal machinations usually happen in the wee hours of a weekend evening, on eBay and Kijiji and after a half-glass of scotch, as we rationalize, justify, and otherwise attempt to coerce ourselves and our significant others into successively wilder purchases. But cower in darkness no more! For it’s high time that we openly share our most bizarre (and reasonable) replacements for our current transports! Ok, as you’ve probably gleaned from the title, our imaginations haven’t led us too far astray, but that’s because these are cars we’d actually buy, not just ones we’d plunk down for if we accidentally inherited the Daryl Katz fortune. And it’s not like we’re in brow-furrowing contemplation between the Corolla and the Matrix here, the 500 and CR-Z are genuinely appealing cars, at least for hatchback-loving urbanites like us.

Regardless of budget (and in fantasyland, the budgets can get pretty wacky), we all have priorities that lean us one way or another, as well as allegiances to certain brands that inadvertently blind us to huge swathes of the marketplace. Personally, we’re proponents of buying used cars so that the most aggressive years of depreciation are allowed to pass harmlessly by. That new car smell? Doesn’t smell as good as saved money smell. Since we’re looking at the used market, it’s also worth mentioning that we’re staunch advocates of mechanical and electrical reliability. No one likes unnecessary trips to the stealer dealer less than we do, so we avoid it at all costs. As such, we personally like to steer away from German cars (an air-cooled 911 is the only car with any chance of breaking that rule of thumb), most American cars, and steer towards Japanese cars. Granted, the newer domestics, particularly Fords, have come a long way in terms of quality and reliability, but none of their current offering quite have the sparkle we’d put in our garage for good. Maybe the Focus ST will change that. The Germans, on the other hand, have almost no hope of changing our perceptions at this point. There is literally nothing scarier than a 5-year-old BMW without warranty.

Since there’s not much out there in the desirable 4-5 year old bracket (unless you’ve got one?) that meets our exacting criteria for fun, reliability, fuel economy, and attractive design, we’re going to have to make do with looking a few years down the road to replace our aging Mazda Protege5. So let’s take a look at what’s on sale today that we’ll want to pick up a good deal on in a couple years.

This series of hurdles pretty much leaves us with the Fiat 500, the adorable Mexican-built city car with character in picche (that’s “spades” in Italian), and the Honda CR-Z, the sportiest hybrid around. Both of these choices are perfectly sized for urban use, fun(ish) to drive, sip fuel like a Starbucks latte, and should prove more reliable than average. But which one should we choose?

Everyday Driver, a publication we’d never heard of until we started researching this article, has recently produced a video review of our two competitors with the 1st generation Mini Cooper thrown in for good measure.

If you couldn’t or wouldn’t spare the 19 minutes, the “German-lite” Mini took the comparison test crown. It’s fair to say that on a series of California’s most picturesque and challenging mountain roads, that the Mini, with its tight handling and ground-hugging stance, would triumph. But who on earth is buying a 110hp sub-compact to go racing through the mountains? These three are designed for the city, and that’s where they deserve to be tested. So while we won’t argue much with Everyday Driver’s conclusion, we certainly take exception with their road-test formula. Had the same three been tested in the city, the Fiat 500′s comfier handling set-up would’ve undoubtedly been seen as more supple, rather than being criticized for “tipping like a yacht”.

Based on this test, and everything else we’ve read about the two individually, the Honda CR-Z strikes us as the best balance. The reliability will be the best, it’s the only one with a 6-speed manual, the fuel economy in the city should be best, the ride comfort strikes a pleasant balance between the other two, and the handling is only behind the benchmark Mini.

We want so badly to love the Fiat 500. It’s just so cool. But we should probably hold off on a definitive impression until we actually drive one ourselves. And we will definitely be testing one, probably in November or December of this year, at which time we’ll be able to see how the chic-fashion-accessory-as-a-car handles Canada’s nastiest climate.

A CarEnvy test of the Honda CR-Z is likely further away than that. We missed the one that was in the press fleet last summer and now we’re left waiting for Honda to show us a sportier Si version before we have another shot. So Honda, make the fucking Si already!

As the clutch gently starts to slip, the rust quietly eats the body, and the suspension starts to arthritically ache and creak, our long-term 2002 Mazda Protege5 is starting to show its age. Coming up on its 10th birthday in November (it rolled off the line in November of 2001), the Made in Japan gem has covered only 130,000km, but it’s mostly been ground-and-pound city duty on the perpetually broken tarmac of Edmonton.

Its most recent battle wound was a rear wheel speed sensor that cost $250 to install on top of the $250 for the part. Other than regular maintenance, this was the first non-wear-and-tear item we’ve replaced; the rest of the “investments” have been nothing more than tires, brakes, lightbulbs, and a single fuse, and the only modifications to the car have been a iPod-capable deck, cold-air intake, and short-throw shifter. Still, these types of little glitches could add up, but hopefully not before a used Honda CR-Z Si comes within striking distance of our imaginary budget.

Well, that’s the plan anyways. As you know too well, these plans have a funny way of changing every few months, or even days. Who knows what could replace our Protege5? Maybe it’ll be that Focus ST after all…

So, if you had to replace your current car, what would you replace it with?

[Photo credits: pixelpixcomau/Flickr, m.andersson/Flickr,, MajorGav/Flikr