Established 1978

Sport Compact Renaissance

by David and Howard Swig

The average age of a car on our roads today is more than 11 years old, the highest in several decades. In the past, buyers often made new vehicle purchases every four to seven years, but economic woes since 2008 have postponed the purchase of a new car for many Americans, with much longer intervals between purchases.

Until recently, that is. United States auto sales in August posted impressive figures, with 1.28 million units sold— the best month since 2007. September saw more than 1.1 million units sold and many manufacturers realized double-digit percentage gains from one year ago. Thanks to easier credit terms, cheap loans, and a variety of new model lineups, there is increasing confidence among consumers to buy. And with the proliferation of great new models out there, it’s easy to see why a new trend is emerging.

A return of sporty, stylish compacts

Fiat 500C Gucci

We recently had the chance to spend time in two new small cars that really caught our attention. One week was spent driving a Fiat 500C Lounge Cabrio that featured, believe it or not, an optional Gucci luxury package. Not exactly everyone’s style, but it created a distinctive look during a 1,500-mile round trip down to SoCal. Upon arriving in L.A., one is astounded by how many of these little cars (non-Gucci) are on the road there—Fiat dealers must be overjoyed!

The Gucci version truly stands out, announcing itself with prominent Gucci badging, a special Gucci-signature retractable roof, and matched Gucci-patterned, trademark leather seats. It attracted enthusiastically bewildered reactions from onlookers along with more than its fair share of pointing and staring. It was a huge hit in West Hollywood especially—a car with a very high “smile per mile” factor.

From the driver’s seat, this particular example was fitted with a variety of features that made the ride more pleasant. The long list of upgrades included heated seats, which were most appreciated, and a clever, plug-in-dash TomTom navigation system. The car proved a very capable and comfortable long-distance companion, though with a sticker price approaching $29,000, buyers might go for a model with less optional features. The good news is that there is a flavor of Fiat for almost anyone, and most important, the car has personality!

The best part: a trip to North Beach for dinner yielded an unbelievable parking space, only steps from Firenze by Night on Stockton Street. It must be the Fiat karma.

VW’s turbo canyon-carver

A week later the opportunity to spend some time in the new VW Golf R presented itself. The Golf R is an all-wheel-drive, turbocharged four-cylinder rocket ship capable of devouring back roads; it boasts 256 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission, and a suspension that finds a delightful balance between firmness, compliance, and comfort. It was well-timed to have the Golf R precisely when it came time to design the route for the 2013 California Mille—one can hardly imagine a more comfortable and enjoyable car with which to pre-run the roads.

VW Golf R

The ride was a reminder of how wonderful our Northern California roads really are, as the car traversed everything from Wine Country cowpaths to Central Valley levee roads, to coastal mountain ranges, and everything in between. It’s the variety of California landscapes that make these drives so appealing.

The Golf R (two- and four-door versions available) is continued proof that Volkswagen is hitting its stride—this four-door, equipped with sunroof and navigation, at almost $37,000, is roughly a third more expensive than a base GTI, but feels every bit a luxury German car with high quality materials throughout. Details such as the leather-trimmed, flat-bottom steering wheel, heated, well-bolstered leather seats, and the in-dash navigation, proved quite useful when leaving Redding at 6:30 a.m. and heading for the burg of Ono, California (just down the road from Igo). This is a car that will make you savor the experience of getting behind the wheel and pushing the Start button every morning.

It was particularly enjoyable flinging the Golf R through corners on Highway 36, one of Northern California’s truly great driver’s roads. This car is more mature than some of its R32 predecessors and just as pleasurable to drive. It certainly feels like a lot of value for the money—it’s easy to imagine buying one. Well done, Volkswagen!


David Swig is a car enthusiast and a regular participant in historic car activities, including circuit racing, road tours, and Concours d’Elegance. He is an expert on specialty collector cars, especially sports racing cars (1950s thru 1980s). David and his brother, Howard, are carrying on the California Mille for their father, Martin, who founded the car tour in 1991.

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