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Small mans world

“IS YOUR DAD A HAIRDRESSER?” my son’s Facebook mates wanted to know. He’d just posted up an image of the Fiat 500C I’d parked in the driveway under the heading “How My Father Shames Me”, so it was a fair question.

My wife, normally a veritable bastion of support, reason and grace was helpless with the giggles. She was smiling as I pulled up, but totally fell apart as she watched me lever myself out of the miniscule Fiat.

“What have those Top Gear clowns got you doing now?” she puffed, struggling to catch her breath. “Joining the circus?”  “It’s not what you think,” I told her. “They just need a large tattooed man to drive these zippy Euro cars around for a few days.”

“Why?” she demanded, glaring past me at the impossibly coloured-and-proportioned 500C. “And what colour is that meant to be?” “They think it’ll be funny, and it’s called Cha Cha Cha Azure. Oh please. Stop laughing. It’s not like I chose it…” And so began my week with three of Europe’s most recent contributions to the world of vehicle chic – the Fiat 500C, the Citroen DS3 and the Alfa Romeo Giulietta QV. Three very different cars, bound together by a powerful design imperative and driven around Sydney by the most non-chic, design-ignorant lump of humanity that ever grabbed a steering wheel.

The questions to be explored were fundamental. Given these cars are clearly intended to appeal to either trendy young hotties with expensive manicures and seven-inch heels, or pouty, snake-hipped youths with standy-uppy hair and neat kitchens, how would they go with someone like me? Could they be redeemed with wife-beaters, tattoos and brute strength? Or were they forever doomed to abide with culotte-wearing inner-city trendsetters?

When I lined them all up and stared at them in despair, their physical differences, like my metrosexual shortcomings were glaring.  The 1.4l-engined, built-in-Poland Fiat was quite poisonously cute, like that fluffy barking cat Paris Hilton totes around, and seemed to be made of eye-shadow, handbags and bakelite. And I have never felt more ridiculous in a vehicle than I did in this one – except for that time at the Sydney Motor Show when I wedged my fat thighs halfway into the cockpit of Coulthard’s McLaren and had to wait for security to help me out.

But my feelings of aggrieved heterosexuality aside, this is arguably the perfect car if 99 per cent of your driving is in the city. It’s the smallest four cylinder car available in Australia, can be jammed into the tiniest of spaces and boasts seven airbags (including one for the driver’s freshly waxed knees) in case you go mad one night and manage to overcome the ABS, traction control, and ESP. It only makes 74kW at 6000rpm and 131Nm at 4250rpm, no matter how much you swear at it, and it does it all at through some bizarre, hate-filled Dualogic gearbox that provides you with two options via an automatic clutch.

Or three options, if you count the swearing. Either you change gears by hand, nudging the lever towards the plus sign as people laugh at you, or you allow it to change gears for you (in either Sport or Normal mode) as people laugh at you. If you choose the latter, they will laugh at you longer because fast getaways are simply del tutto impossibile, even in Sport mode. Though Sport mode does tend to anger it up a touch. But me and that weird-arse gearbox were never going to be mates.

It drives fine, provided a) you keep it in town and don’t hurl it down the cranky bitumen of the Jenolan Caves Road when your teenage son demands to know how it “goes”; and b) you don’t mind swaying from side to side inside the car each time you go through some corners. That kinda stuff tends to unsettle whatever nonsense the Italians decided would do for suspension on the 500.

The seats are comfy enough if you’re smaller than my six-foot by 110kg of inky beef. But there’s no lateral support in them, so if you get all funky and imagine you’re channeling the 500’s Arbarth ancestors you’re going to have a bruised shoulder on the right and a bruised photographer on the left, for which I’m really sorry, Daniel.

The 500C I had came with a retractable soft roof that slides back at the push of a button and sits all scrunched up and stylish above the car’s bum like a beige Gucci purse – and allowed me to drive tall and proud, as nature intended. Unhappily, the inside of the car looks like a rich girl’s make-up case, so I tried to spend as little time as possible in there.

The hyper yellow Citroen DS3, by comparison, was absolutely palatial internally (and certainly more manly) – and simply brimming with paddles and dials and swoopy, asymmetrical French parallelograms. It boasted a generous wedge of uber-sexy carbonfibre on the dash, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel that was a joyous melange of top-end leather, alloy and something that passes for rubber in France. I didn’t so much grip it as I did fondle it, while absorbing the searing yellow-and-blackness of its tres jazzy interior. It was like sitting within a giant bee. There’s lots going on inside the DS3, and at one stage (and it was my fault for being a hamfisted swine), the radio stopped broadcasting music and began to demand I link all my Bluetooth appliances to it, tout suite. All the cars I drove were Bluetooth happy, even if I am not, but the DS3 was the most insistent on completing this synergy.

If I was 25 years old, au fait with the latest in electronic technology and splendidly stylish, me and this somewhat effete version of the Bumblebee Autobot in Transformers could go a few rounds. This is no clever retro-design attempt like the Fiat 500, but rather a very contemporary and immensely “now” car – from its funky two-tone alloy wheels, to the signature sharkfin B-pillar, to the “floating” roof and the LED strips at the front, the Citroen is all about “Look at moi!” But I’m twice that age, about as stylish as a meat pie and I don’t really need to be looked at all the time. Just ask any of the bejewelled Double Bay matrons I shared a coffee shop with during the photo shoot. If they weren’t trying to guess which gaol I’d just been released from, they were busily arching their horrid eyebrows at my sweaty wifebeater-and-jeans ensemble.

As it turned out, there was a good deal of substance to the Citroen’s style. The 1.6litre, all-alloy 16-valve turbocharged engine actually rather bangs, as I discovered. To call it “zippy” would be to insult its 115kW and 240Nm of Gallic anger. The DS3 is perfectly content to idle along in second gear through Sydney’s epic traffic, but it’s just as happy being buried deep into a decreasing radius bend with its disc brakes glowing and its rev-limiter protesting to the UN. The race-bucket front seats were by far the best of the three cars I had, gripping my side-lard with a firm hand and allowing me to pretend I was the steam off Didier Auriol’s wee.

It frankly surprised the crap out of me with its sheer willingness to get on with the business of being driven like it had just been stolen. I was initially afraid it would be so wretchedly French, I’d be burning it outside their embassy after the first drive, then lying to Corby about being carjacked. Instead, I was considering Botox and Paris in the spring.
Which brings me to the car called, rather appallingly, Juliet. The Alfa Romeo Giulietta QV, in white, looked a bit like a fridge with eyes. Alfas should be red, according to my wife, and in this, as in all things, she is right. And she is also right in stating that the only car of the three that didn’t call my adult manhood into question too blatantly was the Alfa.
And it was my favourite, for reasons that probably need explaining.

Older women would coo appreciatively at the Fiat, look bewildered by the Citroen and smile knowingly at the Alfa – until I got out of any one of them, in which case they’d bugger off up the road dialling the cops on their phones. Younger women would also coo at the Fiat, then be mesmerised by the Citroen, before dissolving into what looked like major sexual arousal upon beholding the Alfa. Then when they saw me they’d be off up the street calling the cops too. So that was a constant.

But that aside, there was a certain classiness about the Alfa. It had a vehicular gravitas the other two didn’t. It even had four doors. A bloke with less tattoos than me could drive it without people thinking he designed wallpaper.

Then there was the spooky fact that this kitchen-appliance-white hatchback is one hell of an Alfa. Known to the Alfa Romeo cognoscenti as the Cloverleaf version (the most obvious giveaway is the leaf-green enamel stigmata just forward of the front doors), this is, according to Jeremy and the boys, the best Alfa Alfa has ever built. Gone is the “Hail Mary!” freak-out when too much Italian power met too little Italian chassis – something Alfas had a reputation for. But I came to the QV with no such baggage. Sure, I had heard they had a tendency to detonate spontaneously when it was least convenient, and I had helped my mate’s wife each time her 147 made nom-noms with the fan belt, leaving her stranded and petrified in her Jimmy Choos on the dark and evil roads of Sydney.
But I don’t scare that easily.

All I was concerned about was not looking like I kissed sailors. And for the most part, I probably managed that, thanks to Juliet’s relatively understated, but still quite contemporary kung fu. The QV is 10mm lower than the standard Giulietta, comes with dark tinted windows, microfiber and leather seats with contrasting red stitching, and red-painted brake callipers. The dash is searingly masculine, in leather and brushed alloy that is purple with awesome. And the dials, which suffer from reflection during the day, come alive at night when they glow a helpful Satanic red.

It also goes like the proverbial shower of effluent when it is kicked in the guts. I kicked it there a few times and marvelled as it launched itself down the M2 on-ramp like something much larger and angrier. And possibly Bavarian. And he shouldn’t have tried to race me. The QV’s turbocharged 1.7litre donk lays down its 173kW of power and 340Nm of torque through the front wheels with all the seriousness of a cemetery. The Milanese champions responsible for this Alfa di tutti Alfi were not screwing around when they made this one.

So what if you have nowhere to put your left leg when you’re not sawing at the clutch? So what if the 18-inch alloy wheels protrude and demand your utmost care and precision when parking? So what if there’s some kind of fake Italian sharkskin nonsense along the top of the door-trim rubbing the skin off your elbows? So what if the stupid computer beeps out a warning each time you exceed its internal-set speed limit?
Just turn up that heroic Bose stereo system (or turn it off and wallow in the engine note), find a gear that works for the corner you’re in, and just let it be.

Practicality is for the Germans. The Italians are all about style, passion and, may my tongue turn black, fun.
And that’s precisely what the Alfa force-feeds you.
The Citroen also offers up a most meaningful driving experience and younger playahs would certainly find happiness exploring its French connections.
The Fiat is a girl’s car. But you can drive it around town when she’s overdosed on shoe-shopping.
Just as long as you’re man enough, of course.

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Boris Mihailovic

Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.

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