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Taking the High Road

BY JOE KEOHANE

A WOMAN’S EYES were locked on my car as she walked across the lot of the gas station outside of Asheville, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Nothing new there. Since I’ve arrived, everyone I’ve come across either stares at this pearl-colored, escape-pod-looking automobile or asks about it. The woman wanders over. “Can I just say,” she says, “that I just love your car?” I tell her I’m fond of the 500 too but worry it’s a li le… li le. “I can see that it might be a li le girly for you,” she says sweetly. “But gosh, I just love it.”

The Fiat 500, which debuted stateside at the 2011 Chicago Auto Show, is a retooled version of the Fiat Cinquecento, a car that has been popular abroad for five decades. But while the original was boxy and utilitarian, this one is more styled, even futuristic, and offers options for American drivers looking for an efficient car without having to pilot a sardine can on wheels. So why North Carolina? I wanted to take the 500 out of its urban comfort zone and see how it played with the big hills and sharp turns of the famed Blue Ridge Parkway.

I start my day at the Inn on the Biltmore Estate, a beautifully situated hotel on the 8,000-acre grounds of Biltmore, the gargantuan mansion built by George Vanderbilt and completed in 1895. Vanderbilt, the grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, had fallen in love with the area and made it his home. As I sit on the patio with coffee, watching the fog burn off the surrounding hills, I see his point.

Leaving Asheville, I drive to the parkway entrance. Work on the road, a 469-mile byway running through Virginia and North Carolina, began during the Great Depression in 1935 and took nearly 50 years to finish. About 25 miles in, I pull over at Craggy Gardens, which in early summer is like a sprawling carpet of violet rhododendrons that seems to reach all the way through the mountains to Tennessee. The parkway is full of such scenic overlooks. One moment you’re surrounded by trees and grass, the next you’re on the edge of the Linn Cove Viaduct, 4,400 feet above sea level, in the foggy, blue-tinged Appalachian Mountains, struggling to keep your eyes on the road.

The 500 performs admirably throughout. It handles the sharp curves with aplomb and mounts all but the steepest inclines with little trouble. More important, though small (Fiat calls it a four-seater, but unless your third and fourth passengers are cats, it’s effectively a two), it doesn’t feel cramped. I keep forge ing that I’m driving such a small car, at least until I notice that people are pointing and staring at me.

The Blue Ridge is meant to be driven slowly and savored, but even at a modest speed, all those curves can get tiring. So I pick a random exit and turn off near Linville Falls and drive Route 221 through a string of picturesque towns best known for growing Christmas trees. All around are rolling hills bristling with little fir trees and the occasional shop clu ered with rocking chairs and barrels of addictive brine-boiled peanuts.

I end my journey up north, dropping off my bags at one of Ada’s Co ages, a cozy, eclectic, two-story octagonal vacation house with great views in Blowing Rock, N.C. Realizing I’ve neglected to eat anything save boiled peanuts all day, I venture a few miles over to the town of Boone, home of Appalachian State University, and take a booth at Bandana’s Bar-B-Que for a mind-blowing plate of ribs. It crosses my mind that if I keep eating like this, ge ing back into the 500 could pose a challenge. Does that stop me from ordering more? No. It does not.

THE FIAT 500

BELLS AND WHISTLES

Price: Starting at $15,500

Engine: 1.4-liter in-line four-cylinder

Performance: 101 horsepower and 98 lb.-ft. of torque.

Efficiency: Up to 38 mpg highway, and 30 mpg in the city with fi ve-speed standard transmission; 34/27 with six-speed automatic.

Options: The “Pop” we drove had a leather interior, a BOSE stereo system with satellite radio, a power sunroof, heated seats and 15-inch chrome-accented wheels, on top of standard options like the cool eco: Drive application, which allows drivers to collect data on their 500’s performance and adjust their driving styles to maximize the car’s mileage.

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