The Set Up
July 16th will mark the one-year anniversary of our departure on the Millennial USA road trip. It is hard to believe how fast time passes, and harder still to comprehend the ease with which we settled back into domestic life. The grand video we planned never materialized, our travel log remains unfinished, and my tell-all memoir is stalled at page seventy-two. Our Instagram account remains the only complete chronicle of our journey, and the reason for this post.
As the crew’s social media Luddite, I do not have an Instagram handle of my own. So, I occasionally scroll through the Millennial_USA account to keep up with the people we met along the road and release a despondent sigh or two as I relive a time in my life when I was a far more interesting person. Back in December, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (fcacorporate) followed us. In response, I half-jokingly sent them a direct message offering our services should they need a car road tested for 10,000 miles, and, to my surprise, they responded. It was not the offer of adventure I was hoping for, but they promised to keep us in mind for the future. Four months later they made good on their word, asking if one of us would like to test out Fiat’s new 500X in Los Angeles. Since I am the only crew member still unemployed, Matt, Malcolm, and Phil were kind enough to let me represent the group, and two weeks later I boarded a flight for Tinsel Town.
In addition to covering my airfare, Fiat put me up in the Mr. C Hotel in Beverly Hills, a luxury establishment that had my room’s radio preset to piano sonatas when I opened the door. Needless to say, I looked more than a little out of place when I rolled into the lobby wearing cargo shorts, vans, and a beat-up cotton T. Waiting by the elevators was Mike Driehorst, Fiat’s Editorial Director of Online Media. He welcomed me to the event and handed off my media packet, itinerary, and room key. I had a few hours before the poolside meet-and-greet, so naturally I went to the hotel’s gym for a quick pump.
For a car that was designed with younger audiences in mind, I was surprised to find that I was the only reviewer under the age of thirty in attendance. I was also the only reviewer not representing a full-time blog or online media publication. The majority of my companions were in their late thirties or early forties, had families, and went to events like these on a regular basis.
Dinner was a haute buffet on the top floor of the hotel. To a broke, unemployed Millennial it was heaven on Earth. Having loaded up three plates with vegetables, couscous, and filet mignon, I was the last to take my seat. I found room at a table with four reviewers whom I had yet to meet and listened to them recount exploits from previous auto events (apparently, KIA throws the best parties) and swap humorous anecdotes about companies who tried to gain their good graces. As an outsider, it was fascinating to learn about a profession that until that night I had no idea existed. Out of habit, I began to ask questions, and before long the table conversation had morphed into a full-blown Millennial USA interview. By the end of the evening we had discussed civil disobedience, gun control, national politics, sports, and, my personal favorite, government conspiracy theories.
But despite my success in conversation, I never felt completely comfortable. My eyes kept wandering to the twenty-something catering staff, who rounded on the hot plates and patrolled the room with wine and water. As the only twenty-four year-old in the room not wearing a uniform, I felt like I had betrayed the bond of the “Millennial struggle”, abandoning my people for the opulence of the older generation.
After dinner, I stopped by Fiat’s hospitality suite with my table mate, Lander, who writes for men’s lifestyle blog Joe’s Daily. For those of you who do not know, the hospitality suite is a hotel room that anyone in the press group can access 24/7 and is kept fully stocked with wine, beer, carbonated water, and a cornucopia of snacks. Lander and I sat on the balcony and talked about life for an hour before I called it night.
Breakfast, like dinner, was a posh affair. I recognized the catering crew form the night before, except this time we were downstairs and in a much smaller venue. As a result, I overheard them swapping stories of the previous night while I fixed my bagel. My favorite ended with an inebriated youth running through the streets naked trying to wave down a cab. Like a caged animal seeing his cronies run free, I longed to join their sophomoric conversation, but as the press group’s sole Millennial, I was determined to prove that we are not all oblivious to social mores. After breakfast, a Fiat representative presented me with a contract that had a long list of things I was not allowed to do while driving the car, which included picking up passengers. Unsure of how I was supposed to test the car’s curb appeal without offering rides to beautiful strangers, I begrudgingly signed the document and headed to the shuttle.
We were dropped off at 3Labs in Culver City, where I finally saw the 500X in person. I snapped a few photos and perused the enormous swag table before taking my seat for a presentation by the 500X’s brand manager, Nicole Longhini, and engineer, Vern Bremmer. Primed with the car’s origin story and specifications, they released us for the main event: a tandem road test. Lander and I exchanged the universal guy nod and headed to a Bianco Gelato (white) 500X. I adjusted my mirrors and stuffed the center console with gratis beef jerky before starting her up. I was about to pull out when I noticed that none of the other drivers had left yet. New to these events, I asked Lander if we were supposed to wait for permission to leave, but he was equally confused, so in true Millennial fashion I said, “Fuck it” and piloted our Fiat out the door and into the Southern California sun.
Our route took us north up the Pacific Coastal Highway to Malibu, where we headed into the mountains for some GoPro worthy maneuvers. After an hour of cruising and nearly being blindsided by a tour bus (it came out of nowhere), we arrived at our switch point–a seaside restaurant across from Zuma Beach. Unlike the Podunk gas stations where we rotated drivers on the road trip, this bouganivilleas-draped bistro had a whole courtyard reserved for our comfort. Crisp, white couches offered themselves in muted dedication while a table of refreshments beckoned us to partake in its bounty. To a seasoned road warrior like myself, I was hardly fatigued by the morning’s joyride, so I passed on the couches, but I did re-up on jerky before returning to the car.
The rest of the drive transpired without incident. Lander and I returned to 3Labs, where they clocked our milage and garaged our Italian bella. Not ones to downplay their Italian identity, Fiat had lunch catered by The Urban Oven, whose food truck served up some savory Neapolitan pies. In addition–as if there are people who do not like artisan pizza–there was a buffet of salad, chili, fried chicken, and open-face sandwiches. I conversed with the other reviewers as they trickled in from the road, and everyone seemed to enjoy the car. Then again, Fiat was treating us like royalty.
The Post-Drive & Departure
That night we all went to AOC, a classy wine bar and restaurant near our hotel. Fiat reserved a private dining room in the back, where we were treated to a full menu of hors d’oeuvres, entrees, and desserts. I tried to keep pace with the persistent barrage of family-style plates, but I eventually came to terms with the fact that my stomach could only hold so much, and most of the food would go to waste. After dinner, I hit the town with some hometown friends and recounted to them the story above. In the morning, Steve, a Millennial from Detroit, drove me to the airport and I returned to my normal life as a job-seeking stiff.
As Millennials, we are reaching the point in our lives where we have accumulated enough wealth to make large financial decisions, like what kind of car to purchase. It is flattering to see companies like Fiat take note of our growing footprint in the marketplace and cater to us as consumers, but they still have much to learn when it comes to courting our favor. The pomp and pampering welcomed by older generations is dated and excessive to those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Recession. We are weary of large corporations and resentful of their ostentatious displays of wealth. Instead of taking me to a four star restaurant, why not pay the shuttle driver who brought me there a higher wage? True, I am generalizing, but after speaking to young people across the country who are struggling to start their careers, the level of comfort afforded me during the Fiat event felt out of place and elitist. If a car company wants my honest opinion of their product, put me up in a Courtyard Marriott, take me out for tacos, and hand me a set of keys. I am not anyone special, and that’s the point.
By my estimate, Fiat spent $1,300 for me to write a few hundred words on the 500X, and that is not including the fixed costs associated with orchestrating the event. Had I flown from across the country and taken full advantage of their hospitality, I could have easily driven the tab up to $2,000. That may not seem like a big number, but to give you some perspective, that is half of what I spent during our entire road trip.
To be clear, I have nothing but positive things to say about the people from Fiat and my fellow reviewers. I just hope that companies realize the value of humble hospitality as they continue to invite Millennials to these events. If this post gets me blacklisted from the automotive reviewer circuit, so be it. I spent two and a half months in a van with three of my closest friends. That tops any launch party.
Click here to read my review of the Fiat 500X.