Fun, when it comes to cars, manifests itself in different ways. The Fiat 500 Abarth represents one of those ways, in theory – extra power in a small car, plus the right suspension tuning, should result in a quick, nimble hatchback.
Not content with that recipe, Fiat also made the Abarth version of its 500 city car into a brash, loud machine that doesn’t go anywhere in subtlety.
That last bit isn’t an exaggeration. Like or not, the Abarth’s exhaust is set at a volume that’s not normally seen (heard?) in this class.
The Abarth has been around a while, as has the 500 upon which it’s based – the big changes for this year involve available appearance packages. It’s been a minute (is that how the kids say it these days?) since I’ve spend time with one, but the experience came back just as I remembered it.
Fire it up, and the Abarth comes to life, rude and crude (Fiat wants it that way). Outfitted with the six-speed automatic transmission, the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder makes 157 horsepower and 183 lb-ft of torque.
My last Abarth experience involved three pedals, and I’ve got to say – the car is a lot less fun with the auto, even though it has an extra 13 lb-ft of torque. That’s because hot hatches just don’t feel right when paired to an automatic. This one especially.
The hopped-up Abarth suffers from many of the same flaws as the base 500 – almost no rear seat, cheap-looking plastic interior materials, small cargo area – and adds one: Not only is the exhaust loud, it’s not aurally pleasing in most situations. The car sounds, frankly, flatulent.
At least, at most RPMs. There is a sweet spot under power that, while still not pleasant, at least works in context of what kind of car this is.
The Abarth is supposed to be nimble, and it is, but the steering is more distant than I’d like in a car with sporting pretentions. It’s still fun to whip the little bugger around corners, but other small, sporty cars feel better tuned. Yes, the Sport mode does liven things up.
Acceleration has an odd feel to it – the engine doesn’t always feel as gutsy as the numbers indicate, yet because the car is so small and light, the Abarth still jumps forward briskly.
One expects a stiff ride from a short car with a sport suspension, and one gets that. If your daily commute involves long drives over America’s crumbling freeways, save a few hundred extra bucks and take a peek at a Honda Civic Si or Volkswagen GTI. Between the noise and the ride, I can see how one might get exhausted quickly.
Fiat has modernized the nav system, though – no more aftermarket-looking afterthought tack-on. Overall, the interior experience is simplicity, in a good way. Everything is easy to use, and thanks to the tiny cabin, easy to reach. Just be ready for your right knee to get familiar with center stack when you make a hard left.
Feature-wise, the 500 Abarth offers the basic goods. Fog lamps, USB, Bluetooth, UConnect infotainment – all among the standard features, along with dual exhaust, rear spoiler, rear park assist, and painted brake calipers. Options on this tester included nav, a grey roof, satellite radio, heated front seats, and automatic air conditioning.
Nothing earth-shattering or must-have, but you’re not being punished for driving a “city car,” either.
Fuel economy checks in at 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway – a bit low for such a small car, but not unreasonable when factoring the sport mods.
It’s hard to place this Fiat within the greater universe of vehicles. It’s probably too small to really be cross-shopped against the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It stands mostly as a value alternative to Mini and a sportier, more conventional option to Hyundai’s Veloster.
It’s also probably the only “standard” (as in, non-X or non-L) 500 I’d throw money down on. Not because I love this little oddball, but because adding power is a good way to compensate for the flaws of the 500 – which exist mostly for reasons of novelty or ease of parking. Not to say the 500 is bad – it’s just too small to be useful for many.
I’m of two minds when it comes to the Abarth. It’s quick and fun enough to be amusing, and I can live with the verbose exhaust and stiff ride. But it’s still just as small as the 500, and not much less basic. I can also see its charms wearing off over time.
The price is right, at under $25K. The problem is that the Abarth remains a novelty. You can have fun and utility for a just a few grand more.
If novelty works for you, by all means, give Fiat a shout. If they can hear you over the Abarth’s pipes.