I was going to start this review off with some snide little joke, something about the 500 Abarth being a pipsqueak with an attitude, or how it's Napoleonic complex is showing through. But I couldn't come up with anything really funny, because the truth is that I have too much respect for this car to poke fun at it.
Understand that I did not go into this test drive with particularly high expectations. When the regular Fiat 500 first launched last year, I liked its colorful style and cheeky design, but I was lukewarm on the driving dynamics, and I didn't know what to expect from the Abarth -- Ferrari and Lamborghini notwithstanding, I had no idea how the Italian attitude towards performance and handling would compare to the Americans and the Germans. And I'm still not sure, since the Fiat 500 Abarth was worked over by both Fiat in Italy and Chrysler in America.
What makes an Abarth?
So what did they do? Well, for starters, they turbocharged the 1.4 liter MultiAir engine (link goes to photo), beefing up its internals to handle an output of 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. The suspension is lower and tighter, the steering ratio is quicker, and the car is adorned with Abarth badges, cool-looking wheels, and strobe-style tape striping. The seats are new, but the funky body-color dash remains, with the addition of a boost gauge and shift light. And Fiat has priced the 500 Abarth very aggressively: $22,700, which is $1,600 cheaper than a MINI Cooper S.
How does it drive? You know, it's pretty damn good. As I said, I'm not terribly crazy about the regular 500's driving dynamics; it's not bad, but it doesn't have the go-kart feel of the MINI Cooper. The 500 Abarth gets a lot closer.
Let's start with acceleration: 0-60 comes up in about seven and a half seconds, not lightning quick, but the thrills are magnified by the Abarth's small size and it's muffler-free exhaust, which emits some fantastic grumbling and gurgling noises -- a soundtrack every bit as thrilling as a big burbling V8. (Confession time: While I did my fair share of foot-to-the-floor acceleration, I spent a lot of my seat time short-shifting for maximum auditory thrills.) Torque steer is minimal; well done, Fiat. The 5-speed stick -- the only gearbox available for the Abarth -- has well-spaced ratios, although out on the freeway I found myself continuously reaching to shift into the non-existent sixth gear.
The quicker steering ratio makes for much better response to commands than the regular 500, and the suspension is incredibly well done; not only does the Abarth grip well and turn in eagerly, but the ride remains tolerable on all but truly awful pavement. That's a pretty nifty trick, one that not all car manufacturers can get right (I'm looking at you, MINI).
Fiat gave us some track time to check out the Abarth's behavior at the limit. Their engineers went for a neutral chassis balance, but they didn't quite make it; the 500 Abarth still understeers when pushed, tightening its line when you lift off the accelerator but not quite breaking into oversteer. Not that oversteer isn't on the menu -- brake hard while turning and things get interesting, in the "may you live in interesting times" sense. The rear end gets very light under hard braking, and if you have aren't going perfectly straight, it feels as if the front end of the car wants to stop while the rear end just keeps going. Theoretically, one could use the brakes to hang the tail out and rotate the car, which is, theoretically, great fun if you know what you're theoretically doing. In practice, I bet this little trait is going to come as an unwelcome surprise to uninitiated 500 Abarth owners if they ever have to brake hard and swerve. (The electronic stability control should step in and save them at some point... theoretically, that is.) In all other respects the 500 Abarth is a well-behaved car, and I don't begrudge it this one quirk -- in fact, it's one of the reasons I respect it. Few automakers are willing to dial in true expert-level handling, especially in a front-wheel-drive car. It makes the 500 Abarth a bit of a brat -- and I like that.
So how does the Fiat 500 Abarth compare to the MINI Cooper? The Cooper S feels quicker, and its engine response is more of what I expect from a small turbo 4-cylinder, a little less linear and a little more top-endy than the Abarth. (That's down to MultiAir, Fiat's sophisticated variable intake valve timing system, which gives the 1.4 a flatter torque curve. To be fair to Fiat, MultiAir works so well that it's easy to forget how tiny the Fiat's engine really is.)
The Cooper's steering is more precise than than the Fiat's, although it's ride is noticeably harder. If I'm honest, I think the Cooper S is the better driver's car -- the 500 Abarth couldn't quite match the level of fun I had in the otherwise-ridiculous MINI Cooper S Coupe I tested last month. But I still prefer the Fiat's cheeky attitude, and besides, not all of us get to drive curvy roads all the time. For the commute to work, I'll take the 500 Abarth's more tolerable ride and grin-inducing exhaust note over the MINI's sharper steering and better power delivery. Oh, and I'll also take the Fiat's cheaper price.
Still, not all is roseo...
The Abarth does inherit plenty of the 500's annoyances. The interior is cramped (even my abnormally short leg was constantly banging against the shifter housing), the sun visors don't extend to cover the side windows, and the switchgear feels like it was made in a toy factory. Oh, and the Abarth has a new annoyance of its own -- unless you press the "Sport" button, which raises the turbo boost threshold from 12 psi up to 18, you only get access to 150 of the engine's 170 lb-ft of torque. Worse yet, you have to press the button every time you start the car. Ugh.
And then there's the Great Unknown, which is Fiat reliability. One of the advantages to owning Chrysler is that Fiat is able to better prepare their cars for the rigors of the American market, something they didn't do back in the 1970s and '80s. Then again, going to Chrysler for advice on quality is a bit like going to an Olive Garden chef for advice on molecular gastronomy. That said, MINIs aren't particularly well constructed, and that certainly hasn't been a barrier to their success. And Fiat does cover the 500 Abarth with a 4 year/50,000 mile warranty, although there is no additional long-term coverage on the powertrain.
Okay, enough picking of nits, let's get to the Bottom Line: I have seen the Fiat 500 Abarth, and as God would no doubt do if he had my job, I have seen that it is good. Fiat and Chrysler have done a magnificent job of turning the Fiat 500 into something fast, fun, and truly unique. Perfect? No, but I can accept a little imperfection in any car, and when you consider that the 500 Abarth is priced only a couple hundred bucks more than a Honda Civic Si -- well, hell, what's not to like? More to the point, what's not to respect? -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the Fiat 500 Abarth:
- Wonderful exhaust note
- Cute looks, cheeky personality
- Bargain price
What I didn't like:
- Squirrelly behavior under hard braking
- Cramped interior
- Build quality remains an unknown