As we sped through Hidden Valley in the Fiat 500c Abarth, my son Andrew said, "Rate the car, dad. Dope or Nope."
(For those who don't have kids, Dope or Nope is the rating system used by Smosh Games on their YouTube channel. I didn't know that either -- I had to look it up.)
I am young enough to know that "dope" means good, but too old to be familiar with the precise rules of Dope or Nope. Andrew explained that it's as simple as it sounds: A one-word review of the car. Would if things were that easy, because the Fiat 500c Abarth is a car that eludes a simple rating. Could I give some parts of the car a Dope, and others a Nope?
"Nope," Andrew explained. "You rate each of the bits and pieces, but ultimately you have to rate the whole car Dope or Nope."
Hmm, I thought, this isn't going to be easy -- this car is a perfect storm of Dope and Nope.
Under the hood: All the right noises
For starters, there's the engine (link goes to photo), a 160 hp turbocharged four-cylinder that makes the best car noises this side of a V8 through the simple expedient of having no muffler whatsoever. The engine's turbocharger puts a lid on just enough of the noise to keep the Abarth legal, but what comes out of the tailpipe is a symphony of pops and farts and bellows and even the occasional gun-shot backfire. Dope? Hell, it doesn't get any more dope than this.
Problem is, it's not that fast. 160 horsepower, 170 lb-ft and 2,545 lbs of curb weight sounds like a cracking combination, except it's not. 0-60 in just under 8 seconds is nothing to write home about -- and despite promising EPA fuel economy estimates of 28 MPG city and 34 MPG highway, I only averaged 26.3. As far as powertrains go, it's menza-menz. Translated into my son's English: Nope.
Keeping up with the Coopers
What about the handling? Again, not so simple. Out on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, the 500c Abarth quickly established that it was no MINI Cooper S Roadster -- it simply doesn't grip the road as well, giving up traction at much lower speeds. I could have gone a lot faster in the MINI.
So, then, a nope? Nope. Despite the lower limits, I had a great time flinging this little car around. It's got well weighted steering and a lot of spirit -- that old saw about it being more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. And unlike the aforementioned MINI, the Abarth 500c didn't make me miserable on every other road in Southern California. The ride is firm but comfortable, and though the noise levels are high, they're great noises. I put a lot of miles on the car just running errands around town, and every time I drove it, I enjoyed myself. Dope, says I.
My wife Robin vehemently disagreed: She complained that the 500c Abarth felt like it was all over the place on the highway, and she has a point; the steering translates small corrections into big changes. She also castigated the 500c for its turning circle, which is inexcusably huge for such a small car: It can't pull a U-turn on our narrow residential street. That's a firm nope from the smarter-and-prettier half of the Gold marriage.
Robin also hated the navigation system, a TomTom unit that mounts on the dashboard like a big electronic lollipop and blocks a surprising percentage of the windshield. The good news is that it's removable; the bad news is that it must be in place to use the Bluetooth speakerphone, which, as it turns out, isn't very useful -- ours would only sound off through the TomTom's tiny speaker, which is no match for the Abarth's shouty exhaust. On this, the wife and I are agreed: It's a big, fat nope.
Open top... but not open enough
And then there's the "c" part of the 500c's name. That stands for Cabriolet, which is French for "convertible" -- except in Italian it apparently translates to "thing that almost bears a passing resemblance to a convertible but is nowhere near as good." The 500c's big fabric sunroof opens clear to the back of the car; it has a further-back position that does little more than increase wind turbulence and block the view to the rear. I had hoped that the open top would improve access to the sound of the exhaust, but it doesn't. On the matter of the top, the senator from About.com votes nope.
There were a few other things on the nope list: Tiny trunk, unusable back seat, questionable build quality -- my test car developed a nasty dashboard squeak towards the end of test week -- and the manual transmission, which has five speeds (one too few) and the world's most annoying shift-up light (which, mercifully, can be disabled by engaging Sport mode). Incidentally, the Abarth isn't offered with an automatic, so if you don't want to drive a stick, it's an automatic nope. But there are nearly as many things on the dope list: Park-anywhere size, bright body-color dashboard, and a scrappy attitude that put a smile on my face every time I drove the car.
Last thing I considered is value-for-money. Fiat charges $26,700 for the 500c Abarth, a $4000 premium over the hardtop Abarth. With options -- leather seats ($1,000), Beats stereo ($700), automatic climate control ($650), fancy wheels ($1,200), that ridiculous navigation system ($500) and a couple other bits and bobs, my test car stickered for $31,100 -- $915 more than a Mazda Miata Grand Touring soft-top with leather and a six-speed manual transmission.
So... dope or nope?
So what's the final verdict? I really want to say dope -- for all its shortcomings, I really loved the 500c Abarth, and I would happily drive one every day. But the somewhat-open top doesn't add anything to the driving experience, and the performance isn't all that spectacular. The hard-top 500 Abarth is cheaper, the MINI Cooper S Roadster is sportier, and the Mazda MX-5 Miata delivers a better experience overall. All three are, without question, dope cars.
"One verdict for the whole car, then?" I asked Andrew.
"Yep, that's how it works."
"Well then," I said, "I guess it's a nope." -- Aaron Gold
What I found dope about the Fiat 500c Abarth:
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Small, easy-to-handle size
- Good fun to drive
What made me say nope about the Fiat 500c Abarth:
- High price
- Fabric top does a poor imitation of a proper convertible
- Not all that sporty
Details and specs:
- Abarth is the sporty version of the 500C
- Price range: $26,700 - $31,680 ($31,100 as tested)
- Powertrain: 1.4 liter turbocharged 4-cylinder/160 hp, 5-speed manual transmission, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 28 MPG city/34 MPG highway
- Observed fuel economy: 26.3 MPG
- Where built: Mexico
- Best rivals: Fiat 500 Abarth hardtop, MINI Cooper Roadster, Mazda Miata