The 500 Abarth has 58 percent more power and 73 percent more torque than the 500 on which it's based, but halfway through my evening with the Abarth, I was not thinking that the car was 58 percent better than the base model. I was wondering if Fiat had made the car better at all.
Driving on the highway on a windy evening, the car needed almost constant corrections to keep on its course, partly a symptom of the 500's size -- it has lots of height and little length -- and partly due to the Abarth's steering. Whereas the 500's steering is forgettable, not very well weighted but not hugely overboosted, the Abarth's tiller was inconsistent: for the first few degrees off center, it's light and slightly vague, after which point it quickly becomes heavy, with little feel. It feels as if Fiat put tires on the front wheels that were too wide -- which I think they did.
I was in the middle of grousing about the Abarth's shortcomings when something happened: the road I was driving on, one of the access roads to Detroit Metro Airport, went into a tunnel. I rolled down the windows, opened the massive sunroof, shifted into second, and goosed it.
Things quickly changed: the tiny four-cylinder's burble became a shout that no doubt rattled the passengers in the Lincoln Town Car limo behind me. It was as if I were gunning a Ferrari through the tunnels of Monaco, even though my little Fiat was only doing 45 mph and I was driving in Romulus, Michigan. I stopped caring about the steering and started laughing.
All in all, the Abarth makes little sense as an only car -- its upgrades over the stock 500 make it more difficult to use as a daily driver -- so if this will be your only vehicle, buy a Volkswagen GTI instead. But if your two-car garage has a free space and you're willing to spend $27,000 on vehicular comedy, do yourself a favor and get one. The grin may never leave your face.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
I can't recall the last time I had this much fun with a press car - or felt so emotionally torn when it came time to surrender the keys after driving it for a night. The Abarth is to the regular 500 as the TT-RS is to the Audi TT: a transformation of a vehicle designed as a style piece into one that is actually appealing and entertaining to an enthusiast.
How? A heaping helping of power certainly doesn't hurt. 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque don't necessarily sound like much, but they turn the 2500-pound Fiat into a pocket-sized monster. I was expecting to have to wrangle an incredible surge of torque steer, but the Abarth is surprisingly benign. In fact, even when provoked - i.e. mashing the throttle when launching into a corner - the Abarth's mechanical limited-slip front diff transfers power to the ground with little drama, wheel slip, or tire smoke. A stiffer suspension setup does result in a bouncier ride, but it also helps snuff body roll and allow the tail to rotate.
Does the Abarth rectify any of our existing concerns with the 500, including its awkward driving position, limited interior space, lanky shift action, or slightly numb electric power steering? No - but you'll be having so much fun launching, tossing, and flogging this car on back roads, on-ramps, and open highways, you won't pay them much heed. The exhaust note alone, which rumbles, burbles, and crackles like that of a vintage rally car, is nothing short of intoxicating.
All that obviously incites the emotions, but how does the Abarth stack up rationally? Skip the sexy white wheels, side stripes, sunroof, navigation system, and leather seating found here in our tester, and the still well equipped 500 Abarth stickers for a touch over $23,000. Not bad, but it's not much less than the comparable Mini Cooper S hardtop, which offers a little more interior space and a bit more power. It's also not that far off from the larger, more sophisticated, yet equally enjoyable Volkswagen GTI.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
I really wanted to like the Abarth. The idea of a Fiat 500 with stupid power is certainly good. The execution of the Abarth is even great. But it's still a Fiat 500, a car that I find just too awkward to drive. Much like the GT500 exacerbates the base Mustang's ergonomic shortcomings, the Abarth makes the base 500's awkward seating position intolerable. I can't stand sitting up this high in a performance vehicle. Sitting close enough to the wheel to be in control of the car means my right foot isn't very comfortable because of the swing of the pedals relative to the position of the seat. It's a deal breaker.
If you happen to fit in the 500 and like to drive quickly with a booming exhaust, the Abarth is perfect. There is so much character in the exhaust system, especially when set to sport, that you'll forgive the electric power steering's lack of feedback. As Evan points out, the only way you'll get a better-sounding exhaust is on some type of vintage car. Look for excuses to drive through tunnels, empty parking garages, or next to concrete barriers so the sound can echo as much as possible. It's that good.
The pricing of an Abarth may scare away some potential shoppers, but the base 500 is already expensive for what it is. I think the Abarth is a screaming deal when you think about all the extra equipment and how well the car is tuned. I'd still like to see some better headlights in the package, but otherwise it's tough to fault. No other factory-tuned car anywhere near this price has as much personality as Fiat has packed into the Abarth. It's a real pity that I can't get comfortable in this car.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I have little to add that hasn't already been addressed by the comments from Evan and Phil. I really wanted to like the Abarth but despite an increase in power and attitude -- both visual and audible -- the sporty little Fiat is ultimately let down by the dynamic and ergonomic shortcomings of the 500 on which it's based. I guessed that the little Italian's wonky seating position was a quirk that couldn't be fixed but I was hoping that the performance-oriented folks at Abarth would breathe some life into the uncommunicative steering and uninvolving shifter. Unfortunately, both are still present and, in fact, the increase in power and chassis stiffness only make these shortcomings that much more obvious.
It's still possible to have some fun in the Abarth, but it's hard to endorse it when vehicles like the Volkswagen GTI and the Mini Cooper S are more engaging and require fewer concessions to seating comfort, people space, and cargo room for similar money and with similar mpg ratings.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
The 500 Abarth literally snarls more than any other production car I can think of. As my colleagues have pointed out, it sounds more like a rally car than a subcompact. Rarely have I had a smile on my face while driving up seven levels of our parking garage, but I sure did this morning. That said, the exhaust note is not terribly loud or obnoxious when you're just tooling around town conservatively. I'm not positive about that last statement, though, because I exercised my right ankle often just to hear the backpressure pops and the spooling turbo. On that note, the Abarth gets terrible fuel mileage. The EPA rating is an okay 28/34 mpg, but I could never get near that, because I could never be ginger with the go pedal.
About the only thing I don't like about the Abarth -- besides the non-telescoping steering column that makes it hard to find a comfortable driving position -- is the exterior graphics. Not counting the wheel centers, there are SIX Abarth labels or badges on the outside of this car. I know the scorpion is a cool logo, but lay off -- I feel like I'm driving Brad Keselowski's Miller Lite Dodge.
The Abarth makes me not like the regular 500 nearly as much. The shift action is less floppy, the steering feel is better (although not great), and it offers more driving character. The regular 500 looks cool but feels fairly normal from behind the wheel; the Abarth feels as special as it looks, obnoxious exterior graphics notwithstanding.
I don't think the Abarth 500 is a better car than a Volkswagen GTI or a Mini Cooper S, but it is definitely a lot of fun and it sounds awesome.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The noise this little car makes when you start it in the morning is no less intoxicating than a Ferrari's. No, I'm not kidding. For the first, oh, thirty seconds, it sounds like there's an emissions pump running, and all you hear is a tremendously deep growl overlaid with the turbo's whistle. The exhaust sounds like it has no muffler at all. (I didn't look. It was raining.) And that's before you touch the accelerator pedal. I bet that sound alone will sell Abarths. Unfortunately, once the engine is under boost the exhaust note goes totally flat. It's great just off idle and until 2000 rpm (where it sounds like a diesel truck's exhaust -- deep and staccato with that ever-present turbo whistle) but then it all just kinda goes... vacuum cleaner. Tragic.
The rest of the car is typical 500 -- which means cheeky fun. I still can't stand that you have to contort your hand into the appropriate position to insert the key, and I don't like the lack of headroom on the passenger side, but I love the car. I should say: I love the car in cities. As fun as it is in New York or San Francisco or even downtown Ann Arbor, the 500 is miserable on the open interstate. It blows around like a trailer in a tornado. I suspect a long, Midwest road trip on a windy day in the 500 would just plain suck the life out of you. Joe DeMatio was right when he kept wishing for a GTI. For similar money, there's just no comparison: the Volkswagen is a real car all the time -- the 500 only sometimes. And especially first thing in the morning.
Jason Cammisa, West Coast Editor
The Abarth version of the Fiat 500 reminds me of a chihuaha - small but feisty, and not afraid to let people hear it bark. Luckily, the Abarth's bark is a lot deeper than that of a toy dog. It really is incongruous to hear that deep growl coming from this cartoonish-looking little car. It's sort of a moving oxymoron. The added power and torque are a boon to performance, but I wonder if people who are looking for the kind of response that the Abarth seems to promise will be turned off by the cutesy package.
On the other hand, when I stopped before work at my local coffee shop, I had a gentleman stop by to look at the car, and he knew exactly what it was and was interested in it.
"An Abarth, huh?" he said. "I have a 500."
Thinking me meant the current car, I asked him how he liked it. "Oh, no. I have an original 500. From the '50s. This new Abarth is something, isn't it?"
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I was bounding along M-14 just outside Ann Arbor, reflecting on the somewhat harsh ride of the Fiat 500 Abarth, when a bright red VW GTI zipped by me in the left lane. I have to admit that I was envious of its driver. The 500 Abarth sure has a nice powertrain, with strong power delivery and a wonderful exhaust note on start-up. I like the gearshifter, and there's a decent-size dead pedal. The car gets attention: from kids in the grocery store parking lot, from a father/son driving a Miata on an early spring day. But the deal breaker for me is the enormous turning signal, which astounded me every time I tried to turn into a not very tight parking space. Apparently the turning circle is seven feet wider than the stock 500's. The whole point of a tiny little car is to be super maneuverable in tight urban settings. So if I wanted a Fiat 500, I'd stick with a stock one. Or I'd just get a VW GTI.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I sit with Phil -- figuratively, and at 6'3", literally. The seating position in the Fiat 500 is even more awkward in Abarth trim. Here is a ridiculously loud, entertainingly punchy, expertly tuned car that feels far too tall and upright simply because of the driver's chair-like position.
It's too bad because the Abarth is a seriously competent hot hatch. It's a thorough upgrade from the 500 and yet it also proves what a solid baseline the Abarth engineers started from. To that point, the chassis exhibits mind-boggling levels of composure through both smooth corners and pockmarked pavement. While the Abarth rides flatter and stiffer than it's slower sibling, the ride isn't harsh -- more like busy, direct, and, if you live in Michigan, slightly choppy. Still, you have to keep in mind that this car has a wheelbase that is shorter than your typical two-by-four. The additional heft to the steering and the tighter throws of the five-speed gearbox are exactly what the Abarth needed and I love the meaty shift knob and sculpted steering wheel. And the "obnoxious" graphics that Rusty detests? I like those, too.
I'm hoping that the fine folks who executed the 500 Abarth have a hand in the Dodge Dart SRT4 because Fiat-Chrysler clearly has the talent to do an excellent sport compact. The Abarth is a great package; the 500 just isn't for me.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor