As a general rule, cars should not be evaluated in a vacuum. (There’s so little space, and it’s dusty besides. Zing.) Practically any new car is bound to seem decent enough when considered solely on its own, but comparing and contrasting a vehicle to its competition is necessary to tease out its faults and relative strengths. That sort of comparison just happens to be the job of car magazines like us, where we have the chance to sample the entire marketplace and can then determine where any vehicle fits within that spectrum.
That’s a bummer for the Fiat 500 Abarth, because if you compare it to other small, hot-ish cars—the Honda Civic Si, the Volkswagen GTI, the Mini Cooper S, and the Hyundai Veloster R-Spec, as examples—it’s bound to come up short. But drive the plucky little Fiat on its own, and it’s hard not to fall in love with the damn thing.
The 500 Abarth hasn’t changed much since its 2012 introduction, so you may already be familiar with the details: 160 horsepower and 183 lb-ft of torque from a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, a stiffer suspension, and the best exhaust note this side of a Ferrari. We drove the 500C Cabrio, which is not so much a convertible as it is a car with a really big cloth sunroof.
The little 500 isn’t the quickest, best-handling, or best steering car in its competitive set. And it has an awkward driving position that’s tall and upright and frankly unusual for a sporty car. Unless you have the limb proportions of a gibbon, you either have to sit right on top of the pedals or far away from the steering wheel. The optional automatic alleviates this problem some since you don’t need to actuate a clutch, and it’s well-tuned enough that it doesn’t detract from the driving experience, although we still prefer to shift for ourselves, even if the 500’s manual transmission has only five speeds instead of six. The 500 is also hampered by a size that makes it hugely useful in urban environments but provides for only the tiniest of back seats and a small trunk that shrinks nearly to nonexistence in the cabrio.
Sounds awesome, right? Yet for all that, the 500 Abarth is a characterful, fun little car that we would recommend without hesitation. Small and strange as it may be, this thing has enough personality to fill a parking lot. It may not be the quickest, but it is quick—and, oh, that sound. The 500 Abarth’s secret is in how its exhaust is muffled, namely the fact that it isn’t. Trace the exhaust back from the catalytic converter, and you’ll find an uninterrupted pipe that splits into two beneath the 500’s vestigial trunk. The turbocharger keeps the 500 just quiet enough to be legal, and from inside, the sound level is just about perfect. It’s loud enough to project the 500 Abarth’s attitude, but quiet enough that you won’t regret buying the car on your first long-distance drive. (Some staffers disagree and say it’s too loud, but they need to pipe down.)
The steering offers some feel, although its off-center response is less immediate than we typically prefer, but it does impart some stability in the manners of a car short enough overall that it fits between the wheel—with room to spare—of a Ford F-series Super Duty. It also means the car doesn’t feel too nervous on the highway. The 500 Abarth also offers relatively tenacious, terrier-like grip in corners, albeit with plenty of body roll. That same compliance, though, means the ride isn’t punishing enough to forget about driving it every day; given the choice of commuting in a Mini Cooper S or a Fiat 500 Abarth, we’d take the Italian for sure.
The 500’s small size, as mentioned, is great for urban living, allowing you to slip easily into tight spots while parking or in traffic. That said, the long doors eliminate much of the size advantage in parking lots, and the turning radius is larger than you might expect given the 500’s tiny length. Appearance-wise, the Abarth nails it. The ’70s-style strobe stripes are a worthy $295 option and include color mirror caps to finish the look. Our test car had the optional 17-inch wheels, which do a nice job of filling the fenders, although they’re a bit pricey at $1,395. With these options and more, our example cost just over $27k, which is well into Volkswagen GTI territory and, frankly, too much to pay for this much car. But a hardtop Abarth model with big wheels and stripes can be had for a little over $22,000, which is more reasonable.
But it’s hard to support an argument in favor of the little Fiat versus its rivals. The Hyundai Veloster R-Spec, a 201-hp car that takes its sportiness more seriously, rings in under $24K, while the Honda Civic Si starts at just over $25K in coupe or sedan body styles. Meanwhile, with lesser Fiat 500s getting a standard turbo engine and attendant power bump to 135 horses and 150 lb-ft for 2019, the 500 Abarth is getting squeezed from the bottom as well.
Still, if the 500 Abarth grabs you, it’s worth consideration. It’s cheeky, plucky, and certainly unique, and if you can get over the oddball driving position—which we eventually did—you’ll likely have a ball.
2019 Fiat 500C Abarth Cabriolet Specifications
|PRICE||$23,285/$27,210 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||1.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 157 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 183 lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||28/33 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||144.4 x 64.1 x 59.2 in|