Don’t expect to fly under the radar if you buy a Fiat 500 Abarth. The Abarth is the performance model in the 500 lineup, and it has a raucous exhaust note the lets everyone know you’re coming when you are a block away. The other 500 models, the Pop, the Lounge and the 500e electric are less boisterous, but not as exhilarating to drive.
Abarth, is the “tuning” arm of Fiat, and it has turned the standard Fiat 500 into a mini hot-rod. The Abarth version gets a more aggressive look, more power, better handling, larger brakes and the lusty exhaust system. The Abarth comes both as a coupe and with a soft top.
The Abarth distinguishes its self visually from other 500s with a rear spoiler, “Abarth” graphics on its lower flanks, distinctive 16-inch alloy wheels and Abarth “scorpion” logos on the front and rear, as well as on the sides, just in case you missed the name on the striping.
The interior is also sportier than the standard Cinquecento. The Abarth gets a thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum brake pedals, a leather-trimmed shift knob and well bolstered front seats with red trim. Space up front in the Abarth is surprisingly generous with plenty of head-and legroom. However, the back seat is tight, as you might expect, but okay for small kids. The trunk is miniscule at just five cubic feet.
Yet, what’s more important than its looks and dimensions is what’s under the hood. The 1.4-liter engine used in the Pop and Lounge is turbocharged to generate 160 hp. on manual transmission models, and 157 horses on those with the six-speed automatic. That’s more than half again the amount of power of the two other siblings. This knocks off a good three seconds from the 0-60 time, which is now about 7.5 seconds, but also knocks down the gas-mileage average to 27 mpg.
While most enthusiasts would prefer the manual transmission, my test car came with the six-speed automatic. Yet, I found this gearbox a worthwhile choice, especially if you engage the “Sport” mode, which quickens throttle response and alters the shift pattern. (It even down-shifts automatically when you hit the brakes.) This way, you can manually shift gears for yourself, when you want more control.
To complement the boost in power, Fiat equips the Abarth with a sports suspension. Front and rear springs are up to 40-percent stiffer, and Koni shocks are installed up front. Ride height is lowered by a little over a half inch. That does not sound like much, but it enhances the car’s stability. And to haul the Abarth down from speed, Fiat installed larger 11.1-inch front brakes.
Out on country roads, the Abarth shows off its handling chops. The firm suspension minimizes body lean in what is a surprisingly tall car. The steering is precise, and firms up for better feedback when you press the “Sport” button. The Abarth displays lots of grip going around corners, and the big brakes do their part when you need to stop in a hurry.
Although you ride in a very small car, you sit fairly high, and once behind the wheel, you have a good view of the road. After a while you hardly notice that you’re driving a mini-car. But as you might expect, the ride in the Abarth is very firm. It relays every imperfection on the road to your backside. Rough pavement causes this Fiat to bounce a lot. However, on the freeway the ride smooths out, and the exhaust note is more subdued, but road noise then becomes noticeable.
My Abarth test car was a Cabrio with the soft top. The Cabrio is not really a convertible in the traditional sense. The side structure of the roof stays in place when the cloth portion is retracted. It is similar to what sunroofs looked like on imported cars many decades ago, only now the 500’s is power operated.
The Cabrio’s roof opens to three primary positions. Hit the roof switch the first time, and the roof goes back about a foot. Hit it again, and it retracts another couple of feet. The third tap takes the top all the way down to the trunk lid, where it stacks up accordion-style. The fully open position blocks most of your view to the rear. I favored the middle position, which let in plenty of sunshine, yet enables the driver to see through the rear window.
Fiat has lowered the prices on the 500 models in recent times—the base Pop model starts at just $15,990. The Abarth Cabrio begins at a Reasonable $22,485. My test car, with automatic transmission, navigation and several smaller options had a suggested retail price of $25,510.