Car enthusiasts tend to fall into one of three camps when it comes to the small, stylized, retro-mobiles; the Volkswagen Beetle, Mini Cooper or Fiat 500. I’m in the Fiat camp and here’s why…
…because I’m Italian. The end.
You’d think then that Italians everywhere would find it easy to fall in love with the 500, but then you’d be wrong. You see, the politically inclined Italians in Italy, shun the little halo car because the European-spec 500 is built in Poland. That’s right, Poland, in the same factory as Ford’s new Ka. And if Fiat Group CEO, Sergio Marchionne, could have it entirely his way more cars would be built outside the boot to offset the costs of union wages. But that’s neither here nor there.
That’s not to say however, that sales of the 500 in Fiat’s home country are slow. While the Polish-built car may not align itself with Italians’ politics, it certainly does with their wallets. With multiple engines choices from torque-y diesel engines to the 800cc TwinAir and the ability to individually select options (instead of the neat, group packages like we do here in North America) - Italians are finicky like that – you can build yourself a very economical ride indeed.
Value wins today, just as it won in the past. Back in 2003, a younger version of myself desperately wanted a new Mini Cooper S, grey with a white roof and white side mirrors. I must’ve spent hours configuring and re-configuring the car online, going through each available option on the list and playing with the lease/finance calculator until I arrived at a number I could justify paying. In the end, I bought a more powerful car with the same options as the MINI for nearly $10k less: a silver Acura RSX Type-S.
Fast forward ten years and the new Fiat 500 Abarth is now in the mix, vying for that A-segment money. Although I affirm that if you’re in the market for a compact car and retro designs evoke emotional sentiments of the “good ol’ days” or of your “glory years” what have you; or you have said sentiments transferred onto you by parents or relatives from an older generation - to be succinct - I will not be comparing the Fiat 500 to the VW Beetle as the bug is in another car class. That also means that I’ll be excluding cars like the Subaru BRZ/ Toyota/Scion FR-S, Honda Civic Si or VW Golfs. Again, those cars are in the larger B-segment and although similarly priced, they’re are on different platforms with engine displacements above 1.8 liters. Back in ’03, we just didn’t have the choices we have today.
Getting right to it. I spent an afternoon in a 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth and drove it to one of my favorite roads outside Toronto: Forks of the Credit. I could’ve gone anywhere, really, but then I already did that with a base Fiat 500 last year. For the hotter, Abarth version I couldn’t think of a better test drive than going to the Forks because it’s a road I know well, there’s a hairpin and there’s a fair bit of highway kilometers to do just to get there. The car I took out was fully equipped with the premium leather bucket seats, power sunroof, auto climate control, white painted mirror caps and body stripes and 17 inch, forged aluminum wheels. The TomTom Navigation unit was also installed but the detachable screen was not, so I couldn’t play with it. I’ve driven the Fiat 500 before, in various trims, both here in Toronto and numerous times in and around Milan, Italy, whenever I needed an inexpensive rental car. In fact, one of my fondest memories was traveling to San Remo with my brother doing a steady 160km/h on the autostrada the entire way, slowing down only for corners as cornering on Italian highways requires one to slow down by some 50-100 km/h depending how fast you’re going. What passes for highways in Italy would be illegal by Canadian standards. For a rental, I liked how the car felt overall, even though highway driving at those speeds was well outside of the standard 500′s comfort zone.
Needless to say, I had high expectations for the Abarth.
Getting into the car is a breeze as the seats are well elevated from the floor. You’ll find that you sit much higher than expected which, for some, creates a less claustrophobic feeling normally associated with sports cars and much greater visibility. In my case though, I found the seats to be too high and although they’re height adjustable, they wouldn’t go low enough for me to feel completely comfortable. I’m 6’1″ and I was always conscious of my head clearance, which was about two inches. The seating position is almost completely upright, like sitting on a restaurant chair. Again, easy to get in and out of but you do feel like you’re sitting on the car instead of in it. The other oddity is the driver’s arm rest. Not sure why it’s there. At one point, I caught myself cruising in fifth gear with my right elbow on the arm rest and left elbow on the window sill. Then I thought, that’s not what this car is about at all and lifted the arm rest out of the way.
On the highway, traveling at very Canadian speeds of 100-130km/h, the car was unexciting. And that’s a good thing. Leave the car in default/normal mode and you’ll hardly notice a difference between the Abarth and a base 500. Press the ‘sport’ button on the dash and the experience changes drastically. The steering wheel feels more resistant in your hands and the throttle feels more sensitive under your foot. The Abarth is powered by the same award winning, 1.4L MultiAir engine as the lesser 500 but with an added turbocharger good for 160 horsepower and 170 pound/feet of torque (7 lb./ft. less than the Mini, 20 more than the Subaru BRZ/Toyota FR-S – just saying). The engine is rather loud, even in top gear, sounding like a poorly EQ’d mechanical orchestra devoid of any bass. If you’re doing a lot of highway kilometers it could get bothersome. Above 3,500 rpm however, the exhaust note drops to a throatier baritone, evening out the mechanical whirr of the motor.
After some 25 minutes I turn onto the Forks of the Credit and disengage the ESP, aka traction control, to do the 7.2 kilometers along the Credit River. For those of you that have experienced this road before, you’ll know that it’s not ideal for high speeds nor is it particularly scenic. What it does offer though comes in the form of elevation changes, a series of corners commonly found along a mountain pass and a certain single lane narrowness to keep you honest. In short, a lovely stretch of road. It was here that the Abarth really came alive. You could sense the beefier tires and lowered Koni suspension working together to heighten the agility of the 500. The five speed gearbox is a pleasure to shift through with relatively short, precise throws. The little 1.4L engine is happy to rev to 5-6k rpms, and the aluminum covered pedals make blipping downshifts under braking a breeze. The brakes themselves have a great feel, very sensitive to the slightest input. The steering wheel was weighted nicely however, it could’ve benefited from more feel from the front wheels. Despite that, the Abarth is small and nimble enough that you can accurately place it wherever you like. And that adds another element to the experience of a road such as the Forks. Being able to place the car where you want – in your lane – allows you to get more playful around corners, choosing multiple lines. This ability is often lost on much more expensive supercars because of their size, longer wheelbase and wider track. That said, I was a bit disappointed with the amount of body roll allowed by the car. This could be attributed of course, to the 500′s higher centre of gravity by nature of its design. Then again, take a look at the gap between the top of the tires and wheel arches, it seems the car could drop another inch or so without impeding on the ride quality too much.
Is the car fun? Absolutely! Is it worth it? That’s where it gets tricky. The one setback to tricked-out hot hatches is the price. By the time you option them out fully, with all the bells and whistles from the factory, they become a foil to the original appeal of the car: an inexpensive, fun, little machine. My test car, complete with the options listed above, comes in at $30,865 before tax. At that price point, larger, more powerful cars come into consideration which I could see hurting Abarth sales long term. However, in keeping with other cars in the A-segment, namely the Mini, the Abarth is still a value deal. Consider for a moment that a similarly optioned Mini Cooper S would set you back almost $40k and a full John Cooper Works edition comes in even higher than that.
Here’s how to get to same fun factor out of the Abarth for $5,575 less.
Eliminate all the options. Sorry Fiat but none of the extras listed above make the car any faster or more fun. The Abarth starts life at a mere $23,495 before a destination charge of $1,695 and A/C tax of $100. First thing to go should be those premium leather sport seats ($800). They’re not any more supportive than the already sporty, standard cloth seats. And while you’re at it, de-select the heated seat option ($400). Next is the stereo. The standard AM/FM/CD/MP3 unit from Alpine is a fine system. It comes with an audio jack and USB port which makes adding any auxiliary device easy. You’ll save yourself another $500 by not upgrading to the Beats by Dre system. If Beats headphones are anything to go by, you already know that the quality just isn’t there. Then there’s the TomTom navigation system ($495). If you have a smartphone, then you probably have a better GPS than this TomTom unit. If the sat-nav was integrated into the dashboard along with the radio and other functions, you’d be out of luck. This way you can buy a $10 windscreen mount and just use your phone. The next option, which actually made me laugh out loud, is the A/C with automatic temperature control ($195). The car comes standard with A/C! Why anyone would need auto climate control in a car this size is beyond me. The last of the interior options to go is the sunroof ($1,200). While a sunroof provides a nice green house effect to any car, the glass and gear mechanism to open it add top heavy weight to an already tall car.
Next up, are the wheels and tires.
The standard wheel is a cast aluminum, 16″ x 6.5″, wrapped in 195/45R16 tires. For $995 more, you can upgrade to 17″ x 7″, forged aluminum wheels in 205/40R17 rubber. The latter come with a 3-season tire, which I’m assuming is spring, summer, fall, meaning you’ll need to swap them out for winters. If the standard wheel and tire was a 15″ diameter I would say go for the upgrade. However, for an extra centimeter of width and inch of diameter and some moderate weight savings, you won’t notice a significant difference behind the wheel. Plus, skinnier tires are just more fun. Other options like painted mirror caps and body stripe ($195) and alarm system ($175) are also just that, optional.
Although it sounds like a lot has been factored out of this car, consider some of the standard features and you’ll be amazed at how much comes standard in this little package. You still get the Abarth body kit and fog lights, leather wrapped wheel, shifter and hand brake. Things like performance suspension, 3-mode traction control, torque transfer control, hill start assist, a tire pressure monitoring system and no less than 7 airbags.
There are way too many cars out there today that sell based on their performance numbers which can only be fully realized on a track. The real appeal of the Abarth is that it’s a well-sorted, 10/10ths car meaning that you can push it to its limits, exploiting most of its merits on the road. In addition to the styling, a homage to the original 500 of the late ’50s to early ’60s, the new 500 should also evoke a little bit of Italy in the driving experience. For its size, agility and overall feel, I think it produces that experience each and every time.
For roughly $25k, you’ll have yourself a proper hot hatch that you can thrash all day long, without breaking the bank. And that’s why I’m in the Fiat camp.
Special thanks to Chris Shah from Raceway Fiat for providing the car, insurance and gas for this review.