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Fiat 500 Abarth Review

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…

Red with optional black mirror caps and body stripe. Upgraded 17″ wheels on 205/40 section tires.

…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.

Twin exhaust tips and flared bumper exclusive to the Abarth.

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.

Leather wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel. Aluminum pedal covers and foot rest.
Premium leather sport seats.
Steering wheel, red stitching detail.

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.

Body colored dashboard. Alfa Romeo-like shifter location.
Leather wrapped shifter knob, red stitching detail.
Standard turbo boost gauge with shift light.

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.

Hyper Black, 17″ x 7′ forged aluminum wheels on 205/40R17 rubber.

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.


Driving the Fiat 500 in Toronto

Fiat 500L at Geneva

Fiat 500 TwinAir

About these ads

Renault Twizy

Taking full advantage of the Salone del Mobile, the premier Italian furniture and accessories show with exhibitors and events scattered throughout Milano, Renault brought along its new urban “crosser”, the Twizy, to much fanfare.

I first saw the Twizy just over a month ago at the Geneva International Motor Show where I was rather impressed with Renault’s zero emissions, all electric city car.  There were a number of these “1+1″ concepts but Renault took the leap of faith to begin full factory, commercial production.  So here it is, on the streets of Milano.

Anyone willing to sign a waiver had the opportunity to drive the Twizy around the congested, narrow, stone streets of the center of Milan.   You could’ve pre-registered for the test drive via Facebook but judging on foot track alone, thanks to the furniture show exhibitions, these Twizys must have been taken out a few hundred times.  They brought nothing but smiles and surprises (more on that later) to almost everyone who passed them by.

Of course, there’s the styling, which is rather obvious.  There’s the  skinny, 13 inch wheels in an open design (wheels outside the body work), pod-like body and that bug eyed face.  The doors, or “side protection” as Renault calls them, open like those found on iconic Lamborghinis – vertically –  and offer no protection against the elements, sans windows.  There’s also that seating position that allows but one passenger to sit directly behind the driver.  One can imagine that the roof line could have tapered right round to the centrally mounted, single tail light if not for the rear passenger head room.

Here in Italy, the Twizy comes in two versions: the Twizy 45 Urban, starting at 6,990 Euro, and the Twizy Urban, from 7,800 Euro.  The main difference between the two is power.  The 45 comes equipped with a 12 volt, 7 kilowatt-hour battery, with a 4 kilowatt (5hp) motor whereas the Urban’s motor doubles the kilowatts to 8 (13hp) but uses the same 12V, 7kWh capacity battery.  This confuses me, so I had to re-learn a bit of grade school science.

ASIDE//The kilowatt is a unit of power, just like joules, or horsepower, and power is the rate at which energy is used or generated.  The kilowatt-hour then is a measure of energy.  SO, you can imagine that the capacity of a battery, measured in kWh, is like the size of your fuel tank.  The bigger the fuel tank, the more fuel it can store.  The motor then transforms the potential energy (fuel) into power; whether it’s gasoline to horsepower in the case of a conventional combustion engine, or chemical energy to electrical energy (kilowatt-hours to kilowatts) in electric motors.  But here’s where it gets tricky.  Batteries are also rated in kilowatts, just like electric motors.  On the one hand, a high capacity, high kW battery means how quickly a battery is able to release its stored energy (charge).  On the other, the kW rating of a motor is the amount energy it will draw from it’s power source, i.e. the battery.  Get it?  However the kW (power) ratings of the Twizy are clearly on the motor side since we know that both cars use the same 7 kwh battery.  Therefore, opting for the higher output motor, the 8kW version, you would (in theory) discharge the battery at double the rate of the 4kW motor, in turn, reducing your driving range.

With the math out of the way, the real world range of the Twizy is about 90 kilometers in the 8kW version. As far as costs go though, there’s more.  See Renault will gladly sell you the car but you have to rent its battery.  And it doesn’t come cheap: 50 Euro a month.  They say the price includes full a warranty of not just the battery but of the entire car.  In an age where paying extra for  something that should be pretty standard, it does nothing but hinder sales efforts, especially at 50 Euro a month which is probably  30-40% on top of the monthly financing cost.

Keep in mind that this is not trying to be anything but a city vehicle.  It’s like the offspring of a Smart Fortwo and a BMW C1: same 1+1 seating position of the C1, about the same length and similar roof enclosure, but with a proper steering wheel and four tires.

Spartan interior. Drive selected by push of a button. Left, flimsy plastic wind deflectors offer little protection against the elements.

Shown here without the Lambo doors, a savings of 600 Euro, for those who care about the leg room of their passenger. The grey roof panel can be swapped out for the panoramic option for an extra 250 Euro.

Then there’s the interior.  Very clean, simple and seemingly water resistant – on account of not having windows.  The dash is free of clutter with just a few buttons to select drive, neutral or reverse, while all car data is read out from a dated-looking digital screen.   Then again, any dashboard could be this clutter-free without a radio, heater, or navigation system.  The driver’s seat looks racy but under you it feels like they took it off an arcade racing game instead of a sports car – quite firm.  However, it’s more than I can say for the rear passenger seat which looks like a bit of padding a mere inches off the the floor.  Headroom is abundant though and because there are no door pillars, there are no blind spots.  Of course, it does have side mirrors but with no door pillars obstructing your view shoulder checks are easy.

After a waiting 20 minutes it was my turn to take it out.

Receiving some last minute instructions from my guide/backseat driver Filippo.

Ok so after strapping in, you put what looks like a key into what seems like an ignition, turn it clockwise, hold it, wait for a little beep and then… silence.  If it wasn’t for that beep you couldn’t tell the little Twizy was actually on – it’s just that quiet.  Eerily quiet though.  As we set off, there was no problem sneaking right up behind pedestrians.  The car has the old Ferrari-like horn position located not in the centre of the steering wheel but on the left indicator switch.  And it’s super loud, like air-horn loud.  So Filippo and I made a game of getting up behind pedestrians who were busy window shopping, sounding the horn, then watching as they jumped out of their shoes.  We soon grew tired of that though and Filippo was quick to direct me to some less crowded streets.  I imagined the test ride to last no more than encircling a city block however, as we drove on, it became evident to me that Fil’ wasn’t just some hired help for this event just as he realized I wasn’t some random passerby taking a novelty car out for kicks.  No, Fil’ was a genuine car guy, working as an engine technician for ten years and a bona fide weekend racer.  Of course, I told him I was a blogger of all things automotive and so with that, our test ride lasted a good half hour.  Let me validate this the necessity of that short story.  Normally, thirty minutes in a new car isn’t enough time to pass any judgement on it or to critique it properly.  For instance, if one is debating the purchase of a new sports car, like the BMW M3 or Mercedes C63, it’s not like he can ask the dealership, do you mind if I take it for a quick spin on the track, see if it’s any good?  Where taking a sports car for a spin around the dealership may not give you any indication of the car’s performance merit, potential or capacity, driving the Twizy for a half hour in the crowded centre of Milan during rush hour on a Saturday does.  This is what is was made for.

Filippo just hanging out.

And it performed brilliantly.  In most spots, you could squeeze by cueing traffic like a scooter.  It’s turning radius is excellent which made tight maneuvers a breeze.  With no power steering, the steering wheel was resistant but not so much as to feel heavy.  Being a zero emission vehicle, it’s treated like a motorcycle or scooter and thus exempt from Milan’s Area C congestion tax.  We never stopped to park but I can imagine parking one of these to be a simple task.  Much like the Smart, you could even park it perpendicular to the curb.  And then there’s the noise, or lack thereof.  At speeds above 25 km/h you do begin to hear some whining from the electric motor but nothing intolerable.  It’s mostly just wind noise coming in around the open sides and ambient sounds.

This is the first, all-electric vehicle I’ve driven outside of a golf course.  And like an electric golf cart then, its power delivery was quite linear, progressive.  You could even feather the throttle without any hiccuping or lurching.  The brakes felt fine but then again we never got up to any speed to test them really.  Overall it felt great, but the lack of noise gave it a real sense of refinement.

My only gripe with the Twizy, is its suspension.  From outside the car, you could clearly see it had coil springs surrounding what appear to be dampers.  But driving along the crude stone roads of Milan you wonder, are they’re actually working parts or decoration?  At one point, as I stomped on the the accelerator, I drove over street car tracks embedded in a stone road surface and the car jumped two feet to the right.  Driving it over anything but a smooth surface is nearly intolerable.  Combining the lack of suspension with a hard plastic seat makes you feel every bump with your liver.  I kinda feel bad for Fil’ who had nothing but that paper thin seat for padding.  He even admitted that suspension needed some softening up.

Twizy vs Smart Fortwo
Oh, pardon me. Did someone say something about a revolutionary new city car?

At the end of the day, the Twizy needs to be re-charged like your cell phone.  And like your cell phone, you can plug it in to any standard 220V outlet via an adapter.  Even more like your cell phone, it takes around 3.5 hours to fully charge.

After seeing it in Geneva, I predicted the Twizy would be a sales success.  It looked stupid cute and fun to drive.  Seemed to offer about the same practicality as a scooter with a roof and doors.  Its decent range and relatively quick recharge time, on paper at least, makes it ideal for commutes to and from work.  Of course, I may have had too much Geneva Auto Show enthusiasm wash over me at the time.  After seeing it on the street, in the real world, with the Milanese peering over it, I have to change my prediction. Although “the people” did find it cute and I can admit it was fun to drive I fear that’s where the high praise stops.  What I didn’t realize was that the car I saw at Geneva was going to be the production version, which is somewhat disappointing.  You see I thought that surely, by the time the production model comes out, it would have a proper set of doors which would include windows.  Or, that the dash would be outfitted with a radio and maybe even a heater.  I also assumed that final version would come with suspension.  Then there’s the price.  The higher output 8kW version with side protectors comes in at 8,500 Euro before tax, which is a lot to ask from a car with no weather proofing.  Then of course, there’s the battery rental charge, which by my math, comes to an additional 600 Euro a year and effectively eliminates any cost savings benefit of not using pump gas.

So, is the Twizy a viable commuter alternative or a dressed up golf cart? Let’s see how it sells.

Special thanks to Fadua Aoukar for helping out with the photos.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta w/TCT, Cannes 2011

Alfa’s new Giulietta in Cannes

Another World Series of Poker and I find myself driving yet another new car for the first time, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.  This time around the venue has moved to Cannes, France for the WSOP Europe. Cannes seems to have taken the best bits from the entire French Riviera; the wealth of St. Tropez, glitz and glam of Monte Carlo, the charm of places like Eze and Cap d’Ail, and offer it up all in one place.

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