Fiat 500 Abarth
On the search for a new daily driver we found ourselves at a local CarMax. As a family, we tend to dabble in higher mileage, high horsepower [and maintenance] German cars. As such, the time had come to add something "nearly" brand new and more economical to the fleet of battle sedans and coupes. However, the catch was that it would also have to scratch that dynamic itch that we believe all good cars should.
By Zachary Giroux
We began the test drive in a 2012 Jetta GLI with the 130Hp turbo 4 cylinder and dual clutch transmission out of the equivalent GTI. Not ten minutes into the test drive, all four of us were impressed, and bored. The car was quick enough, decent on gas, handsome on the outside, well-appointed inside, and yet seemed almost clinical; it lacked any kind of standout character. Perhaps this would be harder than we thought. After all, we had become accustomed to the likes of E39 M5s, S6 V10s, and E46 M3s.
Then we found them. Following the test drive, we stumbled upon a small group of Fiat 500s with curious little scorpion badges on every corner. Immediately, we were drawn into this set of small, red and white, "egg shaped" cars. Even those completely uninitiated to the world of cars could tell you in passing that it is less practical than the GLI. Yet, we continued: we sat inside, admired the quirky interior, were surprised by the inclusion of heated leather seats, and requested a test drive. Yes, four of us tagged along, with a man well over 6 feet tall cramming into the back seat. Cue the laughter; immediately we were having more fun than in the GLI.
Then, they started the engine. "Is that the Fiat?", "No way", "Holy Sh*t" to name a couple of the initial reactions. None of us had really known about the Abarth version of the 500 until now.
Nor did we know that, somehow, they had made the tiny 1.4L Multiair Turbo engine sound like a mini exotic. It cracked and popped into life with an almost "straight piped" sound. "Oh. That's because it is", I said after looking underneath. The 2013 Abarth 500 does away with things as mundane as mufflers, stock. Following a brief test drive, we went home with that "little white egg shaped car" the next day. We had immediately caught the Abarth bug, and went home with the only new, "practical", and most importantly, charismatic, daily driver we could find on the lot.
Most surprisingly, any worry we had about the little Fiats practicality faded away after the first few weeks of ownership. With the seats folded down and utilizing the hatchback, the 500 can tackle almost any daily driver duties. However, the rear seats are nigh on useless for normal human beings, so treat your potential purchase as more of a two seater with the "capability" to seat 4.
As much as I tease (lovingly) the Abarth for it's egg shape, that's the reason for its front seat comfort. People who should not fit into this little car, absolutely do. The front leather seats are more than comfortable enough for 4-6 hour journeys and the interior ergonomics are surprisingly well thought out.
As great as these benefits are, they pale in comparison to what happens when you arrive at your favorite stretch of back road.
Press the Sport button, adding weight to the steering, sharpening the throttle, and allowing the turbo to hit peak boost. Then, huck the 2500 pound Abarth into a corner and it becomes an eager performance companion. Suddenly, the somewhat stiffer suspension makes sense as you press through corners at what feels like sports car speeds. Then you roll into the accelerator and find that the little 1.4L has as much bite as it does bark. 160Hp and 170-lb-ft of torque pull you out of the corner as the boost gauge peaks at 18psi.
With the right tires, understeer is well managed and torque steer is nearly nonexistent. Even without a limited slip differential at the front, the Abarth rips and tears at the pavement ferociously on corner exit. All the while, the pedals are perfectly spaced for heel-toe downshifts, and the 5-speed manual is crisp and direct. The brakes will also be immediately familiar to anyone that has driven a BMW or Audi in the past 15 years or so; they bite right at the top of the pedal, are easy to modulate, and have excellent stopping power.
This is where the Abarth is happiest, ripping down a tight section of backroad. The little 1.4L provides excellent acceleration around town but starts to show its stature at around 80mph (though it will continue to pull to around 130mph), so don't expect it to be a highway racer.
Following your drive, you check your fuel economy, "27mpg". This is about what you can expect from the Abarth when driving the way that you will likely want too. Considering the performance, I find it perfectly adequate, particularly when you can get that into the low 30s by simply controlling your right foot.
So, what does the Abarth struggle with? Well, it lacks a 6-speed transmission due to size constraints and that can make it feel a little unsuited to highway driving. Anything over 65mph makes you feel as though you're winding out the little 1.4L. Furthermore, with anything but aggressive summer tires, it can require quite a bit of maintenance steering at high speeds to keep it straight. These can make it somewhat tiring on the highway at times, but by no means makes it useless at this job.
Despite it's flaws, if you can even call them that considering it's city car roots, the Fiat 500 Abarth is undeniably lovable. From the near gunshot level pops from the exhaust, cheerful interior, lively handling, and quirky looks, the Abarth exudes character from every body panel. From the very beginning, with adults sitting hunched over giggling in the back seats, the little Fiat's weakest aspects were making us fall in love with it. In short, if you genuinely don't think it'd fit into your lifestyle, don't drive one; because it may just decide to follow you home like the puppy dog that it is.