It is possible to drive the Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio like a normal, sensible person. It is possible to shift gears at a rational 2,500 RPMs so you can avoid blasting pedestrians with its obscenely loud baby Ferrari exhaust like you’re Maverick buzzing the tower in Top Gun.
It is possible to keep it out of torque-boosting Sport Mode, to keep its convertible top closed up tight, to not try and make right angle turns at high speeds. It is possible to have one in your possession without actively finding any and every excuse you can to take it out for a joyride.
It is possible to do all of these things. It’s just very hard, and you won’t ever want to.
(Full disclosure: Fiat was kind enough to lend me a 500 Abarth Cabrio for the first leg of my trip through Texas, in which I visited family and friends and got a firsthand lesson in the hellish August heat that made me leave in the first place.)
My first experience with the 500 Abarth came a few months ago when I managed to talk my way into the seat of one during the 500L drive. (I mean, really, which of those would you rather drive?) At the time I was convinced it was the most fun car I had driven since we brought the SRT Viper to Texas with Gizmodo.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence. After all, though it puts out a similar 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, the Abarth we Americans get is different from the Euro-spec Abarth and Abarth Esse Esse. When you drive ours, it feels like some SRT DNA has spliced over into it.
The Abarth has been on sale since last year, and it has since become a well-documented favorite of ours. Jason loved it during his first drive, I have waxed poetic about its gloriously raucous exhaust note, and Alex explained how wonderfully hoonable it can be for the common man.
In other words, we have established how fun it is to play with the Abarth and then put it away. My week with the car was a chance to evaluate what it’s like to live with it day in and day out. Would the stiff ride be too much to bear on long drives? Would I run out of room for stuff I could stuff in the 500’s admittedly tiny body? Would that exhaust note start to wear on me after a while?
The Abarth I had on my trip was the Cabrio version, which features what Fiat calls a Power Sunroof. At the touch of a button, the cloth top slides back to give you a sunroof-like opening or it sinks all the way down to give you and your passengers some convertible fun in the sun. I can tell you that it made my trip to Port Aransas on the Texas Gulf Coast a lot more enjoyable, especially since it was a breezy, palatable 92 degrees down there instead of the usual 100-whatever.
On my journey I learned that the Abarth is not perfect. Far from it, in fact. But it manages to offer thrills that last well beyond any quick, hard launch-filled trip to the grocery store to get orange juice because you purposefully forgot it the first time so you could go out in the Abarth again later. (I’m not saying that’s what happened, of course.)
On its own, the Fiat 500 is a stylish and adorable modern update of a stylish and adorable Italian classic. It’s a great design. When it pulls Abarth duty, it gets way butched up.
The outside of this Abarth included no fewer than 10 scorpion logos, including the ones on the wheel hubs (Come on, Fiat, couldn’t you squeeze a few more on there?), red side mirrors, a red 80s Dodge Turbo-esque stripe with the word “ABARTH” on it, a revised rear bumper that to me looks a bit like the one on the Ferrari F12berlinetta, and huge 17-inch, 12 spoke wheels.
It looks good, but if anything, it may all be a bit much. It’s like it’s angrily trying to overcompensate for its too-cute little brother. The Abarth is here to party, and it really, really wants you to know it.
One thing to note is that the Cabrio version dumps the rear hatch for a small rectangle-shaped rear opening. It’s not the easiest thing to cram luggage and things into, but it’s not impossible to do so. Tasks like this could get tricky though.
I didn’t care for the cheap plastic buttons for the A/C and radio, or the seats, whose minimal side bolstering and narrow, flat bottoms proved to be rather uncomfortable after a while.
The central gauge cluster is a combined tach/speedo setup with an info screen in the center. It’s a lot to take in; I definitely prefer a traditional separate setup, but you get used to it. I’m also not nuts about the radio controls behind behind the steering wheel.
What bumped the Fiat up to a solid 6 in this category is that fantastic, beefy, flat bottom steering wheel. It’s an absolute triumph, and it makes you feel like you’re in an Italian exotic.
I’ll also add that the car never really feels all that cramped on the inside, and with the rear seats down and the top up, you can fit a surprising amount of luggage or other items in it if you get creative.
Here’s the 500 Abarth’s dirty little secret: it’s actually not that fast. Zero to 60 mph times are only in the low 7-second range.
So why the 7 score? Because it always feels a lot faster, thanks to its small size and the sheer loudness of its exhaust. I gave a few harrowing rides to passengers who clenched their teeth in terror until they realized we were only going 45. You can also easily chirp the tires in first and second gear.
But while it may not be fast, it is decidedly quick. With Sport Mode engaged, you get the full 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque from the turbocharged and twin-intercooled 1.4-liter MultiAir engine. You have to wring the hell out of the motor to make it go rapidly, but thankfully, it’s always willing to engage in such shenanigans.
The Abarth surprisingly excels on the highway, where the full torque is available at just 2,500 RPM. Need to pass someone bigger? Simply drop it down a gear, floor it and let the turbo spool up to a healthy amount of boost, and you’re away. It’s a great little engine, and one that is remarkably fun at any speed.
Look, this is a short wheelbase car with sporting pretensions, a stiff suspension, and fairly uncomfortable seats. On long trips, like my 3.5 hour drive from Austin to Port Aransas, it will beat you up a little bit. It’s not so bad on the highway, but you definitely get well acquainted with the geography of the pavement on back roads. But hey, this is a pretty edgy car. If you want to be coddled, get something else.
Man, can this thing handle. Seriously. It’s probably the second-best handling front driver I have ever personally sampled behind the Ford Focus ST. Mine came with the optional Pirelli P-Zero Nero tires, which no doubt sharpened its abilities even further.
You have to learn to trust its handling prowess. Its tall driving position feels so unlike traditional sports cars that it deludes you into thinking it’s not think it’s up to the task of corner carving. However, it is extremely tossable and has almost no body roll whatsoever. It’s definitely geared toward understeer, but as Alex noted a while back, a little lift off the throttle will get its rear out rather quickly.
Kudos here also goes to the excellent steering system. When Sport Mode is engaged it lessens the electric assistance and becomes considerably heavier, making it a more precise and fun weapon with which to throw the little car into curves.
For right now, at least, the only transmission you can get on the Abarth is a five-speed manual. An automatic is coming, but no word yet on whether it will be a traditional autobox or a Twin Clutch setup. (I’m very curious to see what this car is like with the latter.)
It’s a good gearbox, but not a great one. The clutch is light and easy to use with a well-defined catch point, though its travel is a tad long. The shifter, on the other hand, feels kind of bulky and rubbery, and the knob itself feels bigger than it needs to be. Finding gears is no challenge, but for such a great performance car, it could stand to be tighter and crisper with shorter throws. I could see a lot of Abarth owners opting for some kind of aftermarket short shift kit. I know I would.
I mean, this is the whole point, right? Isn’t this kind of why you buy the Abarth in the first place? Were it just a quicker 500 with scorpions all over it, I don’t think too many enthusiasts would care much. But fortunately for us, Fiat gave the Abarth a snarling, nasty, overpowering, exotic-sounding exhaust note.
Imagine taking a chainsaw to a running Ferrari engine. Then imagine shooting at said Ferrari from a helicopter with a gatling gun. Record all those sounds, then lay them on top of each other and you get some idea of what the Abarth’s exhaust sounds like. It’s not just in the cabin, either — everyone around you will hear it, and if they aren’t smiling, you don’t want to be friends with them. I can’t believe a stock exhaust on a car at this price level sounds so insane.
And to answer my earlier question, no, I never got sick of it. If anything I became addicted to it, like a drug where my only fix came at wide-open throttle. You’ll keep the car at inappropriately low gears just to hear it more. It’s wonderful.
I’ll shy away from giving it a perfect score because even with the Beats By Dre speaker system, the stereo is disappointing. It always sounded kind of tinny and flat. I didn’t care that much. Most of the time I was listening to other things.
What toys? This car is a toy! Okay, fine, I’ll tell you about the real toys. We’ll start with the Power Sunroof, which couldn’t be easier to use. One button for up, one for down, and you can put it exactly where you want it. When it’s down all the way, it automatically goes up a bit when you need to access the trunk.
There’s also a standard boost gauge and a shift light which tells you when to shift up, although when not in Sport Mode it tells you to shift at absurdly low and un-Abarthlike points.
Oh yeah, and the Sport Mode on this car is excellent because it actually does stuff, like stiffen the steering, allow you access to the engine’s full amount of power and torque, and tweak the traction control. You’ll want to keep it in Sport Mode all the time.
My tester came with a built-in 4.3-inch TomTom navigation unit linked to the car which alerted me when I was low on gas and when I exceeded the speed limit. (Which I never did, obviously.) It seems to be a stopgap solution because the car lacks a nav option and infotainment screen, but like most standalone GPS units, it’s clunky to use, and mine crashed a couple times. Don’t waste your money on it.
Does the Abarth’s exhaust note count as a toy too? I say it kind of does.
My fully-loaded 500 Abarth Cabrio stickered in at $31,850. It’s almost double the price of a base model, and in the 500 family, only the electric 500e costs more with options.
Luckily, the Abarth’s thrills can come a lot cheaper — a base Abarth coupe starts at just $22,000 and the ‘vert starts at $26,000. Keep it under 30 grand and I think that’s a fantastic value for all you get.
The $20k-range sports car/sport compact segments is one of the toughest in all of autodom. The 500 Abarth’s competitors include the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ, the Focus ST, the Ford Mustang V6, the Mini Cooper S (although that will end up being a lot more expensive), the Volkswagen GTI and many others. All of them are excellent. The Abarth should also worry about the more powerful, more practical Ford Fiesta ST headed our way very soon.
But while some cars are faster than the Abarth, and some offer superior handling and better interiors, the hyper-Fiat’s pure fun factor is very, very, very hard to top. It’s just an absolute blast to drive all the time, every time. It spreads joy to its driver, its passengers, and random people on the streets in ways its competition doesn’t.
Try to drive an Abarth at least once before you die. You won’t regret it.
Total Score: 70/100
2013 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline four
Power: 160 HP at 5500 RPM/170 LB-FT at 2500-4000 RPM
Transmission: Five-speed manual
0-60 Time: 7.0 seconds
Top Speed: 131 mph
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 2,600 lbs.
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 28 city/34 highway
MSRP: $26,000 base/$31,850 as tested
Photos credit Patrick George