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Fiat 500 Abarth: First Drive

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After the fiasco that was the J.Lo. marketing campaign (and the corresponding anemic first year sales) I feel like Fiat is very concerned with the 500 being pigeonholed as an overtly feminine car. The Fiat 500 Abarth rectifies that and provides some of the most fun you can have on four wheels.

Full Disclosure: Fiat wanted me to drive the 500 Abarth so badly, they flew me out to Vegas, put us up in the Hard Rock Hotel, gave us food and booze. More importantly there was some waitress holding a tray of sliders in front of your face any time you weren't behind the wheel of a car or actually having an actual meal.


I'm not afraid of "chick cars." I'm the kind of guy who loves when a car has a friendly face. And the 500 certainly has that. As we've said before, it's hard for someone to see the little mini-car and not smile.
In its new Abarth form, it builds on the character traits that make it friendly enough to shift it from "friendly" to one of my all-time favorite personalities.


With a stance, look, and feel reminiscent of the tough little original Mini rally cars or the original Fiat Abarth racers, it's a car that straddles the fine line between feminine and the brutal, eat-your-face look of many new cars — especially of the performance vairety.


The US model Fiat 500 Abarth isn't the same car as the European model, though they do share mostly the same Abarth-spec bodykit. Europe has a base Abarth model at 133 HP, and an Essesse model that makes 160. Like everything European that comes to the colonies, we get things simplified a bit. For us, there's one model, and it makes 160 HP, like the Essesse.

Sure, these days that doesn't seem amazingly high, but that is 60% more than the plain Jane 500, and it's in what must be about the 3rd lightest car you can buy in America. Although these days, that ain't saying much but with a 2500 lb weight, the power-to-weight ratio is pretty respectable.

The power comes from the Abarth's turbocharged 1.4-liter Multiair engine, complete with two intercoolers that live in the new front bumper/valence, which has a functional cooling intake and exhaust vents on each side. The engine has a pleasing red-and-black valve cover with a big scorpion on it. Having a trained scorpion looks like the only way to work on that engine, as it's packed in there like the organs in a cadaver a friend in med school once let me see. It's tight in there.


The Abarth got beefed up half-shafts to cope with the 170 lb/ft of torque, stiffer and more responsive suspension front (McPherson) and rear (torsion bar), as well as big vented 11.1" rotors up front and 9.4" rotors out back to bring the whole party to a halt. The transmission is only a 5-speed manual; I heard some folks pining for another gear, but, honestly, I was quite happy with just five cogs, and I'm glad they've stuck with a straightforward manual instead of some flappy-paddle gearbox. All this is available for a very reasonable $22,000 (to start), as well.

There's Abarth-special seats and a bunch of extra leather on most of the stuff you touch, which is nice. The dash top and upper door panels still have a bargain-basement hard plastic feel to them, but generally the dash has nice visual character and feels good. There's a new little turbo boost gage with an integrated "shift up!" light— something I haven't seen since I had an '82 Rabbit. On the Rabbit, it was for economy, and I think here it's more about letting you rev as much as possible before you shift. You sit relatively high and erect in the car, and visibility is excellent, save for a big blind spot by the massive C-pillar. I found the pedals a bit uncomfortable, but none of the other journalists had this issue, so it could just be me.


Before we drove them, the cars were presented to us with flashy videos and a very nice moving cutaway model of the new MultiAir turbo engine— which actually did help demonstrate exactly what the MultiAir brick on the engine does (think advanced hydraulic-driven and dynamic intake valve timing, based on engine load).


In addition to presenting the 500 Abarths, they also presented a special-edition, 200 hp model with aggressive weight-reduction thanks to liberal use of carbon-fiber parts: an exciting car called the Venom, who's release wasn't clear just yet. But no one really cared to press more, because at the same time they showed that, they brought out the personification of the 500 Abarth from their ads, Romanian model Catrinel Menghia.


This, of course, was kind of an awful idea, because in moments the 8'4" model (estimated) was soon surrounded by paunchy, horny, middle-aged auto journalists, taking pictures and emitting involuntary moans of pure longing. It was a little creepy. Besides, for safety reasons, I think women that beautiful can only be safely viewed through a pinhole poked into some cardboard, like an eclipse.

But I digress.

On the desert highway out to the track, I was generally impressed by a few things. First, it was a very windy day, and I have plenty of driving experience in tall, light cars in the wind, and I was expecting to be fighting crosswinds the whole time. But I didn't. The car felt as planted and stable as a fat-ass '81 Caprice Classic with a trunk full of bound bodies. Wind noise was present, certainly, but not awful. Speaking of noise, the engineers did a bang-up job on the engine sound and exhaust note— it really sounds terrific, and is fun to rev. I got it to 120 without even trying that hard. It's fun, quick, and pretty comfortable on the road.


We got to take them on the track as well, and that was a blast. The Abarth's "sport" mode button is one of the few that actually seems to do something. When engaged, sport mode ups the torque to 170 lb/ft from 150, and you can absolutely feel the difference. I'm not so sure about the alleged suspension tweaks, but they claim everything gets tightened up in Sport mode. The steering feel is a bit numb, which I blame on the column-mounted electric steering assist, but the handling in general felt really great. Grip was better than I'd expected, especially on street tires, and the brakes were excellent. I think the biggest surprise was the lack of severe understeer, which I was expecting to be much more dramatic with the Abarth's 64/36 weight distribution. Really, hooning it around the track was more fun than I'd had in a long time.


In many ways, the car the Abarth 500 reminds me of most, at least in general feel, is a Volkswagen Mark I GTI, and that's a good thing. Like the original GTI, it's small, nimble, light, and with a power-to-weight ratio that makes for lively performance. The Fiat 500 Abarth is some of the most fun you can have on four wheels.

Sure, there are plenty of faster cars you can buy, but when you're in it with this little hotbox, foot on the floor, leaning into a turn, hearing that great engine note, you just won't care. You're having too much fun.