“Hello, Abarth, my old friend,” I told the shiny red little egg as I greeted it in my driveway. “I’ve come to hoon with you again.” I’m always happy to see the Fiat 500 Abarth. Tons of cars are better and faster, but very few offer the pure stupid unfiltered fun that this one does.
Your Jalopnik staff loves the Abarth dearly. So many things make it great: That punch-above-its-weight little turbo engine. The fact that it isn’t fast at all, it just feels that way. Its puppy-like character. The way it sticks in the corners better than it has any right too. The loudest, meanest, baddest, most hilarious stock exhaust note this side of a Hellcat.
There was just one problem, and it was sticking out of the dash with the letters “PRND” on it.
(Full disclosure: Fiat Chrysler needed me to drive a 2015 500 Abarth Cabrio so badly they dropped one off at my house for a week with a full tank of gas. I asked them if I could track it and they said “Heck yeah, that’s what it’s for!” because those guys are cool, man.)
I anticipated this outcome, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. When automakers send cars to journalists to test, they like to show off their new stuff, and the previously manual-only Abarth gets a six-speed automatic for the 2015 model year. It’s a $1,350 option now, and the manual remains standard equipment.
I kind of had a feeling I’d get one, and while I was eager to drive it as always, I was nervous about what a slushbox would do to it.
Besides the gearbox, it’s the same party I’ve come to love. The Abarth has a 1.4-liter turbo four with 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque going to the front wheels. This tester was a Cabrio model, and its Power Sunroof remains a fun, easy-to-use option that lets you customize how much sun and wind you want to let in.
(The price of this 500 Abarth Cabrio came out to $31,595, if you’re curious, with options that included the automatic, satellite radio, Beats Audio stereo and other stuff.)
For 2015 the Abarth also gets an all-new digital gauge cluster that replaces the wonky chronograph it used to have. It’s a big improvement, being much easier to read and use. It comes with a ton of fun graphics and toys, like a G meter. (The fonts change to Italics for Sport Mode, too!)
The thing is, for all the joy it brings, the Abarth is also a flawed car. It’s cheap as hell in some areas. You can’t get it with a real navigation option. A lot of the interior plastics suck. It doesn’t do Bluetooth audio streaming without a special phone app. The stereo is unimpressive. The door locks are curiously built into the door handles. The driving position is always awkward, thanks also to a non-telescoping steering wheel.
And its manual gearbox isn’t really that wonderful. The five-speed (Five speeds! In 2015!) manual is rubbery and long and vague, and the shift knob is the size of a softball for some reason. At the end of the day, the Fiat 500 a super-budget European subcompact that gets a little tarted up when it comes over here.
Here’s the thing, though: When it comes to actually driving the Abarth, none of that matters.
You don’t care about its flaws when you get behind the wheel it because you’re too busy giggling uncontrollably at that ear-splitting wannabe Ferrari noise as you throw it into a corner. The pure driving thrill supersedes everything else.
Can you match that thrill when you don’t row your own gears? There’s a lot this new automatic, an Aisin unit, gets right. In regular around town driving, it’s smooth and punchy. It’s normal. It’s a Fiat 500 with more noise and a little more power. It’s as civilized as an Abarth can possibly be.
Putting the Abarth in Sport Mode changes the character of the car, unleashes its full inner hooligan. It does some really smart stuff here, too. It enables automatic rev-matching during braking, complemented by a nice pop of the exhaust. It makes shifts faster and more aggressive, it holds gears during hard cornering even in the automatic mode. It also gives you some nice popping with each upshift.
Obviously, it’s an automatic with sporting intentions, like the rest of the car. Here’s the biggest downside: unlike many of its competitors, there are no paddles to be had here. You can do manual shifts by moving the lever to the left (and points for the correct “up for down/down for up” layout) but that’s all you get.
In a perfect world the 500 Abarth would get this amazing, lightning-quick dual-clutch gearbox with paddle shifters to make it even more like the baby Ferrari it thinks it is. That’s not what we get here.
Fiat is all about tracking the Abarth. They even give owners a free day of instruction when they buy one. To see how it really holds up on track, I brought it along for our Acura NSX test drive at Harris Hill Raceway in San Marcos.
There, the Abarth proved to be every bit as giggle-inducing as it is on the street as well as shockingly competent. The engine has more than enough thrust to get you around without being overwhelming, and the car sticks hard in the corners; the rear end even wants to get out a bit. It’s a car that loves to be wrung out, and it’s hard to make mistakes in it.
I did have the best results on track leaving it in full automatic mode and just mashing the throttle in turns, rather than wiggling the stick up and down. The autobox was never a hindrance, always knowing what gear it needed to be in and holding it in the corners.
Still, paddles would be better in this environment, and they’d make a fantastic addition to the Abarth in general. I don’t really know why they weren’t included. Some of the Abarth’s crazy special editions sold in other countries like the 595 and 695 have them, and I wish we could get them too. They’re missed here in America.
We now live in an age where an automatic doesn’t automatically (sorry) ruin a good car anymore. We have dual clutch gearboxes and super-fast conventional automatics from ZF that may not have quite the driver involvement of three pedals and a stick, but are even faster and quite engaging in their own way.
I wish the Abarth had an automatic gearbox that fully lived up to the rest of the car’s potential. As it is now, it kind of does the Abarth’s rowdy character a disservice. I probably don’t need to tell a Jalopnik reader this, but if someone you know is considering an Abarth, convince them to get the stick. They’ll be glad they did.
All photos credit Kurt Bradley