By on March 5, 2012

It’s a strange, strange world out there. Image trumps reality, corporate positioning trumps national identity, the fake conquers the real. Want proof? Consider the Fiat 500 Abarth. The now-iconic television ad features some hapless beta male enduring a strangely erotic tongue-lashing at the hands of a beautiful Italian woman who then mysteriously turns into a chunky little Italian car. Makes perfect sense. Except the Italian girl (Catrinel Menghia) is Romanian, and Italian car which was supposedly tuned by an Austrian racer turns out to be a Mexican car with an American hot-rod engine tuned by Detroit racers. This makes slightly less sense.

Luckily the Abarth itself doesn’t require much in the way of context in order to be enjoyed. If you’d like some, feel free to check out our previous reviews of the naturally-aspirated 500. Finished? Fantastic. We’ve reviewed the little Fiat from an economy-car perspective in the past, but now it’s time to exchange the pocket protectors for my Impact! Carbon Air Draft. Buckle up: it’s racetrack time.

The first thing you need to understand about this 500 Abarth is that it isn’t really a 500 Abarth. In other words, it’s not the Euro-market performance 500 brought over and Americanized. Rather, it’s the North American 500 (charmingly referred to as the “NAFTA 500″ by the PR folks) with a thorough performance makeover. The differences in weight and structure between the American and European base cars meant that the suspension calibrations had to be done again from scratch. Camber was increased to a very aggressive -1.5 degrees up front. Good for the driver, bad for tire lifetime. Those tires, by the way, are sixteen-inch Pirelli P7s stock, with seventeen-inch P Zero Neros as an option. Those of us who remember the days when the P7 was the performance tire will smile every time we see them. Koni FSD shocks are specified to hold up the front end. That’s a bit of a Mopar trick.

The Fiat MultiAir engine is turbocharged, retuned, and treated to a full SRT-4 upgrade kit’s worth of forged pistons and special rods. Your humble author had real deja vu listening to the engine guys talk about the changes made; it’s like going back in time to 2003 and hearing what was done to the Neon. The changes yield 160 horsepower from the 1.4-liter mill, which is assembled in Dundee, MI. A few years, I opined that the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 should be properly called the Ford Mustang SVT; this Fiat 500 could wear the SRT nameplate with equal pride. One part that does come from Fiat: the underwhelming five-speed manual, which features equal-length driveshafts in this application.

As with the old SRT-4 Neon, considerable effort has been expended to upgrade the “touch points” facing the driver. I grabbed a zero-options Abarth for the seventy-mile drive from the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas to Spring Mountain Raceway in Pahrump, NV, knowing that all the basic goodies were included. First impressions: the shifter and steering wheel feel positively exotic, dontcha know. It’s an upscale, enjoyable experience to snip through the Strip traffic, but there are a few bugs in this Italian wedding soup.

Problem Uno: the electronic throttle. The Abarth has two fuel/boost programs: regular, and Sport. The non-Sport mode limits torque and reduces the aggressiveness of intake openings, ostensibly for maximum economy. (34MPG highway, by the way.) In practice, selecting this mode hobbles the car with unacceptable throttle lag. Rev-matching on downshifts becomes almost impossible; the engine simply hangs on to revs like an early three-liter E46 Bimmer, which is to say in the most stubborn, miserable, EPA-test-conscious manner possible. There’s no reason for this other than to create a tangible gap between normal and Sport modes. It’s trickery, it’s fakery, and it’s unworthy of the car.

Also unworthy of the car: the dumb-assed instrument panel, which has concentric ring gauges for revs and road speed. Ray LaHood would burst his aorta watching the dull red needles move on a dark blah background. It’s almost unreadable and it’s a worse distraction from the road than playing Angry Birds for cash while driving. In recognition of this, the SRT guys threw a shift light in the Abarth. On cloudy days, or at night, and if the driver is positioned just so, the shift light is somewhat visible. After a few miles I resigned myself to operating the FIAT based on the audible cues from the megaphone-muffled exhaust, which snorts, snuffles, and backfires its way along at a volume somewhat beyond the capacity of the base stereo to cover. That’s another Neon SRT-4 trick.

Part of the drive to Spring Mountain is a forty-mile freeway drone, and here the Abarth acquits itself surprisingly well for a car with less wheelbase than a CJ-7 Jeep. Crosswinds don’t terrify and the relatively high seating position turns out to be a bit of an asset. While this never feels like an overpowered car — fifteen-second quarter-mile, remember — there’s enough thrust on tap to make merging and overtaking absolutely worry-free. A sixth gear wouldn’t go amiss, though, and it would certainly do something for that highway fuel economy.

I’m told that the Mopar FIAT team developed the Abarth at Nelson Ledges Road Course, where it turned a 1:23.6 pretty consistently. That’s about what Car and Driver extracted from a 1996 Boxster 2.5 back in the day, and it’s a competitive laptime for SCCA ITB racing, so it’s respectable. Nelson Ledges isn’t exactly a racetrack for the timid.

Spring Mountain, on the other hand, is a racetrack for the timid, or at least for the talentless and well-funded, so it’s here that we are given a chance to run some P Zero-equipped Abarths around for a few laps. The front straight of the 3.1 mile course is chicaned, making the top possible speed about 95mph on the back straight. In other words, we’re almost autocrossing. As you’d expect for a 160-horsepower car, the 500 feels almost sleepily slow on-track, although the constant mish-mash of mild off-camber turns helps keep the interest level up.

My concern regarding the 500 as a trackday car had been that the handling would be tamed to keep its very short wheelbase under control. Luckily, that’s not completely the case; the Abarth is free to wag its tail under braking, particularly trail-braking, and through every one of the artificial elevation changes. A few times during my short lapping session, I am caught out by mistaking one slow blind turn for another one, and every time this happens there’s plenty of chatter and slide from the back while I correct my mistake. It’s charming, and it’s fun.

The Abarth’s relatively aggressive camber does manifest itself in a rather numb-feeling wheel during hard acceleration. Nor is the “torque transfer system” a substitute for an actual limited-slip differential — a mistake the Chrysler guys rectified during the 2003-to-2004 model year changes to the Neon SRT-4. Full-throttle corner exits are slightly annoying thanks to the “tunnel vision” caused by the stiffening of the steering and the separate-but-equal brake-driven adjustments to front-wheel traction.

The overall on-track impression is that the FIAT feels bigger than it is. That’s fine, and it’s reassuring, but compared to cars like the current Jetta GLI which seem to shrink on the move, it’s not ideal. Still, you could do a lot worse for your first trackday car.

Among the ad hoc segment known (as of right now) as “Little Retro Cars That Feel Sporty”, the New 500 Abarth is clearly ahead of the VW New New Beetle Turbo but probably a touch behind the New New MINI Cooper S. I wouldn’t expect it to keep ahead of a MINI on a road course or frantic backroad. Consumer Reports occasionally recommends the MINI but has slapped “Not Recommended” ratings on the non-turbo 500 and Beetle. There’s little objective reason to choose the 500 over the MINI.

Luckily for the FIAT/Chrysler folks, this isn’t a segment which operates on rational thought. If it did, none of the entrants in said segment would exist. The pricing is competitive — $22,000 plus destination — and the little Abarth has plenty of virtues, from the way it looks to the way it feels to drive. It seems to be worthy of both the FIAT and Abarth labels. What track rats around the country really want, however, is a small car that is worthy of the SRT label. Something at least as fast as the old SRT-4 Neon, only with enough refinement and interior quality to silence the naysayers. More power than the Caliber SRT-4 in a platform that deserves that power. Something like the, ahem, Dodge Dart. This Abarth is a nice sign of life from the SRT guys, but we aren’t looking for a sign of life; we’re looking for absolute domination. Over to you, gentlemen…

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150 Comments on “Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth...”


  • avatar
    JKC

    Hey- it’s even got oval headlamps like a Neon!

  • avatar
    mcs

    Just saw the Charlie Sheen ad for the Abarth. I guess they have a new spokesman.

    http://goo.gl/w3ag8

    • 0 avatar
      VanillaDude

      The car is being sold to women. Mr. Sheen is being used wisely as a bad boy to appeal to fashionable women. When you look at the ad, you see hot supermodels excited over the car, not men. When Mr. Sheen steps out, he simply reconfirms the car’s appeal to women looking for a new bad boy.

      It is ok to like a girl’s car, but you have to be willingly blind to ignor the fact that FIAT is selling this vehicle to college educated girls who want a fashionable ride.

      FIAT will do better with a Hello Kitty! version and perhaps a Goth High School version. I can definately see a “Twilight” version selling to this same market.

      Is there room for this girl’s car? Yeah – I suppose there could be.

      I’m a tad tired of hearing guys swear up and down that the 500 is more than a rolling pretty purse, but I am not blind. Between JLo and Mr. Sheen’s commercials, it’s pretty clear who FIAT sees this car appealing to.

      However, based on sales, they need to try both genders. I don’t know how they can twist this little cartoon girly thing into something more gender neutral, but perhaps they can.

      I’m sorry if that offends guys who are driving them, but dudes, you’re driving a dress.

      • 0 avatar

        @VanillaDude, just out of curiosity, I’d be interested in what a manly man such as yourself drives?

        I ask in hopes of purchasing the same vehicle so that I too can attain your lofty station of manliness.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        Well put, VanillIceCream

        If anyone wants to invest in a future collectable I’d say to grab up the Fiat 500s, sunroof models in particular. With low sales these will be rare.

        Heres what I find odd, the classic Mustang was meant for women but it sold well to both genders alike. But then again, it didn’t have effeminate styling.

      • 0 avatar
        stryker1

        “I’m sorry if that offends guys who are driving them, but dudes, you’re driving a dress.”

        I might put it a little more lightly/lamely and say “You’re driving whatever Metrosexuals wear.”

        Personally, the Abarth sounds like it could be alot of fun, and I might consider one if/when they go on fire-sale, or depreciate in a cliff-face manner on the second hand market.

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        Sorry man, I’m just stating the obvious.
        You don’t need my advice on what is a manly ride.

        Once I had to stand up in a friend’s wedding. After months of debate and images of hot married sex, my buddy pretty much gave up any attempts to tone down the wedding and let his fiance do whatever she wanted. She turned the entire damn thing into a pink cream puff.

        I didn’t know this. So when I showed up to pick up my tuxedo I think I threw up four times when I saw it. A pink tuxedo jacket with white pants, pink sox, white shoes, white bow tie and pink ruffly shirt.

        I stood their dressed up like a background singer for The Carpenters and he just laughed at me. “I had no idea the guy’s tuxes would look so stupid and pink”, he apologized. “She wanted everything to match and I didn’t stop her.” “I am not paying for this rental”, I told him.

        I was able to strip off the pink stuff immediately after the womb-inspired ceremony and it all worked out with me hooking up with one of the bride’s maids, but it was touch-n-go for a couple of hours. It definately would have sucked whole hog if I was forced to drive a FIAT 500 on top of it all.

        So I understand. These things happen.

        Uh – just keep it dirty, that’ll help.

      • 0 avatar

        So you won’t cop to what you drive? Lame.

      • 0 avatar
        threeer

        Balls…I could give a rat’s ass who they use to advertise their car. If you tie your ego to who a car company uses to advert their car, then that’s your perogative. I could give a fig. I’m (almost) 42, very happily married, hold a stable job and am relatively well-educated. And you know what? I keep coming back to the Abarth as a car I really want to own. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up on the European continent, where driving small doesn’t immediately mean having had your balls cut off…maybe I just don’t see the personal need to drive a huge truck or high HP muscle car (not that there is anything wrong with either one…my neighbor owns a rather sweet Dodge Challenger R/T that I absolutely dig).

        So…if I’m “driving a dress” just don’t look up my skirt…

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        It’s not “who” advertises it, but to “whom” it is advertised.

        Eve and Virgina Slims were just cigarettes, but I think most guys figured out by how they advertised them that they were meant for the ladies. The FIAT ads are showing us that the 500 and now the Abarth, are the Eve and Virgina Slims of cars.

        I like small cars, and have owned a few. So I do know there is a difference between a 500 and CJ5.

      • 0 avatar
        CrapBox

        It’s more manly to wear a dress while driving a Barbie edition FIAT than it is to have your character formed by the opinions of others.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        @VanillaDude:

        The idea of a “chick car” disappeared from my radar soon as I gained confidence as an adult man. I like the Fiat 500.

        It’s not a good fit for my lifestyle (married with a toddler, and talking about another), so I really need a four-door car. But I like the Fiat 500, and I’d buy one if it suited my needs.

        The “premium small car” segment are “my cars”. I drive an Escape at the moment — it’s fine, but I bought it because it has LATCH, a trailer hitch, and low sticker price — not because it’s “my kind of car”. My wife’s Prius is much more “my kind of car”.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t worry about car genders much either, or I wouldn’t have bought a first gen Saturn or my current Civic, but I have to say that when I rented a 500 in January, I REALLY felt like I was driving a chick car. Anyway, instead of criticizing Vanilla Dude’s perspective on chick cars, the rest of you guys should be laughing at his humor. This is my best laugh of the week so far.

        In other matters, I found the gas mileage very disappointing in the (non Abarth) 500 I rented. 32 on the highway going 70 max. I got better than that in my old Accord, which probably weighed 33% more than the Fiat, and I do a lot better in my Civic.

        The 500 IS impressive for maneuvering in the city.

      • 0 avatar
        jonnyguitar

        Lively debate here on chick car vs not a chick car. Fact is, what you drive says something about you, whether you like it or not. I drive two cars, one is pretty macho, the other one, a boxster. The boxster is a great car, but I don’t enjoy the type of attention I get driving it. Put it this way, women will be looking at you, but not in the way you want, more of a smirk. Contrast that to some German muscle, ah come hither!

      • 0 avatar
        Buckshot

        Vanilla dude doesn´t have a car. He´s just another internet tough guy.

      • 0 avatar
        Les

        TMI Vanilladude, we did Not need to know just how insecure in your own sexuality you are. >xP

      • 0 avatar
        boltar

        The marketers at auto companies are almost always morons. More important is what the car is, not what some idiot tells you it is. And the idea of being put off on a car because of the other people who are commonly buy it — well, that’s just kind of squeamish..

        As for guys “driving a dress,” sorry mate, but when it’s a guy inside it’s not a dress. It’s called a kilt. Maybe you just need to get out more.

      • 0 avatar
        MeanWoman

        My o my you certainly are a “Vanilla Dude”. In my college educated opinion, JLo is a spoiled, entitled, talentless diva, and Charlie Sheen is a pathetic low-moron turd. I grew up driving 60’s and 70’s muscle cars, and the best car I ever owned was a first year Eclipse that I used to race against a professional driver in his restored Torino or “68 Mustang down 45 in Houston. He never “let” me win. My ex destroyed the clutch on that car because he was such a wimp about it, and rode it all of the time.

        I like the Abarth. It’s got a little sass…and this site is being just a tad specious (go look the word up if it’s beyond your vocabulary) in being snide about it’s alleged stated purpose. It’s not meant to be a muscle car…it’s meant to have a little zing, and get you around an urban/suburban setting…not a hot track. The commercial with Catrinel Menghia is amusingly ironic…but the boys’ club wouldn’t get that…I guess they never went to college.

        You just go on ahead and get in that redneck drive-in back-seat love machine Camaro (the most pitiful excuse for a supposed mean machine I have ever driven, nothing but a wallowing land whale), or pick-up with the ten-inch lifts and truck Nutz to compensate. You do sound like you need it.

        I’ll be having fun…

      • 0 avatar
        KJS825

        Vaniila Dude –…..then please explain why this car has been purchased by 73% men….and even if women do buy some of them so what? — Does it make you feel more macho to say this BS ? Thank you for letting us all know what a true he man you truly are….or maybe just how really insecure you are huh?

    • 0 avatar
      Freesc

      Vanilla, I’m sorry man, but you’re wrong. Most of the buyers for the 500 are men. Try again, man.

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    For $22-25K, I would step up to a GTI, Speed3 or WRX. A couple more bucks gets you a lot more in safety, reliability, driveability and capabilty.

    If i want cute, I’ll get a bowtie. Or a Miata.

    • 0 avatar
      stryker1

      Agreed,
      But the 500 is a car that is laser focused on a particular buyer which inhabits some subset of yuppie female age 18 – 34. You’ll know who they are, because when they are made aware of the 500’s existence, nothing will deter them from plunking down way too much (in my opinion) money on not very much car.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m neither a Yuppie, Female, nor 18-34. And, I bought a 500 Sport. I’m considering trading up to the Abarth.

        Are you that insecure in your masculinity that you make comments such as this, or simply immature?

      • 0 avatar
        Dan

        Based on the crowds around the 500 display at the car show last month, you must be the only one. It’s this decade’s New Beetle.

      • 0 avatar

        There are some people, enthusiasts even, who get small cars. It’s obvious from his nick that he does, too. Like smallcarsrock, I’m neither a yuppie, female or in that age bracket. But if I had a wad of cash to burn tom orrow, I’d go straight to the Fiat dealership.

        BTW, in Brazil, I see many more men than women in this car. The kind of female described above prefers a Mini or Smart. Or any SUV.

        Just sayin’.

      • 0 avatar
        stryker1

        SmallCarsRock:

        Nothing personal, dude. I didn’t say that no man could possibly like the car. When I test drove, I thought it was fun to drive, in a way. A nice weekend car perhaps.

        Specifically what I meant was that a certain type of woman (one very much like my fiance, in fact) is drawn to this car as if by terrifying occult power. It was SCARY how ready she was to buy a $17k pop auto despite it being completely wrong for the kind of commute she has (60+ mile round trip, often in very heavy traffic). I was trying to answer SherbornSean’s question of why someone wouldn’t pay more for a larger, more powerful car.

        If FIAT painted up a Hello Kitty edition of this vehicle, they would be back ordered for months.

      • 0 avatar
        jmo2

        despite it being completely wrong for the kind of commute she has (60+ mile round trip, often in very heavy traffic).

        Why would a little sporty car that can squirt through traffic be the wrong choice?

      • 0 avatar

        I commute 40+ miles each way in heavy LA traffic in a manual sport… I get between 34-36 mpg, I am completely comfortable in over 2 hours in the car, and can then take it for a spirited drive through the mountains on the weekend. Not following your logic.

      • 0 avatar
        Rental Man

        I lived in Manhattan and paid very high rent & enjoyed the city life now I have a family we live in Jersey and get more for the $. Could go to other parts of world and pay less.
        Different times in our lives and different people buy different things. I am all for people buying a nice 500 Abarth and others going for GTI, WRX, Mustang, Camaro, MaadaSpeed and more. When it comes to your own $ you make your own choice. For that kind of coin most people get a Family sedan.
        It is nice to have options. We are not all the same.

      • 0 avatar
        stryker1

        “Why would a little sporty car that can squirt through traffic be the wrong choice?”

        She (like most people) does not drive stick, and the automatic has relatively poor mpg. Also, all of the driving, heavy traffic or not, is highway driving, and while the 500 has style in spades, it has all but zero passing power. I know this because I tested one. Around town, it was fun. On the highway, much much less so.

        “I commute 40+ miles each way in heavy LA traffic in a manual sport… I get between 34-36 mpg, I am completely comfortable in over 2 hours in the car, and can then take it for a spirited drive through the mountains on the weekend. Not following your logic.”

        again, she doesn’t drive stick. so her mpg would be considerably worse.

        Not saying that the 500 is a terrible choice for all people in all situations, but for our money there isn’t enough there. To me the 500 is a $12k car, not a $17k car. Your mileage may vary.

      • 0 avatar
        MeanWoman

        I’m female, 53, wear an indigo buzz cut, am about as antithetical to Yuppie-dom as you can get, as is my husband (who is not a wimp or PW’d, for all of the inhibited child-men out there), learned to drive stick at 16, and way prefer it to an automatic under any circumstances…and my nemesis in car buying would be a mini-van or SUV. Shudder. Talk about laying out too much money for something…just…loathsome.

        I also hate chick-flicks, can tell you what’s wrong with every episode of “Deadliest Warrior” historically, strategically and with the use and ratings of both ancient and modern weapons, and indeed have a Hello Kitty on my current vehicle. Hello Kitty has an assault rifle. I never just plunk down money, which is why I’m on this site…reading reviews about the Arbath 500. Silly, silly boys.

    • 0 avatar
      Ubermensch

      Ditto. $1000 more gets you a GTI and a lot more car for the money.

      • 0 avatar
        Brantta

        And $1,000 more than GTI gets you Subaru WRX. You get better equipped car, AWD, much more power and reliability.

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        I tend to agree, for a little bit more you move into a much better line of cars. The base Fiat (auto $16.5K) (and many of its contemplates such as Smart, Yaris, Aveo) to me looks like a very cheaply made toy, and should be priced as such. If you put at least 5K between this and the automatic Impreza (18.4) or Golf (19K) then I think its competitive for the money.

      • 0 avatar
        PintoFan

        $1000 more buys you a lot more wasted time in the VW dealer service bay. I think it’s kind of a joke that people are presenting the GTI as a valid alternative to this car.

        What’s worse, a car with no real reliability track record or one that’s proven to be a lemon time and time again? And no, I don’t care about your made-up anecdote about somebody’s faultless MKIV Golf that went 200k without a single repair. I’m willing to tolerate some foibles in my speed machines but not that many.

    • 0 avatar
      icemilkcoffee

      “a lot more in safety, reliability, driveability and capabilty. ”

      How do you figure the Abarth Fiat is any worse in reliability, driveability and capability?

      • 0 avatar
        SherbornSean

        Icemilk,
        In terms of reliability, I had posted before MK’s report-out on the 500’s imperssive repair record to date. But that said, I personally would much rather be the one paying the repair bills for a Mazda or Subie over a Fiat, given Fiat’s reputation, both in the US from a generation ago, and also from Europe today.

        In terms of capability, well, the other vehicles are larger, fit people more easily, can carry more stuff, etc. The Subie’s AWD probebly counts for something in the country or North.

        In terms of driveability, I just expect that vehicles a size up would be much more relaxing on long drives, in terms of noise and ride.

        People have different standards and tastes.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      If you live or frequently visit the city the Fiat 500 would be a better buy, its easier to park.

      The Abarth 500? Maybe if you’re trying to avoid the police.

    • 0 avatar
      Freesc

      Sherborn,
      I work in the automotive quality field.
      VW has a HORRIBLE quality history in this country in the last 20 years. They actually send all their cars thru a warehouse in Tx to fix the errors from the plant in Mexico.

      Fiat, in recent years, has become one of the highest-quality cars in the market. In Germany last year, the 500 WON the customer’s survey of best “A-segment” car. In GERMANY. They are winning awards left and right.

      Chrysler has experienced DRAMATIC quality improvements in the last 2 years under Fiat’s watch. Chrysler was down to 200 quality engineers company-wide when Fiat took over. Fiat went out and hired 2,000 quality engineers to drive improvement in the company. The results are amazing.

      The Speed 3 and WRX are good cars,but they have no soul.

      Ever driven an Italian car for any length of time? I driven… and owned… many, including Fiats, Alfas, and Ferraris. The Jap cars are good refrigerators, but they are boring.

      • 0 avatar
        afflo

        Wow; unless it’s cool to call the Fiat a Wop Car, “Jap cars” probably isn’t the best choice. Glad that Fiat isn’t Israeli, or the ADL would be all over this place!

      • 0 avatar
        SherbornSean

        A few clarifications:
        1. I specifically excluded the GTI from my remarks on reliability, and focused on the Subaru and Mazda

        2. Afflo is right — we need to lose the nationalist references. It makes you sound racist, which I’m sure wasn’t your intent.

        3. I am glad to hear that Fiat and Chrysler are improving their quality — they both have a long way to go to reach average. If you trust them with your wallet fine, but FYI, I just traded a Caravan for an Odyssey, and have zero regrets.

        4. I used to have an Alfa 1750 Duetto Spider; so, yes, I know what it is to drive an Itallian car. Unfortunately, I also know what it is to maintain an Italian car. Do what you want with your money, I’ll do what I want with mine (search CraigsList for an s2000 or Miata in good shape).

  • avatar

    Jack, did you prefer the standard cloth seats, or the optional leather ones?

  • avatar
    Dan

    A performance trim shouldn’t sound like it’s lithping.

  • avatar

    Slightly off-topic, but Jeremy Clarkson recently penned an article in which he said he’d rather own the 500 Twin Air than the Mercedes SLS, BMW Mwhatever or McLaren. He said those cars felt like talking to a beautiful giel at some sophosticated party about something important while the Fiat felt like kicking back at the bar, having some beers with good friends.

    Usual Clarkson hyperbole or honest impression? If the latter, count me impressed.

    As to choosing there being “little objective” reasons to choose this over the Mini, well I get it. But I don’t care. I’d rather have this car than any Mini.

    • 0 avatar
      rentonben

      There’s a *lot* to be said about cheap and cheerful ‘sports’ cars – you can flog them hard and not worry about it.

      I know I did way more crap on my Achieva SCX than my friend did on is BMW 3 M : like get slightly airborne, burn through at set of tires in 13,000 miles, figure out how to drive in snow, learn how to heel toe (or not, but I tried), bump into the speed limiter in Montana, fool the car into thinking it’s going 0 mph and repeat and find out your speed via GPS. Learn how to launch. Know what gears to skip. Haul 8 16ft 2×6 in the car. Know where the rev limiter kicks in. Stain the upholstery. Smoke a cigar.

      • 0 avatar

        years ago (86-93) I had a ’77 Toyota Corolla. There was a place in an obscure but ritzy corner of WAsh. DC where it was easy to get the thing airborne despite the fact that it had the sort of power that made it feel, when you floored it, like another person was pushing. Anyway, I used to love getting that thing airborne. Also clutchless shifting. I abused that thing like crazy, and it took it with aplomb.

  • avatar
    tikki50

    I dont dislike the car, for me, its just too small to be a true racer, and for the production version, please change the front end its hideous, that little slit for an air intake equals tiny engine in my eyes. I have to agree I think the Dart srt-4 would be right up the racers alley over a 500. For some reason the 500 looks like its ready to be bounced off the track with the big boys. Its just too tiny. Now if they had them at say sportsway go-carts, people would love them. Oh and I would definately take a mini over this any day of the week for daily driving, however I’ve heard of some issues with Mini’s and cold weather, up here in MI = not good.

  • avatar
    RGS920

    Interesting comparison with the SRT-4. If you were to put the Abarth in about the same time period as the SRT-4 Neon, the Abarth would be utterly forgettable. The early 2000’s were really the golden age of FWD sport compacts. The SRT-4 in Dodge Neon guise was the end all and be all of that segment in terms of performance. However, even the runners up, the Integra Type R, Integra GSR, RSX Type S, Civic Si b16 and K20 powered, Celica GTS, VW GTI, and MazdaSpeed Protege would condemn the Abarth to bottom of the pack performance wise. But we are in the age of +3000 pound compact cars where the 2500 Lb Abarth is a breath of fresh air.

    In any event, time will tell whether a daily driver hooned Fiat 500 Abarth will prove as unreliable as a daily driver hooned SRT-4 Neon.

    • 0 avatar

      In 1985 I had the Dodge GLH Turbo, which was the same idea before the SRT-4. A daily driver Hooned mopar doesn’t last long…some things never change. It’s great cheap speed though while it lasts.

    • 0 avatar
      Freesc

      Chrysler’s quality under Fiat’s watch has improved DRAMATICALLY, and it will only get better as older product is replaced by newer product based on Fiat engineering. Fiat is currently producing some of the highest quality, best engineered small cars on the planet.

      I am a quality engineer by profession, and have worked in the automotive industry for 20 years. This is my business. Fiat and Chrysler… and their quality… are very much for real now. What either of them made 20 or 30 years ago has ZERO bearing on today.

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    “Over to you, gentlemen…”

    An interesting and helpful review, but does this mean that you don’t see the Abarth as a ‘ladies’ car?

    • 0 avatar
      slance66

      I don’t get the “ladies” car comments for the Abarth. I think the normal 500 is absolutely targeted at women. But the Abarth, that’s the guy version. It’s obvious that Fiat feels that way. I can tell you my wife would never buy a car with an advertisement like that, which was clearly aimed at guys.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        It was just a friendly reminder (no offense intended, Jack) that not all of the best and brightest here need be men. While it may well be true that the majority of people here are men, a number of avatars suggest that at least some of the commentators (and some of the better ones too, I might add) appear to be women (and I’m sure Jack would agree with that). Many of us here forget that sometimes, and as I say it was just intended as a friendly reminder.

        As I’ve pointed out many times, I always enjoy Jack’s car reviews. They provide an insightful viewpoint not common to most reviews, and this one is no exception.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    I can’t stop thinking of this thing as Luke Skywalker’s escape pod.

    I also keep thinking that Hans Solo would have some older and cruder that would kick this thing’s ^ss 3 ways from Sunday.

  • avatar
    MarkP

    Did you mean that it “acquits” itself well on the highway?

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Two words:

    Crash.
    Worthiness?

  • avatar
    Jesse

    At least it has a turbo gauge. What’s with modern turbos not having gauges? I know it’s pretty useless from an idiot light point of view, but they look cool and are fun to watch.

    I’d think that that one simple feature would win over a lot customers during the test drive.

  • avatar
    mjz

    Call me when the cut the base MSRP’s of all the 500’s by $2,000.

  • avatar
    Dr.Nick

    I find the Fiat 500 to be a more feminine car than even the New New Beetle. Are women really going to go for an Abarth edition?

    • 0 avatar
      dts187

      I saw a 500c while at the mall with my girlfriend and she was genuinely interested. She Some time later we saw the Abarth commercial and she liked the look of it as well. She assumed it was just a 500 with some nicer rims, decals, and red interior(her favorite thing about it).

      She asked if it cost more than the 19k 500c we saw previously. I told her why it cost more and that it was available only with a manual. The Abarth immediately became pointless to her and I imagine it would to a lot of females. Not saying a lady can’t row her own gears but in my short life I’ve met only 2.

      I can’t see this taking many sales away from a Cooper S. Most guys I’ve talked to don’t seem interested in one at all. Myself included. I’m sure it’d be fun to drive for a little bit but it’s not something I want to spend my money on and have to live with every day.

      • 0 avatar
        stryker1

        One thing I will say for Fiat over the Cooper, the fit and finish, especially on the interior, seems to be much better. We tested them back to back, and both agreed that the interior of the Cooper felt plasticky and cheap (though, looked alright), where-as the Fiat seemed to be bolted together much better.

        I’d probably still rather have a Cooper, but the appeal of the Fiat is not utterly lost on me.

      • 0 avatar
        Dr.Nick

        I can’t stand the pie plate speedo on the Minis. Just a deal killer.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    I like Top Gear (UK version) and across the pond, I’d see this as normal, with all the narrow roads and such. But here with all the big rigs on the road, granny in her 30 year old Buick, the 4×4 hunting club with the 12″ lift kits etc I’d just feel a bit unsafe in that. I kinda feel like a Shriner looking for a parade when I’m in my GTI too so it’s the size more than the brand that holds me back. I’m really interested in that new Dart though, and that may be a contender when I decide to trade cars.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I like the car, but those gauges are a deal-breaker. I look at the tach all the time when I’m driving a stick, camouflaging it is not real helpful.

  • avatar
    Speed Spaniel

    In a world of 5,000 lbs SUVs I’d be too afraid to drive this little car on the public road, but how terrific to have this on the automotive menu.

    • 0 avatar
      icemilkcoffee

      Sales of 5000lb SUVs have dropped a lot since 10 years ago.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I have a sub-15 lb bike that is probably a lot less crash-worthy than any car that I ride in on public roads.

      However, what it lacks in crash protection it more than makes up for in maneuverability. In fact, for crash avoidance, the smaller the vehicle, the more road you get to work with when avoiding a collision. Even a 5000 lb SUV can be crushed by a 60,000 lb truck, so I prefer to have a better ability to avoid a crash than hoping I’ll survive whatever hits me.

      • 0 avatar
        Speed Spaniel

        Sometimes maneuverability isn’t an option and the heavier the vehicle with more metal around you the better chances of surviving. Having been involved in a car crash where the traffic was completely stopped on the highway, but someone traveling at least 90 mph didn’t, I wouldn’t be caught 5 minutes in this thing. Here’s another example:

        http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/01/29/at-least-dead-in-crashes-on-florida-highway-amid-heavy-smoke/

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    My concern with this car is its wheelbase but tall body, that could cause a tall center of gravity which is something that you don’t want on a sports… errm “sporty” car.

    But as others have said, why buy an Abarth when for a little more you can buy the quicker, more useful, and more functional WRX?

    Then again, I never understood this whole “retro-sporty-overly styled car” fad, but at least the Cooper s and Abarth make sense (there was never a performance VW Bug from the factory).

    I never knew that the GLH would be a sign of the retro-sporty fad, with its dated styling and sporty touches.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Of course there was a performance version of the original Beetle, it was badged as the Porsche 356! :-)

      I’m with Clarkson, the best version of a small car is always the smallest engined version. Drive it like you stole it all the time.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        After owning a 2.2 Horizon I can agree with that statement, that thing plowed and cornered like junk.
        I could tell that they were originally meant with a smaller engine in mind.

  • avatar
    Contrarian

    Visually, it’s like the last gen T-Bird has a newborn baby.

  • avatar
    replica

    I’m guessing most people looking for a small, sporty hatch will do what I did and buy a Mazda2 for a FRACTION of the cost of this thing, or spend the extra $1k and buy a V6 Mustang, Mazdaspeed3, GTi, Mini and so on.

    I just don’t see the point of the entire 500 line the way it’s priced.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      The Mazda2 may be better car or better value, but at a 60hp deficit, it is not going to steal buyers from the Abarth.

      • 0 avatar
        replica

        The meager 100hp of the Mazda2 isn’t terribly obvious with the manual transmission. Reminds me of driving an 88-91 Civic Si/CRX. I don’t think Abarth buyers are looking for massive horsepower. If they are, it’s such a small slice of the market. It’s definitely and interesting car, just, the pricing. I don’t get it. Seems like something that will only sell to Abarth fanboys, and I’m not sure they really exist in the US.

      • 0 avatar
        Strippo

        But how many of the Abarth-curious would take the Abarth over a theoretical “Mazdaspeed2″? I wouldn’t. If you need bigger than a 500 you probably need a good bit bigger. So if Abarth sales inspire Mazda to do the hoon thing, then it’s all good.

        • 0 avatar
          KJS825

          “So if Abarth sales inspire Mazda to do the hoon thing, then it’s all good.”

          …..and yet they still haven’t as of 2/2014 while I write this …..I have owned three Mazda and was hoping they would.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        Mazda 2 shoppers wanting more power can go get the Ford Fiesta, same plat-form.

      • 0 avatar
        Byron Hurd

        The Fiesta’s a fatty compared to the 2. No point to the extra power.

        100hp is 100hp, be it Italian or Japanese. The Mazda’s more practical, sure, but still lacks some basic features that would make it shine as a commuter.

    • 0 avatar
      PintoFan

      I drove a Mazda2, and no offense, but the driving experience was more Chevette-like than any modern car I’ve ridden in. It’s an appliance, pure and simple, and it’s meant to sell at the absolute bottom end of the market (and it shows). It fills a need, but it’s never going to be an Abarth replacement.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    They’re trying to push it as a little, bargain hot rod ala Civic SI or the GTI of yore, only now it’s more expensive than 2 ever were and not nearly as good.

    • 0 avatar
      dan1malk

      Depends on your definition of good, doesn’t it?

      To me the Si/GTI are common, dull, and bulky. Bad things that make those cars not nearly as GOOD as the Abarth.

  • avatar
    John

    Nice review Mr. Baruth. But, looking at the white Abarth, I can’t help thinking a red rubber nose should be required racing gear. It looks so much like a circus clown car. Red Nomex nose?

  • avatar
    afflo

    Neat… I kinda want to sit in one, just to see how it is. I have a weird fetish for tiny cars. I was surprised at how roomy the Mini is; I was able to stretch out my Ichibod Crane legs.

    The 500 seems to be selling like hotcakes. I see them around all the time; not quite as numerous as Minis with the multi-year head start, but they’re popping up all over the place. I’ve heard that they aren’t meeting their sales goals, but if they’re selling like this in Texas, where the F-750 Dude Ranch edition and the Chevrolet Suburban (a.k.a. the Chevrolet Mom-Jeans) rule supreme, I’d think they’d be selling even more on the coasts.

  • avatar
    hp12c

    I’m sure there’s more than a handful of MINI Cooper S owners who follow TTAC and I wonder if a single one of them would trade in their car to get this thing. I wouldn’t in a million years.

    • 0 avatar
      KJS825

      I just did. I have a 2011 Cooper S 6spd with nothing wrong and will sell privately and just bought a 13 leftover ABARTH and can say there is no comparison …..The Cooper S is quicker by a hair but is not as sharp handling as the ABARTH, If someone says “well then get a John Cooper Works version” the answer is the JCW costs 30k plus. My ABARTH was a steal and under 20k (no BS).

  • avatar
    car_guy2010

    I have to say that after reading some of these comments, that I’m disappointed in people on this site.

    Some of you must be stuck in the 1950s when pink cars were all the rage and geared towards women.

    If a car is enough to stir up feelings of male insecurity, then I don’t want to know what else is there.

    That being said, I would not bother with a 500 simply because it’s a rolling joke. Nothing more.

  • avatar
    thesal

    I think a lot of the guys here are thinking of it similarly to picking a puppy. Most men won’t go for the taco-bell dog, even if he wears a black n red leather jacket and was put on a bit of a dog training program.

    And walking such a dog would definitely be a rolling joke.

    Sorry to the “super secure bad asses” who decided to buy a 500, the fact is you bought an overpriced purse. And those so called “insecure men” in GTIs and MS3s will continue to beat you at every stop light, highway onramp, drag strip and road course. I’m glad you enjoy revvin’ the hell out of your ride and going balls out while keeping up with traffic, I’m sure it’s invigorating :-)

    • 0 avatar
      afflo

      A Camaro is a car for barely-got-a-GED Natty Light drinkers in wife-beaters.
      A Prius is for eco-nuts.
      A Mazda Miata is for middle aged women.
      A Ford Mustang is for old men having midlife crises.
      Ditto for the Harley Softail.
      Sporsters are for women.
      GSX-Rs are for reckless hooligan speed freaks.
      yada yada.

      And so on.

      All vehicles have a stigma. You either let peer pressure dictate what you buy, drive, and enjoy, or you pick it for yourself.

      /yes I fed the troll. Trolls are hungry too.

      • 0 avatar
        thesal

        Ok, fine, that last para had a hint of troll, but none of what I said there is untrue.

        I didn’t make any broad claims about other cars and stigmas. I stand by my assertion that the Fiat is an overpriced underperformer that looks like a tacobell dog in a leather jacket.

        If the same money gets you a V6 Mustang, I’d rather be called a redneck but actually drive a real car, thats faster, RWD, more practical etc. Has nothing to do with image.

        For those who like Priusssesss, if they think it’s a good value proposition compared to a diesel, good for them, I doubt it though.

        Miata guys, no worries, it’s a fantastic handling RWD ride and one of the most raced roadcourse cars in N/A.

        Just being realistic about $/performance/enjoyment and I just can’t see a case for this Abarth thingy.

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    A company’s designated target market is not necessarily a good reflection of who may actually be attracted to a vehicle. The Scion Xb, Kia Soul, and so on may be marketed to younger generations, for example, but many older folks also like them and buy them.

    So the possibility that the 500 may be marketed to women does not mean that men can’t also like the car. I personally like the 500 a lot and, like Marcello above, think it would be a fun little car to own and drive. Each to his (or her) own, I guess.

  • avatar
    JMII

    The packaging of this car is just too cute, thus the reason its not a “guys” car. The ground effects and wheels help a little but its going to be a tough sale to most men. My wife (at 40 years old) loves the look, but she said the same about a Mini until she saw the interior. In the end she got a Volvo C30, its sexy and a touch more sophisticated (we think).

    As someone else said the 500 looks too much like a Hello Kitty car. Contrast this with the Scion TC which looks more sporty then it really is. Funny how aggressive vehicles sell to both sexes (for example SUVs) but cute only sells to women or guys who really know its the real deal (for example Miata). Setup properly a Mini can look really good, but a 500 even painted in Darth Vader black is still overflowing with puppy like cuteness.

  • avatar
    ktm

    I found the designers inspiration for the Fiat 500: Google “Batteries Not Included Images”

  • avatar
    Joss

    Will it sell sufficient? No new 7-sp dual clutch or 6-sp manual. Sergio on hold… I think the Alfa-Dodge will be the breadwinner.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    A chick car is only a chick car if you think its a chick car. If I had the sort of disposable income that allowed me to keep a fun car around I’d pick up a 500 Abarth, Mazda Miata, or NEW New Beetle in a heartbeat. FYI guys the NEW New Beetle will always look like a 1950s Porshe in profile and that’s all I’ll ever be able to think of it as.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Say what you want about the new, new Beetle – it looks like a Beetle should look. I might add that it looks mighty fine to me…something I’d actually WANT to be seen in.

      I rather favor our MX5 too…

  • avatar
    PintoFan

    I don’t see the point in comparing this car to a bunch of bigger, heavier, tarted-up grocery getters like the WRX or Speed3. This car isn’t meant to compete with them, nor does it provide the same kind of driving experience. The closest competition is the Cooper S, but that doesn’t have the same kind of visual charm and it’s frailties are already well known. The point is, you don’t buy this car because it’s practical- you buy it because you want it. In a certain sense, I think it lends the car a kind of honest quality, because the sheer tininess of it relieves it of the responsibility of pretending to be something it isn’t.

    • 0 avatar
      SherbornSean

      I wasn’t claiming that the GTI, WRX or Speed3 were in the same class of vehicle as the 500. Anyone who has tried out the backseats of these vehciles would know that in a second. My point was that for MY money, I’d spend an extra 10% to get one of those.

      Are they grocery-getters? Only if you are buying food and taking it home in one of them. You could do the same in a Lotus, I suppose.

    • 0 avatar
      hubcap

      “…have the same kind of visual charm…”

      I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. One thing is obvious though.

      You need a good pair of glasses.

  • avatar
    ravenchris

    I like the MPH and RPM gauges laid out this way.
    This car does not appeal to the majority which makes it unique and refreshing.

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    The contrarian in me wonders why the hell someone would get this instead of a base Mustang V6 for the same money.

    But if we are going to stick to FWD and small turbo engines I would still wait to see the Veloster Turbo and Dodge Dart Turbo.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    I have always wondered what the ‘too cute’ label was all about??
    Too cute for the lowlife bar parking lot???
    Too cute for the 4×4 owners?
    Too cute for the ‘German engineering’ folks.
    Too cute v.s a Prius???????????
    This is a great little car that has proven to be a joy to drive by most.
    Drive whatever you want..that’s my motto.
    and if you want to call me a pussy..We can discuss it outside the bar!

  • avatar
    djn

    Sorry Guys
    The Abarth 500 sounds exactly like what a modern Abarth should be. It has all the character that make the Vintage Abarths like the Double Bubble and Record Monza extremely sought after vintage race cars and the delight at car shows. Ask the man who owns one. Great article (as always), Jack. Thanks

    DJN
    59 Abarth Alemano

    • 0 avatar
      Dr.Nick

      The Abarth makes sense in a Europe just getting back on its feet, or a Europe where the government taxes the heck out of cars and gas and it’s just an amazing achievement to have any kind of car. In an America where it’s still possible to have bigger and faster cars for the same or less money, what’s the point? Unless you have some weird parking problem because you live in the middle of a heavily urban area. An area where you probably don’t need a car to begin with.

  • avatar
    Buckshot

    I´m amazed of you “real men” complaining about safety of small cars. Real men are not afraid of driving any vehichle, including Harley-Davidsons and small cars with strong engines.
    The ones who need 2 tons of SUV, they are little girls.

  • avatar
    SupaMan

    I like the 500 Abarth. I utterly despise the way Fiat first introduced the 500 using JLo. In the end she got more press than the car itself.

    The Abarth appeals because of its quirky turbocharged nature. Were I in the market (and had the money) for a second car, the Abarth would be in my top 5.

    Either that or I’d buy it for my daughter. The perfect gift for her to practice heel-and-toe shifting.

  • avatar
    sjmst

    I have a 500 Sport. 27,000 miles on it after only one year. Reliable and fun, average 40 MPG. My car before this was a BMW e46. Now, the Sport 500 is great, and if you get on it, it really runs. But 60 more HP is hard to resist. As for those who say this is a $12 or $15k car, I say drive one. If you still feel that it is overpriced, fair enough. There will still be plenty of takers for this car.

  • avatar

    Interesting. Can’t wait for a review of Scion FR-S.

  • avatar
    mountainman

    This car is almost as ugly as a Juke. Was the front end inspired by 1950’s spy cameras?

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Jack:

    You should have raced at Nelson Ledges before they put in tirewalls (circa 1973). Now that was thrilling.

  • avatar
    Charlie84

    Jack, can the Abarth’s stability control be completely disabled?

    Follow-up question: As someone who can actually drive, what is your opinion on contemporary stability control systems that can’t be truly and completely disabled? Is this an actual annoyance or is it a case of us internet/magazine racers freaking out over nothing, writing checks that our driving skills can’t cash, etc?

  • avatar
    wmba

    Had a decent drive of a regular 500 with automatic this morning, courtesy of a friend. I liked the little bugger, much more so than the two MINIs I’ve driven, which I actively disliked, mostly because I hated the omnipresent A pillar in my field of view, and an indecipherable instrument panel down by my right knee.

    On the potholed roads round here, the 500 rode very well if a bit choppily due to the short wheelbase, without any of the kranging I get on my Legacy GT on broken concrete slab road. Puts a smile on your face while the little engine revs mightily and doesn’t put your license in jeopardy. Nice high driving position. Will not remind you of any penalty box Asian car, none of which seem to have any character whatsoever (Civic, Corolla etc.)

    My criticisms are: Not enough room for my fingers and the key to insert the thing; numbo steering to the nth degree, just like the Focus and Sonata and anything else with EPAS – yuck; highway power low and a bit reluctant to downshift and get going. Hey, it’s a city car.

    Most of the comments I read in this and other 500 tests seem to be from the point of armchair experts. Drive the car, and maybe you’ll get out with a big grin like I did. It actually has some character, and doesn’t seem to be cost cut to the bone like a new Civic, the car most likely these days to be selected by drones for commuting, and with no redeeming features at all that I could find, certainly nothing that would make you actually want to drive it for fun.

    Look forward to having a go in the Abarth soon. Still find the Focus to be the dynamic class of the field in the size above, but the horsemanure My Ford Touch puts me off that thing completely. If I have to attend a lecture to learn how to use the thing, I am NOT interested.

    Bring on the FRS and BRZ. If I can bend my old legs low enough to get in one of the damn things, I’m sure it’ll be more fun than a barrel of these sedan monkeys.

  • avatar
    njd

    I think you’d have to be very thick to think that this is a “chick car”.

    First off, the Abarth only comes in manual transmission. Most women (the hugely vast majority) in the US do not know how to drive stick. And those who do probably drive a pickup in the mid-west–not exactly the Fiat types.

    Secondly, ALL of the Abarth ads are targeted at males. Everything from the Superbowl ad which featured an Italian supermodel to the Charlie Sheen ad (throwing a party in a mansion full of beautiful women).

    Thirdly, as someone who works in marketing, I can tell you that branding something the “Abarth” would be suicide for the Fiat staff if they were actually targeting women. Abarth means nothing to women. It is a name that is held dear only to a very small group of men who know too much about cars or motorcycle racing. That’s not to say that the Abarth is targeted towards racing enthusiasts–it isn’t. Abarth is just a perfect branding tool to snag the city-dwelling 20-somethings who want something cool, unique, and with a European heritage.

  • avatar
    GeneralMalaise

    I sold my ’07 350Z and bought an Abarth three weeks ago this Sunday. I love this car! Driving it – always in Sport mode – puts a grin on my face, much like my ’81 X1/9 still does. I bought a dark gray (grigio) one equipped with white accents/mirror caps, sunroof and opted for the red leather interior.

    I am lovin’ it.


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