A few months back, Bertel decreed that TTAC would have no more duplicate reviews. If we wanted to test a car that had already been reviewed, we’d better have a dramatically different take on it. I had a FIAT 500 Abarth for the week. Jack and Alex had already covered it on track and off. I thought someone had a comparison with the MINI Cooper S on the way. What else could I possibly compare the Abarth to that would make sense? It’s not like there are any other high-performance Italian hatchbacks offered in North America…
You’re a single guy (not me) with an appointment to keep (sadly, me) when you happen across a supermodel. You have only a few minutes to spare, but you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t chance a pass, and she’s going to reject you anyway. Except Jeff Cauley is a top-notch dealer with enough of a sense of humor to agree to an “Italian hatchback comparison test.” So here we have all of the insight I could glean from a quickie with “this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy” looping inside my skull.
There are some differences between the FIAT 500 Abarth and the Ferrari FF. We’ll cover those. But the similarities are uncanny. For $1,590, you can grace the fenders of your FF with “Scuderia Ferrari” shields. These are yellow topped with the Italian tricolor.
The Abarth’s fenders include shields as standard equipment. They’re smaller in size, with a scorpion rather than a horse (startled by a scorpion?) displayed sable, but the colors are the same.
A 2+2 two-door hatchback configuration distinguishes both cars from alternatives. The rear seats might barely fit adults, but they’ll do in a pinch, and should serve well with smaller humans. The FF has a considerable edge in cargo volume with the rear seat up (15.9 cubic feet vs. 9.5), but it goes away when the seat is folded (28.3 vs. 26.5).
Matching fitted luggage isn’t available from the FIAT factory at any price, much less $9,967, but there are other ways to contain your empties.
The leather inside the FF is of very high quality, and covers nearly every surface. Nearly every creature comfort is either standard or (in some unexpected cases) optional. Cruise control adds $1,067, a parking camera $3,463, and a dual-screen rear seat entertainment system $5,298. The nav system is as easy to use as that in a Chrysler, perhaps because it’s the same unit. The reconfigurable LCD instruments effectively convey a huge amount of information. (Hopefully they prove as durable as they are functional.) But you can find equally opulent cabins in cars that cost half as much.
Similarly, the Abarth’s decidedly less organic interior materials resemble those in cars that cost roughly half as much (though the red-stitched and upholstered instrument binnacle is a nice touch). Unlike in the Ferrari, cruise control is standard. Nav is provided by a portable unit that plugs into a hole atop the dash, but at least it only adds $400. As with the FF, you’re mostly paying for performance hardware.
What sort of hardware? The FF is powered by a normally-aspirated 6.3-liter engine that produces 660 horsepower (PS) at its 8,000 rpm redline. Torque peaks at a similarly lofty 6,000 rpm, but there’s plenty to be found just off idle, courtesy of the Vette-like displacement. Not that you’ll want to keep revs low. The V12′s tenor wail, more like that of a sport bike than any non-Italian car, is pistonhead nirvana, with never a note out of place. No manual transmission is offered, perhaps because none would be nearly as quick nor as smooth as the rear-mounted seven-speed automated dual-clutch unit. An ingenious all-wheel-drive system is standard. Instead of a transfer case, it employs a two-speed automatic transmission connected to a clutch pack for each wheel to grab power as needed (to maintain stability and traction) from the front of the engine. Is it quick? Of course it’s quick, so quick that you can barely scratch the powertrain’s potential at semi-legal speeds on public roads. In track testing, sixty arrives in about 3.5 seconds. This said, there’s more of a sensation of speed than in some other extremely powerful cars, where you arrive at 60 with little memory of the trip.
Does the thought of clutches that must continuously slip to do their job scare you? Or perhaps your environmental sensibilities cannot tolerate EPA ratings of 11 city and 17 highway? Then the 28/34 500 might be more your thing. For the Abarth, FIAT turbocharges the 500′s 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine to yield 160 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Unless you forget to hit the sport button, in which case the engine peaks around 135 horsepower, the throttle lags, and the car feels unworthy of its fancy badges. So be sure to hit the button to the right of the red-stitched, flat-bottomed steering wheel each time you start the car.
Even with the sport button pushed, there’s little torque below 3,000 rpm even after the turbo spools up. The Abarth’s song isn’t remotely as refined as the FF’s, such that “song” seems an ill-chosen term, but what it lacks in quality it strives to make up for in quantity. Some will find its boom, snap, and crackle overly raucous, but for me the Abarth’s drone is reasonably low when cruising and its exhaust doesn’t bark loudly on deceleration the way the Dodge Neon SRT4′s (tuned by some of the same folks) did. The five-speed’s shifter is mounted oddly high, its shift feel is slightly sloppy, and the clutch vaguely grabs at the very top of its long travel. Despite this iffy execution, a conventional manual remains the best partner for the Abarth’s engine. A good thing, as no automated option is offered. The front wheels are driven all the time, the rears never. As in the Ferrari, the engine’s testa is dressed in rossa.
For a mere $1,445 you can get the FF’s massive calipers (which squeeze 15.7-inch rotors) in red.
The Abarth has red calipers as a standard feature (perhaps because less paint is needed). Its smaller brakes are charged with retarding far less curb weight, 2,512 vs. 4,145 pounds.
Both cars have reasonably raked windshields and so no need for extra-deep instrument panels. But here the similarity of their driving positions ends. To achieve a 47/53 weight distribution, Ferrari mounted the FF’s long engine entirely behind the front axle, yielding a very long hood. For less obvious reasons, the FF also happens to be very wide. Consequently, while the FF might feel lighter than it is, it doesn’t feel smaller than it is. Instead, it feels at least as large as a Panamera, and similar in overall character. The tape measure reports similar dimensions (193.2 x 76.9 x 54.3 inches vs. 195.6 x 76.0 x 55.8). The FF has less length abaft the driver but more inches ahead, and you sit a little lower behind a taller instrument panel and longer hood. But, compared to the driving position in one of the science fiction experiments from Lamborghini, the FF’s is downright practical.
The Abarth’s driving position occupies the opposite extreme. You sit so high that the car feels tippy even though, once the firm suspension takes a set, it’s not. Seat adjustments are far more limited than in the Ferrari, and unless you’re in the left tail of the bell curve you won’t be using the one for height. There’s far less hood ahead of you, and you don’t see the little there is. Excellent for forward visibility, not so good for sporting character.
During my test drive, where the FF’s suspension remained well within its capabilities, the car felt every bit as balanced as one with a 47/53 weight distribution should. The throttle can be used to nudge the rear end around, and the FF feels more lively than the typical all-wheel-drive car, perhaps because in balls-short-of-the-wall dry road driving the front wheels are declutched. The FF’s steering is light yet fairly communicative and shockingly quick (perhaps even too quick for such a large car). Compared to a Porsche Panamera, it takes longer (and longer than I had) to become acclimated behind the control-festooned wheel of the FF. The Porsche, while also feeling like a super-sized sports car, is a more intuitive car to drive quickly. But even in casual driving the FF engages. Once everything is tweaked to taste (a mind-boggling number of adjustments are available, but unlike in the FIAT the settings appear to be retained when the car is turned off) and the Ferrari becomes familiar it would no doubt be the more satisfying car to drive.
Simply due to its could-hardly-be-more-different dimensions, proportions, and weight distribution (64/36), the Abarth handles much differently. Contrary to some other reports, understeer isn’t excessive, but you’ll never forget that the FIAT is a tall, nose-heavy, front-wheel-drive car. Despite its much more compact dimensions and lesser weight (1,600 vs. 1,950 pounds) over narrower front tires (205/40ZR17 vs. 245/35ZR20), the Abarth’s steering is less communicative and lacks the quickness I expect in a tiny hatchback. No surprise given its much shorter wheelbase (90.6 vs. 117.7 inches), higher center of gravity, and far less sophisticated suspension, the Abarth also doesn’t ride nearly as smoothly as the Ferrari. The FF might also have the Panamera beat in this last aspect.
The FIAT 500 Abarth starts at $22,700. The 17-inch wheels add one grand. Leather adds another. A convenience package, nav, and red mirrors plus stripes (a box I’d uncheck) bumped the tested car’s price to $26,200. On the one hand, this seems a little steep given the car’s size, performance potential, and amenities. Another thousand will get you a roomier, much more capable and considerably more enjoyable MazdaSpeed3. On the other hand, the Abarth’s price is well under one-tenth of the Ferrari’s. The FF is theoretically available for just $298,750. But options added over $60,000 to the car I drove, and over $100,000 to another in the showroom. Air freight (not included in the sub-300 price) added $5,000 to a car that had been shipped to Michigan, $9,000 to one that had originally deplaned in Arizona. It’s not clear if the gas guzzler tax is included in the base price or buried in a substantial “other options” figure (both cars included far more items than could fit on the window sticker).
So, which Italian hatchback is the best one for you? The FF is an exercise in what happens when cost isn’t much of an object and the sheet starts clean. You fit a highly-tuned, naturally-aspirated V12 for seamless power, mount it far back for balance, pair it with an automated manual for quick responses, and employ all-wheel-drive on an as-needed basis for traction. The apparently unavoidable downsides of all this optimization are size, weight, and cost. Enough money fixes the last, and the second isn’t terribly evident, but the first doesn’t ever go away. The FF is very much the ultimate expression (until its replacement arrives) of the GT concept. For similar performance in a smaller car, you’re going to have to give up some cylinders, the rear seat, a lot of luggage capacity, or all of the above.
Perhaps you want a tidier hatchback that can be more fully exploited on public roads at legal speeds. Or your budget simply doesn’t extend north of $300,000. But you also want Italian style complete with red highlights everywhere the Ferrari has them and tricolor fender badges. Then the Abarth is the obvious choice.
Cauley Ferrari in West Bloomfield, MI, provided the FF. For those with smaller budgets, Cauley also operates a used car dealership with its heart in the right place—you’ll find no boring cars on the lot. They can be reached at 866-353-8629.
FIAT provided the 500 Abarth with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates truedelta.com, a provider of car reliability and pricing information.