2018 Fiat 500 Abarth Review - Clinging To Hot Hatch Tradition

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn
Fast Facts

2018 Fiat 500 Abarth

1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four (160 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 170 lb/ft @ 2,500 rpm)
Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
28 city / 33 highway / 30 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
31.7 (observed mileage, MPG)
8.4 city / 7.0 highway / 7.8 combined (NRCan Rating, L/100km)
Base Price: $21,790 US / $30, 490 CAD
As Tested: $25,510 US / $32,825 CAD
Prices include $1,295 destination charge in the United States and $1,998 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can't be directly compared.
2018 fiat 500 abarth review clinging to hot hatch tradition

Anyone else fondly recall Sport Compact Car magazine? For over two decades, that dead-tree, updated-monthly blog brought the latest in import performance trends to newsstands and mailboxes. I know that I waited for my copy impatiently, just knowing that this month would be the one where I found the perfect stuff with which I could poorly modify my ancient Accord.

Each issue brought forth little cars with tons of character, but after a while a theme was established — big wheels, big exhaust tips, and a lowered suspension with little compliance became the standard. With the dying of that great magazine, and the de-evolution of the Fast and Furious franchise away from accessible cars, the tuner culture seems to have drifted away from mainstream consciousness.

There aren’t many new truly compact cars that invite this sort of tuning, let alone those that come so equipped from the factory. The 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth is a throwback to those days — days where a loud exhaust and a booming stereo meant fun on Saturday night.

Another nod to yesteryear: the five-speed manual transmission. There are so few cars available these days with any manual that I shouldn’t be complaining, but the low-revving turbo Fiat feels as if a sixth cog would be welcome for highway cruising. Still, the manual shifts well, with somewhat long throws being the only complaint. Clutch take-up is progressive — I can see this being a good choice for introducing manual shifting to a driver reared on two pedals.

No, I’m not joking. I’m really recommending a turbocharged hot hatch as a first manually-shifted car. Hear me out. The miniscule outside dimensions, paired with the impressively-sized greenhouse and responsive steering all put a new driver at ease — no worries about where the corners of the car are when you feel you can reach out from the driver’s seat and touch them all. The low-end torque afforded by the small turbocharged four-cylinder makes it easy to pull off the line with minimal throttle. At 160 hp, it’s not so powerful that it wrenches the wheel out of the hand should one stab the throttle abruptly. But the Abarth 500 is spritely enough to make the driving properly fun once the driver knows how to, um, drive.

Prod that right pedal, and the dual exhaust tips bring forth a snarling soundtrack. Cut the throttle, and racey pops and bangs ensue. It’s raucous and silly, but endearing. The steering is quick and direct, with seemingly immediate turn-in. The ride is about what one would expect from a lightweight, short-wheelbase runabout: it’s choppy on interstate expansion joints, but tolerable. But in the city, the 500 Abarth is easy to place, and on the backroads, it’s non-stop fun.

My tester had, paired with the standard UConnect five-inch touchscreen system, a $695 Beats premium audio package. For branded speaker packages, the price isn’t bad. But the 8-inch subwoofer enclosure does narrow the already tight cargo area — again, something with which drivers of classic modified hatchbacks are all too familiar. You’ll need to crank the volume a bit to compete with the exhaust.

Oddly, the radio went a bit funky one morning. It stopped responding to all inputs. I’d been listening to a football game on Saturday on FM radio, and I got stuck listening to FM sports talk radio on Sunday morning rehashing said game ad nauseum. Pretty much the worst thing ever. It took a good twenty minutes to reset itself, following a few cycles of the ignition.

Isn’t it odd that both of my prior reviews of Italian-brand cars — the Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Fiat 124 Spider — noted electrical weirdness in the dash? Especially odd on the 124 Spider, as the infotainment is sourced from Mazda. It’s as if Fiat and Alfa Romeo engineered in some, ahem, “traditional” electrical gremlins to endear the cars to “traditional” enthusiasts.

The interior space is traditional, too. The car is narrow, thus driver and passenger will likely rub elbows if not shoulders. It’s short, so rear seat passengers (if any) will be cramped. For reference, I’m around 6 feet, 3 inches tall with a 32-inch inseam. My four-foot-nine youngest daughter only fit behind me if she slipped her shoes off and sat cross-legged on the rear bench while loudly complaining. But for a moody tween, complaining loudly is to be expected. The Fiat 500 Abarth is a car best experienced by short people, or by but a pair of larger folk like myself.

It’s not an ideal family car. It’s loud, a bit brash, and yet not overwhelmingly fast. The Fiat 500 Abarth encourages antisocial behavior, in a user-friendly package. I’m kinda in love with it, if only to hark back to my youth.

[Images: © 2018 Chris Tonn/TTAC]

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2 of 36 comments
  • Jasonmcallister Jasonmcallister on Dec 28, 2018

    It's a unique car that sounds good, can whip around corners, and feels like a sports car. I paid 9k for for a 2013 with all the options (and some minor upgrades, 48k miles and perfect service record and condition. I've had it now for 3 months as a 3rd vehicle for fun that I also occasionally drive to work. 5'11 and reasonable comfortable. I would not go on extended trip with it. Goose it quite a bit. I also have a CBR 1000rr superbike and can honestly say this is just about as fun to drive when the weather is bad, as it is often here in Western Washington.

  • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Dec 30, 2018

    I had a '13 from new for exactly two years, then sold it and got an M235i. Still one of the top three cars I have owned that I miss the most. I'd have another one in a heartbeat if I had a place to put it. Zero issues with it, and I can't even complain much about the depreciation. Cheap fun. I drove mine from Maine to DC and back once, but if you are doing a lot of highway driving I will definitely agree the Fiesta ST is the better choice. But the Abarth is way more fun otherwise. Just a silly grin-inducing car.

  • BEPLA My own theory/question on the Mark VI:Had Lincoln used the longer sedan wheelbase on the coupe - by leaning the windshield back and pushing the dashboard & steering wheel rearward a bit - not built a sedan - and engineered the car for frameless side windows (those framed windows are clunky, look cheap, and add too many vertical lines in comparison to the previous Marks) - Would the VI have remained an attractive, aspirational object of desire?
  • VoGhost Another ICEbox? Pass. Where are you going to fill your oil addiction when all the gas stations disappear for lack of demand? I want a pickup that I can actually use for a few decades.
  • Art Vandelay Best? PCH from Ventura to somewhere near Lompoc. Most Famous? Route Irish
  • GT Ross The black wheel fad cannot die soon enough for me.
  • Brett Woods My 4-Runner had a manual with the 4-cylinder. It was acceptable but not really fun. I have thought before that auto with a six cylinder would have been smoother, more comfortable, and need less maintenance. Ditto my 4 banger manual Japanese pick-up. Nowhere near as nice as a GM with auto and six cylinders that I tried a bit later. Drove with a U.S. buddy who got one of the first C8s. He said he didn't even consider a manual. There was an article about how fewer than ten percent of buyers optioned a manual in the U.S. when they were available. Visited my English cousin who lived in a hilly suburb and she had a manual Range Rover and said she never even considered an automatic. That's culture for you.  Miata, Boxster, Mustang, Corvette and Camaro; I only want manual but I can see both sides of the argument for a Mustang, Camaro or Challenger. Once you get past a certain size and weight, cruising with automatic is a better dynamic. A dual clutch automatic is smoother, faster, probably more reliable, and still allows you to select and hold a gear. When you get these vehicles with a high performance envelope, dual-clutch automatic is what brings home the numbers.