by Michael Volkmann in December 2012 (4.5)
After my original drive of the Fiat 500 Sport and then going with a friend to purchase one, I thought I had experience in the 500. I know how the seats, stereo, sport button and such operate. Then, opening the door, I realized this little car was different... really different. It isn't for everyone, either... unlike the original Neon ACR, which would be randomly driven on the street by non-enthusiasts who thought they were just buying a base model car, the Abarth should scare away the random buyer rather quickly.
My test car (not pictured) was a bold Rosso (red) with only two options, white stripes with white mirror caps and white 17" forged alloy wheels. The MSRP for this pocket rocket was $24,050. It was quite a different and attractive combination.
Getting in was familiar and all I had to do was make a quick seat adjustment to be comfortable. That's where the similarities to the 500 Sport ended. The seats themselves are quite a bit different than the seats in the 500 Sport. They are more supportive with a little more bolstering and my bottom certainly felt more planted in the seat, which was one of my original complaints about the Sport. "This is a driver's car," I thought, as I got comfortable in the cloth seats.
Then I turned the key, heard the burble and I knew for sure this was going to be interesting. The little engine roared to life with authority. It is reminiscent of the SRT4 versions of the Neon and Caliber, but quite different. One of the things I loved about the first generation ACR was the fact that you could hear the little engine rumble. Same with the Neon SRT4 which had a great combination of engine and exhaust tone. The Caliber SRT4 was quieter inside but still quite burbly. This is different, it is all exhaust rumble, but it is just great.
The power of this car is different from any other turbo Chrysler I have driven. The boost comes on fast, but it isn't in-your-face fast like a SRT4 or GLHS. You don't really feel the boost until you hit about 10 pounds or so.
The turbo is at the very front of the engine behind the hood latch and you can't really hear it spool up like you could on previous turbo Mopars. The power is linear to me, it isn't "laggy," sort of like a centrifugal supercharger... it comes on steadily, but not too fast and not to slow.
Watching the boost gauge move in relation to the tach is quite interesting. It is as if they are in step with each other, "at this rpm the boost will be this much." It is smooth and the power is easily applied to the ground. The SRT4 would boost up and lay you in the seat at relatively low RPM (and try to spin tires and walk around a bit), this car doesn't do that.
The boost almost feels heavily restricted through waste gate control, however a little birdie told me that there might be a bottleneck in the efficiency of the dual intercooler system. Regardless, it just goes and goes, then you change gears, it pops, gurgles, and goes again... then you are caught off guard because you are going faster than you realized, which is perfect!
One of my complaints about the 500 Sport was that I was always in an "almost comfortable" position. This didn't become apparent to me until after chatting with a friend who had spoke to a Chrysler engineer about it. I have a little bit of a racing background and I usually like to be fairly close to a steering wheel. The 500 in general is what I like to call a "reacher." You can't get close enough to the steering wheel without your legs being smashed into the dash. For people like me, sitting farther away from the wheel and getting my legs comfortable takes some getting used too.
The Abarth is different. You still have to reach for the wheel, but it isn't as apparent to me as it is Sport. The pedals are close together, but I have small feet so it wasn't an issue. I thought the clutch was a bit light, but it was easy to get used too. I prefer a little more feedback from the clutch. Let's just say that it was easy to let it out quickly.
The shifter is positioned well coming off the lower portion of the dash board and is a typical front drive cable style shifter. It isn't as positive feeling as the Neon or especially the SRT4 Neon, but it isn't bad either. There are "short throw" shifters available for the car. I don't know a lot about them, but usually items like that are some what gimmicky because they don't really change the pivot position of the shifter. Regardless, I was happy with the shifter although I think the gates are not long enough between neutral position and the gear positions. This gave a somewhat spongy feel and caused me to miss a downshift once.
The steering is very positive, quick, and not over boosted with a very connected feel. My experiences with the 500 Sport have left me feeling that the steering was a touch twitchy, especially on the highway. The Abarth is not the same, although it could be a touch quicker in my opinion. The Koni FSD valved Magnetti Marelli dampers are reminiscent of the original Arvin dampers of the Neon ACR to me, but not quite as stiff on rebound. The roll stiffness is quite noticeable, and anyone who claims this car has a bunch of understeer doesn't understand how to use the throttle to make the car rotate. This car can lift and turn just like a SRT4 or Neon with a 22mm rear bar could with relative ease.
The stereo and basic gauges are carryover and the boost gauge/shift light is very well placed, but the visual area of the needle is thin and it took a few times of looking at it to learn how to look at it and see the needle. The little things like the shifter knob, boot, and parking brake handle all have better materials than the Sport. Even the single driver's arm rest (which is annoying because the passenger doesn't have one) is covered in a comfortable microfiber-ish material that feels good. The back seat is the same as the normal 500 except for matching seat material and design. I did notice a tad bit of wind or road noise coming from the drivers door, I think this could have been corrected.
I can't help but go back to how much I loved the exhaust note inside the car. It is loud and some people may not like it, but I loved it. The burbles, pops, and faint whine coming from the exhaust is just great. I couldn't get enough of it and it was just giddy. The car is just fun, pure clean "italian" fun... although it is quite different from its euro counterpoint, as I understand it.
I like the optional 17" wheels and think they look better than the stock 16s. The stance of the car is excellent, although some will want it lower to the ground because they think it will make it handle better while looking better. However, like the Neon, the overall travel of the struts are not conducive to lower springs and I would not recommend aftermarket springs for this vehicle. To me it is perfect as it is and why would anyone want to create understeer by limiting suspension travel?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in a Fiat 500. The car is just plain fun. I wasn't surprised like I was the last time though. I knew this car was going to be good coming in but not this good. Yes, the Abarth once again exceeded my expectations. They took a car that was fun and a pleasure, added a little attitude and made a scorpion. I'm stung, no doubt about it.
I should have bought the car. It is the perfect replacement for a car like a Neon ACR if you are using it as a fun daily driver. It is even more of an attention grabber than it was before and that is something I really like. Don't get me wrong, I love my Neons... but there is a very high probability that this will replace either my ACR or my Nitro Yellow Green '95 Neons.
To answer the question many are asking, will the Abarth outrun a ACR Neon in a straight line? Absolutely! This car can easily achieve a low, low 15 second quarter mile time car. I would not doubt seeing these cars in the 14.90s with perfect conditions. However, while the Abarth can easily outhandle a standard Neon, it cannot outhandle an ACR. I suspect the ACR and the Abarth would be nearly dead even in lap times on the road course; where the ACR lacks, the Abarth picks up, and vice versa.
My final thoughts are this, if you are interested in this car and you find one available just buy it. The dynamics are excellent. The power is there. It is worth the money for sure.
By the way, since I know you all read my original article on the Fiat 500... I did figure out how to keep that SPORT button on all the time!
Special thanks to Tony Nevotti, Director of the Fiat of McKinney, and Luke Germann, Fiat Specialist, for the opportunity to enjoy this 500 Abarth.
Michael Volkmann's Fiat 500 Sport Review • Fiat 500 Abarth details
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