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by David Zatz in November 2015 (4 stars; 2 stars, if you like a smooth ride)
It roars constantly, shakes, and rattles a bit; has a bone-jarringly stiff suspension; and launches slowly from a full stop. The back seats are for kids, the trunk is small, the gas mileage is not much better than a Chrysler 300. So why did we really like the Fiat 500C Abarth? Mostly because of time spent behind the steering wheel.
To make an Abarth 500 or Fiat 500 Abarth, take the standard little Fiat — plenty of room for two up front, able to carry four in a pinch, great mileage, fun handling, feels fast but isn’t — and optimize it for performance. Toss in a turbocharger, and the boost gauge shoots up almost instantly to 18-22 psi on demand, nearly doubling the power, and giving you over 180 lb-ft of torque. The weight is almost the same, so acceleration from speed is quite good.
The Fiat 500C Abarth also has a stiff suspension, better brakes, and sport tuning, along with a “Sport” button. If you swing the wheel, the car follows instantly with no fuss, even over moderately dirty roads. It’s a lot of fun if you have the right roads and leave room for the slow and the stupid. That said, highways that seemed perfect are now bumpy and jittery, and potholes seem to be everywhere. The exhaust is loud and booming from idle through the range, almost drowning out the sweet whistle of the turbocharger.
The convertible version (500C) only adds around fifty pounds to the fixed-roof model, so there’s little sacrifice in performance. The trick is keeping the door frames and roof supports in place. You don’t get the totally open feel of an all-out convertible, but you leave behind body flex and leaks, and on cold days, you can keep the windows up and the top down.
The Fiat 500 Abarth is tuned for loudness, making it sound as though the Abarth could make mincemeat of a Camaro, Mustang, or Challenger. The loud exhaust burble is far closer to a V8 engine than a four-cylinder, making the little car more fun and more noticeable, especially with the cloth top.
Acceleration is quite fast on the highway, but combining the tiny engine with an automatic gives drivers a slushy launch. Once you’re up and moving, the response time is good.
The stiff suspension, firm steering, and high-revving engine make driving exciting, even when you're really not going very fast; the manual transmission makes it much more fun (though our test car had an automatic). If you buy one of these and you don't know how to shift for yourself, it’s worth learning to do it — especially now that they have Hill Start Control, which keeps you from rolling back on hills.
The extra short wheelbase, low overhangs, firm and tight steering, and sport suspension give the feeling of driving a go-kart; and unlike most convertibles, the 500C feels solid. You can whip enthusiastically around tight turns at high speeds.
The little engine accelerates adequately from a stop, after a pause to spool and work that torque converter; once it’s going, it accelerates rapidly. At speed, it reacts far more quickly, with a barely audible turbo whine; and while the standard 500C isn’t impressive on the highway, the 500C Abarth certainly is.
Oil is 5W40 synthetic, but only four quarts are needed; the recommended fuel is 91 octane. If you drive on Sport mode with any sort of enthusiasm, expect to see 22 mpg around town, though the EPA rating is 24 city/32 highway.
All 500 Abarths have the digital gauge cluster; temperature and fuel are shown in bars, though they could make both displays exact and less distracting. The left has the tachometer; the right, either an “eco gauge” or gas mileage (as a percentage) — you’d expect it to be a boost gauge in Sport mode, or to have both temperature and fuel so the tachometer would stand on its own. You can use the trip computer to show actual gas mileage.
There are no knobs at all; everything on the panel is done with buttons, so the driver has to do more work and keep their eyes from the road longer. Audio controls on the steering wheel helped. The only concessions to nostalgia are three unrelated buttons below the stereo. Our car was black and chrome inside, save for red stripes on the seats.
The main displays were always visible, even in harsh direct top-down sunlight. The sun washed out some of the button lights, and the boost gauge was hard to read most of the time.
The Fiat 500 has good headroom and legroom in front, and both driver and passenger have armrests now. The recline control and the fore/aft slider are in the center, due to the narrow width of the car.
The back seats have tight legroom. Adults will fit if everyone doesn't mind squeezing a bit. The convertible has a little trunk, not a hatchback, but the rear seats fold down.
Wind noise would have been more noticeable if not for the engine noise drowning it out. The cloth roof was well insulated; a bump up front directed wind over the top, rather than letting it drag.
Press a button and the top slides to the back, forming into folds. Press it once more to move it all the way down and avoid wind buffeting. With the roof and rear window piled onto the back of the car, about a third of the rear window is covered, making it hard to see a car right behind you. There are two express closing periods for closing the roof, and then you have to keep your finger on the overhead button. There aren’t any manual latches, and you can move the top up or down while moving at a reasonably low speed.
Visibility is not as good as the standard Fiat 500, even with the top up; there are blind spots on both sides, despite the split mirror, largely due to the thick pillars. Sun visors are skimpy and don’t slide out or extend, which is a particular problem in a convertible. There was a backup alarm, which sometimes alerted at its maximum setting when the nearest obstacle was four feet away.
The standard headlights were well-focused. Fiat uses amber turn signals, which are more effective at avoiding crashes than red ones; and the sidelights/turn signals are separate, so they are more visible.
The two-door car’s “memory seats” sometimes remembered their position after being pulled forward to let people into the back. You need to be flexible to reach the front seat belts, which have no adjustments. The seat belt buzzer beeps loudly from the moment the ignition is on to when you buckle; turn it down and the backup alarm becomes nearly inaudible. The headlight switch has no position for parking lights; and, well, we have a whole separate section for the awful “Blue & Me” sound system in a prior review. We had the optional $700 Bose/Beats stereo, and can’t really recommend it unless you like being in a traveling nightclub. A subwoofer control would be nice, along with a completely different user interface.
All that said, the Fiat 500C Abarth is a truly fun car, especially with a stick. The first time you take a turn without bothering to slow down or arc around, just swing the wheel and go at a 90° angle at 25 mph like a cartoon character, or race up to speed on a highway on-ramp, you're likely to forgive all those flaws.
The 500 range goes form the $17,825 to the $27,575 500C Abarth. So what do you get with the Abarth, other than the suspension tuning, bigger brakes, and turbocharged engine?
For safety, it comes with rear proximity sensors, side curtain airbags, front-seat side airbags, and a driver’s knee airbag; and a special traction control system, tire pressure monitor (for each tire), an alarm, and three-mode stability control.
The 500 Abarth uses a special traction control setup to control wheel speed; the computer constantly monitors front wheel speed data and uses the ABS brake controller to to control wheel speed from one side to the other, and can also control engine speeds (cutting throttle if needed). It generally does not cut power in sport mode unless absolutely necessary.
The Abarth also has cruise control, hands-free phone access, streaming audio, USB and auxiliary inputs, leather wrapped steering wheel, tilt column, aluminum pedal covers, manual driver’s seat adjuster, and 50/50 fold-down rear seat. Outside, there are 16 inch wheels, bright dual exhaust tips, red calipers, fog lamps, and body-color heated mirrors. There’s no spare tire and no apparent place to put one; instead you get a flat-fill kit.
Our car had the Beats Audio package ($700), which we don’t really recommend. Automatic temperature control, heated front seats, and satellite radio combine to add $900. Black trimmed lights add $250, and red mirror caps with a body stripe add a surprising $450. Our test car had wider wheels and tires ($550) for better grip. There’s also an option we’d pay to avoid: the pricey six-speed Aisin automatic ($1,350).
The total is $31,775, as we drove it. That includes a four year/50,000 mile warranty with roadside assistance. The car is built by Chrysler in Mexico.
The Fiat 500C is a lot of fun on its own; the Abarth makes it less of an all-rounder, tightening the suspension and boosting the power. It’s a tight little car that increases your connection to the road, and it’s both cheaper than the Mini and more true to its roots. It can use parking spaces that others can’t.
Daily driving would be far better with real sun visors, decent controls, and better gauge choices. The Abarth is not a car to get if you value a smooth ride, or for that matter a quiet ride, and the standard 500C may be a better choice for anyone who is not an all-out enthusiast. The 500C Abarth is all about fun and performance, and you will be noticed — whether that’s a plus or a minus is up to you.
Fiat 500 info page • Fiat 500C Review (Non-Abarth) • Fiat 500 Forum
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