2014 Fiat 500c Abarth Cabrio
Miles Driven: 284
Fuel Used: 9.2 gallons (premium required)
Driving mix: 65% city, 35% highway
Real-world fuel economy: 30.9 mpg
EPA-estimated fuel economy (city/highway/combined): 28/34/30
Base price: $26,195 (not including $800 destination charge)
Options on test car: Performance seats ($1200), premium audio system ($700), Comfort and Convenience Group ($900), black headlight trim ($250), exterior strip package ($450), navigation system ($600), special 18-inch wheels ($550)
Price as tested: $31,645
The great: A blast to drive enthusiastically
The good: Easy on gas, even when driven for fun
The not so good: Extra-firm ride, goofy controls
If anyone could guarantee a world of smooth, winding roads, the Fiat 500 Abarth could make the list of ideal cars, what with its eager acceleration, extremely nimble handling, and good gas mileage.
Alas, the world has holes in it.
Drive the highest-performance version of the piccolo-est of Fiats sold in America over a pockmarked stretch of city street and you’ll be subjected to one unpleasant thump after another from the stiffened-up sport suspension. Drive for a bad block like that and suddenly the blaring start-up exhaust note and the squeaky convertible top don’t seem so benign any more. Low-profile tires on 16-inch wheels and a scant 90.6-inch wheelbase might get some of the blame, but Consumer Guide® editors have been fairly pleased with the ride of non-Abarth 500s that they’ve tested since the subcompact came to the U.S. as a 2012 model.
Otherwise, the Abarth puts fangs in the 500’s cute-and-cuddly image. Its 160-horsepower 1.4-liter Turbo MultiAir 4-cylinder engine delivers 21.5 percent more power than the turbocharged engine in the 500 Turbo—and 58.4 percent more than the base naturally aspirated powerplant. Bolting away from a stop is brisk as the engine revs freely toward its power peak, and it does so with hardly a hint of turbo lag. Seeing the boost-gauge needle suddenly start to spike is the driver’s surest proof that the turbocharger is kicking in. Expressway performance is good, too.
When you turn the key, the Abarth forcefully clears its throat through dual bright exhaust outlets. It seems like a lot of braggadocio from such a pipsqueak, but once everything warms up, the exhaust note fades discreetly away at idle, while acceleration summons a pleasantly warm burble.
CG’s test car came with the standard 5-speed manual transmission. (A 6-speed automatic is optionally available.) A nicely balanced, easily modulated clutch makes the stickshift 500 easy to drive, even in Abarth form. There was a little loose play in the shifter that rises from a pedestal attached to the dash, but not enough to cause this driver to miss any shift he wanted to make.
A button on the dashboard summons “Sport” mode, which Fiat says prompts more linear throttle response and changes the weighting of the steering. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the driver was switching in and out of Sport on the fly, but there didn’t seem to be any significant alteration in the car’s behavior other than to turn off the upshift indicator when in Sport. In either state, steering is highly responsive. Cornering lean is well controlled and braking is quick and firm.
The Abarth is rated by the EPA at 28 mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway. Staying in base mode most of the time, this tester averaged 32.13 mpg from a trip of 140.2 miles, 61 percent of which was under city driving conditions. More highway miles—or more obedience to the upshift light—might have exceeded the fuel-economy expectations for the car.
The 500c is the convertible model. A power-operated fabric panel down the middle of the car retracts on roof rails, and can be stopped at any point along the path. The top doesn’t fold into a well, instead stacking up above the trunklid. This “accordion” of fabric sits high enough to obstruct straight-back vision. Even with the top up, over-the-shoulder visibility is limited by thick door posts and small rear-quarter windows. Seating is high and upright, giving the driver a fairly commanding view of the road for such a small, low vehicle. When the top was raised in our test car, it was prone to persistent squeaks, particularly when bounding over bad pavement.
Touches like a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob—both with contrast stitching—raise the bar in terms of interior trim. (Otherwise 500s can be a little austere.) The test car was equipped with optional high-back front bucket seats clad in “performance leather,” a further upscale touch, albeit at an upscale $1200 price. Their red centers in otherwise black seats made for a dramatic look, and the seats were comfortable. There was more side bolstering than conventional 500 seats, but perhaps not enough to hold passengers securely when this flingable Fiat is being flung. Both front seats include flip-down arm rests on their inboard sides. Controls in the tidy cabin are easy to see and reach.
Side-by-side seating is close and cozy. Most front-seat occupants should find acceptable head and leg room, but rear passengers probably will be cramped even with shorter-stature folks in the forward seats. Interior storage isn’t bad for a car so tiny, but it’s hardly voluminous by absolute standards. Up front there’s a small glove box, twin cup holders and a minute open bin at floor level, and long door pockets. When rear passengers squeeze in, they’ll find a couple of cup holders molded into the back of the center console and storage pouches on the backs of the front seats. That’s pouches, plural, by the way; we’ve tested several “low-cost” cars that skimp with just one pouch, so a tip of the cap to Fiat for that.
Trunk space is limited to maybe a couple of gym duffels, and the hatch opening is small. Any real luggage hauling will require folding down the rear seat backs, but they sit several inches higher than the trunk floor.
While some 500 models come at prices that aptly match the car’s size, a 500c Abarth isn’t necessarily one of them. The starting price for this half-pint hot rod soft top is a relatively lofty $26,195—and CG’s came out to $31,645 with delivery and $4650 in options. Key Abarth standard features in addition to those already mentioned are hill-start assist, remote keyless entry, power door locks and windows, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, Bluetooth connectivity, a tilt (but not telescoping) steering column, ground-effects sill extensions, halogen projector headlamps, power heated mirrors, and fog lamps. Extras include things like a premium Beats audio system, automatic air conditioning, heated front seats, satellite radio, and a plug-in navigation system.
The Fiat 500c is not without its faults. The car rides a little too stiffly for regular Chicago-area commuting, the controls are a little European (read: unconventional), and—not unrelated to the stiff ride—the roof mechanism does a fair amount of creaking over rougher road surfaces.
But for the serious driver looking to inject a little—or a lot—of fun into the daily commuting grind, this heavily caffeinated Italian wonder rodent may just be the ticket.
The key to extracting the most fun from any 500 Abarth is not stopping. Underway, keeping the tiny turbocharged engine in its power band is all sorts of fun. And, while no rocket, the 500 pulls with appropriate menace, and delightful exhaust cackle, when pressed for maximum thrust.
Yes, the dash-top navigation system is a silly afterthought than looks conspicuously like an afterthought, and the audio controls frankly stink, but one clear on ramp will remind you why to came to love driving in the first place.
This is a car prospective buyers will want to carefully test drive before purchasing. Ride harshness will be a deal breaker for all but the most ardent thrill seekers. Also, take note of the blind spots over both shoulders. But, if affordable open-air fun is what you’re looking for, you’ll want to check this topless Italian out.