Some cars just provide transportation, some are integral to a lifestyle, and some—like the Fiat 500 Abarth—become part of the family.
My first name is Michael, my middle name is Santino. My godfather was also named Michael, but I am really named after the two Corleone boys of Mario Puzo's creation. I suppose it's only fitting, then, that I have fallen in love with the Fiat 500 Abarth, the latest car to occupy a spot in ec's long-term garage.
It's also strange, because the first time I drove an Abarth I wasn't particularly impressed with this tiniest and most value-packed of Italian performance cars in the United States. I found it cramped, unrefined, and honestly a bit loud. It didn't take long for those opinions to do a 180.
When I requested the car from Fiat, I was pretty specific in my wants. I asked for a white, modestly optioned, manual coupe. However, when everything was said and done, they offered me a black, loaded, manual convertible. Naturally, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
I was hoping for a base price of $23,245, which would make it not only the least-expensive Italian performance car, but also a decent amount less than even a basic Volkswagen GTI. As it turns out, this convertible has a base of $27,045 with destination.
On top of that, we have the Beats Premium Audio Pack for $700; Electronics Group with Wi-Fi for $609; Comfort/Convenience Group including Auto Temp Control; heated front seats, and Sirius XM Radio all for $900; black-trimmed headlights are another $250; gray mirror caps and side stripes are $450, TomTom navigation is $600, and finally the 17x7-inch forged wheels are $1,300. All these items bring the grand total to $31,854. For comparison's sake, a GTI Autobahn is slightly more, but offers a bit more equipment as well.
The thing about the Abarth, however, is that it can't really be compared to anything else. This isn't a car you buy because it makes any amount of sense. But art doesn't make sense, music doesn't make sense, why should your car have to?
I've already met several other Abarth owners at gas stations and in various parking lots. An unusual bunch, but they're all crazy about this diminutive machine. It seems most have bought it as a second or third (sometimes seventh) car and it appears it is anywhere from a third to a fifth of the price of the next least-expensive car with which it shares a garage. It's hard to imagine, but several owners walk past their 911s, AMGs, and M-cars and get into this go-kart for commuting or running errands. The Abarth gets under your skin.
The first weekend I brought it home, I was concerned about getting my wife, my 2-year-old and myself in the car. My son is roughly 35 pounds, but a toddler comes as an equipment group. First, there's the child, then the car seat, which pushes him away from the seat so he requires the same amount of space as a largish adult—plus a backpack, usually bulging. We also have a stroller at least 80 percent of the time; luckily it folds up fairly small.
The hardtop 500 is a hatchback, the soft-top has what is essentially a trunk. Since the rear window folds away with the roof, the trunk lid is hinged just below. Cargo space is not huge, but holds a few bags easily. Sadly, the stroller has to sit behind my driver seat, which is far enough back so a person couldn't occupy it anyway.
My wife's passenger seat is far enough forward that my son can still kick his legs around and just far enough back that she can just open the glovebox. The narrowness of the car also means we sit shoulder to shoulder. The feeling is more snuggled than smooshed, although driving your boss to the airport might be an awkward experience.
We've only done short road trips so far, but they are flashbacks to drives I had as a kid. When my son was born, we had a VW Passat and that transitioned into a Mercedes-Benz GL350, both of which are phenomenal vehicles. Both have an abundance of space. In the GL, my wife and I had a 1-foot-wide center console between us and my son was so far back we had to shout to hear each other.
The Fiat brings the family together more effectively than Milton Bradley. As my son is naming off every car he sees, I can hear it all. When his Hot Wheels, stuffed monkey, Legos, donut, cup of goldfish crackers, apple slices, juice box, water bottle, hat, or sunglasses hit the floor, I can get it. Nothing is ever out of reach from the driver seat.
Although the convertible was not my choice, we are enjoying it far more than I would like to admit. With the top open, the sound of the exhaust ripping away echoes off the surroundings and becomes even louder inside the car. The drive to daycare in the morning becomes an early-morning grand prix. My son will throw his hands in the air while giggling and squealing.
The Fiat feels fast at any speed. You can swing the tachometer all the way up to redline, exhaust brapping furiously, and I'm not worried about losing my license. That isn't to say the Abarth is slow, but compared to the cars normally seen in european car it is far more relatable to the real world.
Speaking of the engine, it's a raging 1.4L rated at 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers don't reflect its character; the little engine that can punches well above its weight. It likes to rev, but at the same time has plenty of low-end torque. The dash-mounted boost gauge swings easily and quickly to the 18-psi section of the dial. Boost is so quick and easy, it's only the futuristic cyborg vacuum cleaner noises that give it away as being force-fed and not larger displacement.
The five-speed transmission is the perfect playmate for the powerplant. Gearing is short and allows the engine to keep the revs where they should be. Drivers who spend a decent amount of time on the highway would appreciate a Sixth gear, but you would never need it around town.
Suspension settings are stiff, but the rates are never harsh. The ride is lively, mostly attributable to the car's size. Although we all complain about how big cars keep getting, we take for granted the fact that longer wheelbases and more mass inherently provide greater ride comfort. This little lightweight gets thrown around a bit by bumps that wouldn't even be felt in a 5 Series.
The steering is terrier-quick and feel can probably be best described as old-school. Initial turn-in is tough to keep smooth. The Abarth flicks into turns and then settles down quickly. It understeers—basically, that's all it will do. Abrupt throttle lifts will get the nose to tuck back in, but don't expect any rotation. We understand the aftermarket has a few answers for that.
Which brings us to the magazine's plans for the Abarth. This will be used for several months, and we will evaluate the car on a daily basis. We are realistic and realize most of our readers just can't leave well enough alone, that the tuning bug will eventually sting them. Honestly, we're no different. The second the Fiat arrived, Google searches for suspension, braking, and power upgrades began. We're going to see what's available from Fiat dealers and reputable tuners.
We've already started the testing process, gathering more data than you might be accustomed to seeing in car magazines. At this point, we aren't even sure exactly how long our hot little Italian will be around, so we're going to take advantage of it every day. We love it as is, but can make some changes to individualize it to our tastes. Like any member of the family, we don't want to change who it is—we just want to help it become the best it can be. Ciao.