Published: August 5, 2014
By Jill Ciminillo, Auto Matters Editor
I don’t think there’s any way around it. The Fiat 500 is (gasp) cute. Even the extra 59 horsepower in the Abarth model won’t change that.
But it might make the cute a little easier to swallow. Especially when you mate the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine to a short-throw 5-speed manual transmission.
I think you can get past the cute when you add a heckovalottafun into the mix.
The Fiat 500 is 7 inches shorter than the Mini Cooper, another decidedly cute car. The stubby nose and compact physique make the Fiat 500 the perfect urban vehicle. It can zip in and out of traffic with ease and slip into those coveted parallel parking spots with space to spare.
The test vehicle was an Abarth Cabrio model, which is different than most convertibles you might be familiar with. Rather than a complete drop top, the roof rails connecting the windshield to the B pillar to the trunk remain intact when the top goes down. So, it gives more of an open-air feel rather than a traditional convertible experience.
There are several “stop points” for the canvas top, which gives the driver the ability to create everything from an open sunroof to a total convertible. I personally liked the point just before the top goes all the way down because it leaves the back window in the upright position giving better rear visibility. With the top all the way down, I felt like I couldn’t see the cars directly behind me.
Another huge bonus of this particular cabrio design: You can operate the top at speeds up to 60 mph. You’ll never get caught in the rain again!
Tech & Gadgets
One of the tech features I can definitely do without is the optional TomTom navigation ($600). It’s about the size of your smart phone, and it attaches to a stick that pops up out of the dash. In addition to being difficult to read, it can provide a bit of a visual impairment. The one in the test vehicle was stuffed into the glove box, and stayed there.
Even though the 500 is teeny-tiny, I love the rear park assist which is standard in the Abarth Cabrio but a $225 option in the non-Cabrio. It helps you wedge into those small parking spaces and ensures that you don’t bump into anything in the process.
The small stature of the 500 combined with the 160-horsepower turbocharged engine of the Abarth packs a real punch. In everyday driving, this car is a total blast, making my 45-minute commute a little easier to bear.
Equipped with a 1.4-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine, the front-wheel-drive Abarth has a 59-horsepower increase over the base 500 model and delivers 72 pound-feet more of torque.
The clutch is a little stiff, which did give me some pause during rush hour. But I found that as long as you drive with a buffer, second gear in the Abarth is really stable and you can coast quite well at slow speeds.
I recently had the chance to drive the Abarth on the racetrack at Road America, and while I was impressed with its ability to take turns quickly and easily, I was less impressed with the long straightaways. This car does very well with quick starts and tight maneuvers, but it’s not as exciting in a 0-to-60-mph situation.
Coming next year, the 2015 Abarth, which was previously a manual-transmission-only vehicle, will offer an automatic transmission in an attempt to broaden the customer base. I will admit I’m a little disappointed. Though I see the appeal of increasing the number of people who can buy this car, I always thought the Abarth was special because it didn’t offer an automatic.
The base 500 has really stellar EPA fuel economy, which is estimated to be 31 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. Of course, more power reaps lower miles per gallon, and the Abarth averages 28 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Which is still fairly decent.
The one thing that sticks in my craw: Premium fuel is recommended in all 500 models.
Since the Fiat 500 Abarth is such a small car, I was besieged with safety questions during the test week. People thought it was cute or fun, but they wouldn’t buy one because surely you’d be crushed if you got into an accident.
That’s why Fiat has built in a bevy of standard safety features. First and foremost, the 500 is constructed around a computer-designed steel cage that, in the event of a crash, channels energy away from occupants toward front and rear crumple zones. Not enough? It also comes standard with seven airbags, including multistage front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags, side curtain front and rear airbags and a driver’s side knee airbag.
Other standard safety features on the Abarth include electronic stability control, torque transfer control, antilock 4-wheel disc performance brakes and hill start assist.
OK. So it’s nice they include all this stuff, but does it work? Well, yes. Ish.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the 2014 Fiat 500 mostly “Good” ratings, which is the highest possible rating. In moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, head restraints and seats, IIHS gives this compact car “Good” crashworthiness ratings. However, in the small front overlap test, the 500 receives the lowest score of “Poor.” Basically, they found that the driver’s survival space in a small overlap front crash was not well maintained.
The 2013 Fiat 500 fares a little better in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, receiving an overall rating of 4 out of 5 stars. It gets 5 out of 5 stars in a side crash, and 4 out of 5 stars in both front and rollover crashes.
The base price for the Fiat 500 Pop trim is $16,445. This is your bare bones model with the 5-speed manual transmission, steering wheel audio controls, Bluetooth connectivity and not much else. There aren’t even any optional packages available. You can, however, get a Pop Cabrio for $19,945.
The next level up is the Sport model at $17,500, which adds sportier features such as a chrome shift knob, sport-tuned suspension and leather-wrapped sport steering wheel. It also allows you to add options like the Beats Audio Group and the Comfort/Convenience Group, which adds heated seats. There is no cabrio offered at this level.
The Lounge model is the “luxury” version with a starting price of $18,500. It adds feature such as chrome exterior accents, premium cloth seats and a fixed glass roof. It is also at this level that you can start to opt for leather seats. The Lounge Cabrio starts at $22,500.
The Turbo jumps up to $19,500 and upgrades to a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that delivers 135 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. It also adds a high-performance brake system and red brake calipers.
Then, there’s the Abarth. The performance model starts at $22,195 and includes upgrades like dual exhaust, dual intercoolers, performance suspension, turbo boost gauge, 16-inch performance aluminum wheels, aluminum pedal covers, “full off” capability on the stability control … and a heckovalottafun. The cabrio model starts at $26,195.
The Abarth Cabrio test vehicle added performance leather-trimmed high-back bucket seats ($1,200), Beats premium audio ($700), Comfort/Convenience Group ($900), black-trimmed lights ($250), red mirror caps with body stripes ($450), TomTom navigation ($600) and Hyper Black Cast Aluminum Wheels ($550). With destination, the as-tested price was $31,645.
A few of my favorite things
Since I do live in an urban environment, I thoroughly love the size of the 500. While it’s not terribly passenger friendly, it’s easy to park, fuel efficient and fun to drive.
In the Abarth model, I like the deep exhaust note and smooth shifting manual. With the cabrio, I like the different levels that you can drop the top. What’s more, I like that you don’t sacrifice trunk space when the top goes down.
The best thing, however, about buying an Abarth is that it comes with the “Abarth Track Experience” – a 1-day session at a track that teaches owners how to get the most out of their new car.
Stuff I could do without
The Abarth only offers four exterior paint colors: black, white, red and granite. Though they sound much sexier in Italian – Nero Puro, Bianco, Rosso and Granito Lucente – I’d still like a few extra colors from which to choose.
Another thing I could do without: The recommended premium fuel. Though the 500 and Abarth are fairly fuel efficient, having to buy premium fuel to get the best performance will add up. Even if the fuel tank capacity is only 10.5 gallons.
The bottom line
The Fiat 500 is on the list of cars I could buy for my personal vehicle. It’s small, compact and – even at a base level – fun to drive. The Abarth Cabrio sweetens the pot that much more with performance driving dynamics and an easy-to-operate drop top.
For urban environments, this is quite possibly one of the more perfect vehicles in existence -- for a single person. But if you habitually carry passengers or need cargo space, this is not the car for you.