Cars in this segment often tug at buyers’ heartstrings with an emotional connection.
It has now been nearly four years since the Fiat 500 Abarth graced North American shores. We first drove it at its launch, and liked its performance-to-dollar ratio. The Fiat 500 itself is a car I have a few gripes with, but after it was massaged with Italian tuning company Abarth’s goodies, a compelling subcompact hot hatch was born. After driving a few of the newer entries in this hot segment, we gave the small Italian a revisit. The 2017 Fiat 500 Abarth, ours painted in a fun Celeste Blu, has received some minor revisions over the last couple of years but nothing too major.
The Fiat still employs the same cheerful and cheeky styling that has helped sales numbers in Canada. Using the same heartthrob characteristics as the Volkswagen Beetle (reviewed here) and Mini Cooper models, the Fiat is often an impulsive purchase. The round headlights, cute circular styling, and traditionally Italian lines are attractive and invite smiles from almost everybody. I’d personally have a colour that’s not this powdery shade of Celeste Blu, and would rather opt for something like Nero (black) or Rosso (red), either of which would suit the Abarth’s personality a bit better.
On the inside, the Abarth has just as much personality as it does from the outside. My biggest issue with the model at launch was the primitive single-line stereo display, and the external TomTom navigation unit that would sit on top of the dash. The car now gets a smaller version of Chrysler’s Uconnect, with integrated navigation and a touchscreen. Playlists and albums on external devices are far easier to browse through, and the system is responsive, almost moreso than Ford’s SYNC 3 (reviewed here).
Though the interior layout and new instrument cluster (all digital, very legible and easy to navigate through) are all fine and dandy, the driving position on the Abarth still leaves plenty to be desired. The seats are too upright and the steering wheel is awkwardly positioned. It feels almost like sitting on a scooter or driving a minibus (yes, I know these are two completely different things). Point being, the car is adequate for zipping around the city on quick commutes, but for longer highway hauls, it’s not ideal. This carries forth to the regular Fiat 500 (reviewed here) as well, though the nice premium cloth buckets have actually usable armrests.
The Abarth remains powered by the same 1.4L turbocharged inline four-cylinder, a single overhead cam engine. There are plenty of vehicles currently powered by this engine, but here it’s good for 160 horsepower at 5,500RPM and 183 lb-ft of torque, available between 2,400 and 4,000RPM. On a car that weighs just over 2,500 pounds, this makes for a good amount of pep. There isn’t too much oomph on the low end, but once boost kicks in, the Abarth is a little rocketship. Enabling the “Sport” mode changes engine mapping ever so slightly and wakes the car up a bit more.
Sport mode also makes the exhaust pop and bang on upshifts, provided the RPMs are in the right place. The Abarth was launched with a five-speed manual as the only available transmission, but a six-speed automatic joined the stick last year. We sampled the manual, which is the one to have. More buyers will opt for the automatic, but this manual is part of the nostalgia embodying the Fiat. The clutch is very, very light, with a bite point right near the top, and is lacking in feel. The shifter is also light and effortless in operation, though the throws are a little long. Fifth gear is tall enough for highway use, though fuel economy on longer distances would be far improved with a sixth.
The small-displacement 1.4L turbo-four means the Abarth is decently efficient. It’s officially rated at 8.5L/100km in the city and 6.5L/100km on the highway, using 91-octane premium fuel. We put about 600km on the car over a week, and came away with an average of 8.1L/100km with plenty of spirited driving. The pops and bangs from the sport-tuned exhaust are guaranteed to tempt drivers to worsen fuel economy, but the car itself is capable of doing a little bit better. The small tank will hold 40L of fuel, and the Abarth is tuned to operate ideally on premium.
Like other front-wheel-drive hot hatches, the 500 Abarth is a sharp handler. When pushed to the limit, some understeer makes itself obvious, though the small motor means it doesn’t torque steer too much, at least less so than the Fiesta or Focus ST (reviewed here). The steering itself is electrically assisted, but has adequate response and the scorpion-clad Abarth logo in the center of the wheel is a constant reminder of the car’s cheerful persona. Out on the curvy back roads, the Abarth is perfectly competent and is sure to elicit a smile from even the coldest of hearts.
The base Abarth model starts at $26,995, which is about $3,500 more than the comparable Fiesta ST (reviewed here). Our car included the $750 Comfort & Convenience Group, which adds heated seats, automatic climate control, Sirius satellite radio, a $1,200 power sunroof, a $275 body graphic package, $375 park assist, Beats Audio system with GPS navigation, and 17” forged aluminum wheels. The total sticker went just over the $34,000 mark, which is a considerable sum of money when compared to the competition.
Other subcompacts are now available with hot motors, but this tiny monster’s biggest rival is the Ford Fiesta ST. The Abarth’s biggest advantage is its miniscule size and, now, its more intuitive infotainment, though the Fiesta is a little bit larger and drives a bit better. Cars in this segment often tug at buyers’ heartstrings with an emotional connection, and both offerings are appealing in their own way. The 2017 Fiat 500 Abarth makes awesome sounds without the aid of artificial electronics, and has a real personality – both of these are rare traits now.