Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: 2013 Fiat 500c Abarth

2013 Fiat 500c top down front 3/4 lead
Photo by Curtis Reesor
After already reviewing both the 2012 Fiat 500 and 2012 Fiat 500c, I can say that while I do think these little Italian A-segment cars are crammed with character, pumped full of personality, and offer decent driving dynamics, there are things I don’t like. I’m not a fan of the seating position, which feels like you’re on a barstool. The 1.4-liter MultiAir engines are somewhat raucous, too. Both models I reviewed were equipped with automatic transmissions, which suck the power—and fun—from the driving experience. I briefly drove a 500 Abarth last year, but unfortunately, most of my 20 miles with the car were spent on the Interstate, so I didn’t get to experience the handling I’d heard so much about. Due to the highway experience I didn’t really get to soak in the distinctive exhaust note much, either. Since then, I’ve wanted to get into the Abarth again, and low and behold, I was able to nab the drop-top 500c Abarth for a week.

As you likely have read, the Abarth is the souped-up version of the Fiat 500. It’s still powered by a 1.4-liter MultiAir engine, but the Abarth gets a turbocharger, which bumps horsepower up from 101 to 160; a 58% increase. Torque is up from 98 ft/lbs. to 170 ft/lbs. for a whopping 73% jump. Power is put through a five-speed manual gearbox (the only transmission available, thank God) going to the front wheels via a limited-slip differential that uses the computer to compensate wheel spin by applying the brake to one wheel and sending power to the one that needs it.

If there is one thing that is awesome about the 500c it is its well-publicized exhaust note. Fire this scrappy ragtop up, and you’ll be greeted to a wicked snarl that you might picture coming from a Ferrari 458 Italia that’s be caught in a shrink ray. Yes, it’s really loud, and yes, it’s really awesome. And while that tone is great in the hardtop, it’s better in the 500c since you can really hear those pipes with top down. We photographed the car in a parking structure, and I had to do everything I could to not drive like a complete asshole through the garage just so I could hear the roar of the Abarth’s exhaust. There’s a bunch sumptuous turbo whine that emanates from both the exhaust and the engine. It’s awesome and I unabashedly love it. So whereas the regular Fiat 500/500c engine is loud and raucous in a not-so-good way, the Fiat 500c Abarth is loud and raucous in a really good way.

2013 Fiat 500c top down with arrows
Photo by Curtis Reesor
Launching the Abarth wasn't much trouble, partially due to the limited slip differential. Accelerating at full throttle through first gear then lifting to shift into second often yields all sorts of popping, spitting, and burbling from the aforementioned Pipes of Divine Sound. I am not used to such noises from a stock exhaust system. Grab second and the engine stays well within the powerband and keep going. This thing really cooks. By the way, there is a button on the left-center of the dash that says "sport." You'll want to press this every time you start the car up. It changes the throttle calibration and tightens up the steering. I'm not sure why you wouldn't  always want this on. And yes, it makes a noticeable difference.

2013 Fiat 500c engine bay
Photo by Curtis Reesor
While the engine and exhaust are truly fantastic, the shifter is not. The gearbox feels clunky an imprecise. When in gear, the shifter can be moved around significantly. It’s notchy in every sense and the oddly proportioned shift knob feels strange in the hand. It takes some getting used to. And while it never feels great, it does become a bit more natural over time. Thankfully, its location on the dashboard (as opposed to the floor) makes it close to the steering wheel.

2013 Fiat 500c Abarth front 3/4 with top up
Photo by Curtis Reesor
The little fire-breathing Fiat is quick in the corners, too. The aforementioned limited-slip differential works well at putting power down and keeping the front end in check. The ride is stiff, but not overly so. It feels sportier than the MINI Cooper S Roadster I recently drove. When navigating curvy roadways, I do wish the seats had a bit more side bolstering. Also, that up-high driving position makes it feel like you’re going to get ejected out of the side window in sharp corners, and you end up doing a fair bit of leaning into turns. But the 500c Abarth’s grip is tenacious, and although it feels like it’s going to tumble into a corner, it’s the exact opposite. It took me a while to find a decent driving position, but at least I was able to find one, as opposed to the regular 500/500c which I never adjusted to.

Photo by Curtis Reesor
Despite its diminutive size, the Abarth’s insides are quite comfortable. Even on long trips, the front seats were comfortable. The interior styling is feels premium for the most part, with high-grade materials used throughout. We did notice some weather stripping near the front of the ragtop that felt a bit cheap, but that was it. And for whatever reason, perhaps the black colored dashboard vs. cream colored, the gauges seemed easier to read than the 500/500c Lounge gauges. The Abarth also includes a useful boost/shift gauge at the left. The car is rated at 28 city, 34 highway, and 31 combined MPG on premium fuel. We got right around 30 in mixed use.

2013 Fiat 500c rear with top up
Photo by Curtis Reesor
Climate, audio, and ragtop controls are all the same as the regular Fiat 500c. That top is also the same as a regular 500c, and can be placed in a variety of positions. Unfortunately, it also cuts rear visibility in half when down. This is probably one of the only drop tops that has better visibility with the top up versus down. Like many other aspects of the car, it takes some getting used to. Eventually, you don’t mind it, but initially it’s annoying. By the way, I really like the addition of the spoiler, which isn’t something you expect to find on a convertible top.

Like you’d expect, the back seat is very small, as is the trunk. So don’t expect to seat four adults comfortably, and don’t expect to haul a big suitcase with the seats up. Luckily, those rear seats do fold down.

Our Abarth featured the lightweight wheel 17” wheel option, which looks great. And frankly, the Abarth’s styling along with that exhaust note, turn this cabriolet from bellissima to badass.

The price for the convertible Abarth doesn't come cheap, however. Our tester stickered at $29,600 including the $700 destination charge. Skip the $1,200 wheel/tire package, the $500 TomTom navigation (which, by the way, blocks your view when plugged into the dashboard), the $350 red mirror caps and body side stripes, and $850 comfort/convenience group (if that’s truly possible), and you can get into a 500c Abarth for $26,700. While it certainly plays in MINI Cooper S territory (and is still priced under the JCW MINIs), it’s quite a bit of cash for what it is. Even so, we couldn’t help but fall in love with the 500c Abarth. From the wonderfully boisterous exhaust note and determined handling, to the more aggressive looks and drop-top summer fun, the 500c Abarth is fantastic. Yes, you can get into faster vehicles such as the Subaru Impreza WRX, the MAZDASPEED3, or a Ford Focus ST, for less money, but the 500c Abarth just exudes a scrappy underdog character which I adore. And while other small turbo drop tops such as the MINI Cooper Convertible or Roadster or Volkswagen Beetle Turbo offer plenty of boosted open-top fun, they’re not as fun as the 500c Abarth.

2013 Fiat 500c Abarth top down rear
Photo by Curtis Reesor

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