Back in 1959, Fiat introduced the legendary Fiat Cinquecento (which is Italian for 500). So named because of its engine displacement of 500 cubic centimeters, people loved the little car. Quite fun to drive, the Cinquecento sold very well. Of course, whenever a car this much fun to drive gains a passionate audience, it’s just a matter of time until someone decides there has to be a way to make it go faster. While a number of tuners took up the challenge, the most successful effort by far came from Carlo Abarth (AH-barth).
Born in Austria in November of 1908, Abarth’s start in motorsports came in the form of motorcycle racing. One of his many notable achievements was challenging the Orient Express railway train to an 800-mile race from Belgium to France. He won. A five-time European motorcycle racing champion, Abarth founded Abarth & C. in Italy in 1949 to build racing cars. For his company logo, Abarth chose the symbol of his astrological sign—the scorpion.
Good thing he wasn’t a Pisces, or something with an even less aggressive symbol like Virgo.
But we digress…
Fielding one of the most successful racing teams in Italy, Abarth’s drivers included Tazio Nuvolari; renowned as the greatest of his era. Despite the success, money became an issue. To generate additional revenue, Abarth came up with a performance modification kit for the Fiat Topolino, then one of Europe’s most popular small cars. Flush with cash from this effort, he went on to also produce road cars in his own right.
When Fiat introduced the original 500 back in 1959, Abarth recognized the opportunity it represented right away. Before long Abarth-modified 500’s were winning races all over Europe, making “Abarth” a universally recognized synonym for exceptional performance. Meanwhile the Abarth 500s, like the eight-legged animal used to represent them, became known as “small, but wicked”.
Fiat bought Abarth’s company in 1971.
The current version of the FIAT 500 was introduced in 2007, and just as summer follows spring, the high performance Abarth version debuted the following year. Fiat brought the 500 to the United States for the 2012 model year as the first Fiat product to be sold in this country since 1984. One year later, the contemporary 500 Abarth followed, to considerable acclaim.
So, is it all it’s cracked up to be?
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Models & Pricing
For the 2014 model year, Fiat is offering the Abarth 500 package in both a hatchback and a convertible (Abarth Cabrio). Standard features include (but are not limited to) power-adjustable heated mirrors, keyless entry, air-conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver seat, 50/50 split-folding rear seats, a trip computer, a tilt-only leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth phone connectivity, a roof spoiler, and a leather-wrapped shift knob and instrument panel cluster.
Compared to standard 500 models, the Abarth also gets a more powerful engine, a performance tuned suspension system, and a more aggressive exterior styling kit, designed to both distinguish the high performance Abarth model, as well as improve its aerodynamics.
Options available for the 500 Abarth models include a set of seventeen-inch wheels with more aggressive summer-rated tires. Comfort and convenience related options include automatic climate control, satellite radio, and heated front seats.
Abarth Cabrio models are largely equipped the same as the closed version of the car, with the exception of course of the power actuated cloth roof. Both Abarth models can also be equipped with WiFi, and a Beats by Dr. Dre audio system supporting a CD player, an auxiliary audio input port, and iPod integration. Fiat also includes a day at the Abarth Track Experience driving school tuition in the price of the car.
Pricing starts at $22,195 for 500 Abarth, and $26,195 for Abarth Cabrio.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Design
The Fiat 500 starts with a cute design, and while the Abarth pieces do nothing to detract from the appeal of the little Fiat, they do make it more sinister-looking. Further, all of the modifications are functional. Every departure from the styling of the standard 500 models is there to help the 500 Abarth achieve elevated performance.
It starts up front with a more pronounced front fascia. An air intake is inserted just beneath the Abarth scorpion badge, while the larger one beneath the bumper features three inlets. There are also air intakes positioned on each side of the car just ahead of the front wheels to feed more cooling air into the engine compartment.
The wheel arches are flared to give the larger 16-inch tires and forged aluminum alloy wheels (a 17-inch setup is optional) more room to work. The wheels are designed to enable ventilation of the brake system. Meanwhile, the Abarth-specific side skirts also manage the flow of air underneath and around the car.
At the trailing edge of the roof resides a tail spoiler to improve the Fiat’s directional stability at speed by creating additional downforce. The rear fascia also contributes to the 500 Abarth’s aerodynamic attributes, while the low-restriction exhaust system exits through a pair of chromed tips—tuned specifically to enhance the aural signature of the car.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Features & Controls
Inside, this philosophy of functional design continues. The Abarth-specific steering wheel provides significant heft, and is sized to enable the driver to maintain control of the car, even in extreme situations. Further, the flat bottom design helps the driver remain aware of exactly how much steering lock has been input.
The instrument cluster incorporates a turbo boost gauge, as well as a 160-mph speedometer and a tachometer. The attractive aluminum pedal covers feature grippy rubber pads to ensure no-slip operation. The Fiat also offers hands-free voice interaction with telephones paired via Bluetooth to keep the driver’s hands where they belong—on the steering wheel.
To the right of the wheel, all the controls needed to operate the secondary functions of the car are grouped in pod-like configurations. Circles are the design element of choice, as all of the main switches are circular and slightly domed shape in design.
Additionally, since like functions are grouped together in these circles, at first you might have to look to see which function you’re accessing. We expect this will become second-nature in time, but at first you will have to take your eye off the road to make sure you’re asking the Fiat to give you what you’re really looking for. In other words, it ain’t the best setup we’ve seen. This is one situation where style is triumphing over function—big time.
Outward visibility is good in the hatchback, and acceptable on the convertible 500c Abarth—when the top is deployed. Retracted, the roof severely restricts the view to the rear. However, the 500c’s convertible roof opens at the touch of a button, and can be retracted to its first position at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.
Capable of one-touch opening, you simply press the button and release it. If you’d like, the top can be stopped at the midway point, simply by pressing the button again. To open the top completely, speeds must fall below 50 miles per hour. Retracted, the top stacks itself behind the Fiat’s rear headrests. The cargo compartment cover employs articulated hinges to enable it to open full when the roof is retracted.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Comfort & Cargo
To address concerns about passenger headroom, Fiat mounted the passenger seat one inch lower in the 2014 version of the 500, this modification holds for the Abarth model as well. Also new for the ’14 season, are seat memory and an armrest. Even with the adjustment though, the 500 is something of a close-coupled situation.
Legroom for front seat passengers is quite adequate, but if you’re tall (like 5’9” or better), the sunroof offered as an option for the hatchback is a bad move. It cuts into headroom considerably. The front seats offer good comfort, and the Abarth-specific sport seats are supportive and grippy. Designed to help occupants stay put when the little car goes into its auto-batics mode, they are well up to the task. The rear seat is basically an upholstered package shelf, no full-size adult will be comfortable back there under any circumstance.
Storage space inside the car is a bit on the limited side too. Yes, there is a glovebox, and the armrest opens to provide storage too, but they ain’t generous by no means. There are also storage bins in the doors, which are on the shallow side as well. That said, while the cargo compartment is only good for 9.5 cubic feet in the hatchback; lower the rear seatbacks and you’ll get a rather substantial 30 cubic feet. The convertible offers 5.4 cubic feet with the seatbacks in place (hey, the roof’s gotta go somewhere), and 23.4 cubic feet with the rear seat folded.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Safety & Ratings
The Fiat 500 features seven airbags, including driver and front-passenger advanced multistage ones. There is a driver’s knee air bag, as well as two full-length side-curtain air bags, and standard seat-mounted side pelvic-thorax air bags. The car is constructed around a steel safety cage.
Stability control, a rear park assist feature, traction control, antilock disc brakes, and hill-start assist are also numbered among the features in its safety package. Further, Fiat includes a one-day driver’s training course in the purchase price of the 500 Abarth.
The little Fiat earned four of the five The rear seat is basically an upholstered package shelf, no full-size adult will be comfortable back there under any circumstance stars NHTSA awards for its crash test ratings. The model picked up four stars for total frontal impact protection, and five stars for total side-impact protection.
In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s crash tests, the Fiat 500 was pronounced "Good" (the highest rating) in the institute’s moderate-overlap frontal-offset, side-impact, and roof strength tests. In the new small-overlap frontal-offset test, however, the Fiat earned the lowest score of "Poor."
If you hit something with it, try to hit it dead-on, not off to the side.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Engine and Fuel Economy
Powering the zippy little front-wheel drive Fiat is a 160-horsepower version of Fiat’s 1.4-liter “MultiAir” turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Running at 18 psi, the turbo spins at speeds of up to 23,000 rpm as it force-feeds the engine. Maximum torque output is 170 ft-lbs. A five-speed manual gearbox is responsible for the transmission of power.
Some of the tricks employed to get more output from the engine include a cold air intake system with a high-flow air filter, and an Abarth-designed free-flowing dual tipped exhaust system. BTW, the Abarth company was historically noted for its exhaust systems.
While all Fiat 500 models use a five-speed manual transmission, the version of the gearbox supplied for the Abarth model was specifically developed for high output circumstances. Torque steer is minimized by the incorporation of an intermediate shaft and unequal length half shafts. Also, the size of all of the driveline components is increased to handle the additional power output of the Abarth 500.
Two drive modes are offered; Normal and Sport. With the sport mode engaged, the steering feel is weighted a bit more heavily to be more accurate at high speeds, and the throttle response is advanced for faster tip-in. The sport mode is also where the full 170 ft-lbs of torque are made available. In the normal mode, maximum torque output is 150 ft-lbs.
Fuel economy is rated at 28 miles per gallon in the city, 34 on the highway and 31 combined.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Driving Impressions
Spunky, sporty, and zippy, the Abarth is a completely transformed the Fiat 500. The model morphs from a cutesy runabout best suited to transporting popular suburban high school girls to the mall into a genuinely interesting enthusiast-oriented driver’s car.
It really is a delight to drive. The engine screams heroically as it winds to its 6,500 rpm redline, delivering strong thrust throughout the rev range. Turbo lag is virtually undetectable. The shifter is co-operative when you’re running fast, although a bit more precision would be appreciated.
Fiat also upgraded the 500’s suspension system for the Abarth, with Koni twin-tube shocks, a lowered ride height, a specific MacPherson-based front suspension configuration, and stiffer spring rates. The rear gets stronger coil spring supports with stiffer springs, a solid rear stabilizer bar, and a more robust design for the twist beam rear axle.
The result is tenacious grip with considerably reduced body roll compared to the standard 500 models. That said, you’ll still get a fair amount of lean when the Abarth 500 is cornering. This can be somewhat surprising at first, but once you learn the car isn’t going to slide, you just accept it as part of the Fiat’s personality. What’s more, the Abarth doesn’t punish you with a stiff ride in order to deliver cornering prowess.
The 500 Abarth’s steering benefits from a faster steering ratio for the electric power steering. Feel is good overall; you know what the front wheels are doing, but it isn’t exactly lively. Interestingly, the steering control system also incorporates a road-crown/crosswind compensation algorithm to help the Fiat track truer when it encounters those situations.
The braking system is more than up to the challenge of scrubbing off speed. Granted, the little Fiat doesn’t weigh very much (about 2500 pounds), but the car is a pretty quick little runner. In braking for repeated cornering, we noticed no fade or diminished performance from the braking system. Further, the brakes permitted a nice degree of modulation, so we could gradually increase braking power as needed—and on demand.
All in all, the Fiat 500 Abarth is a very engaging car to drive. It rewards the enthusiast with a delightful engine note, well-practiced obedience to control inputs, and a great deal of predictability. This is a car you’re going to have fun driving.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Final Thoughts
With its exhaust system screaming like a somewhat hoarse baby Ferrari, when the wicked little front-driver comes scrabbling its way out of a corner, you’ll find yourself grinning pretty wide behind the wheel of Fiat’s 500 Abarth. While it definitely isn’t a car everyone will find charming, one does realize it’s worthy of a modicum of respect.
Every manufacturer offering a hatchback these days is pretty much obligated to put forth a higher performing version of its utilitarian device. Witness VW’s GTI, MINI’s Cooper S, and Mazda’s Mazdaspeed 3; all of those are worthy performers, but only the little Fiat has a significant legacy of performance behind it stretching all the way back into the middle of the last century. If pedigree is one of the things you deem important, it really doesn’t get more historically authentic than the Fiat 500 Abarth—in this category.
2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test & Review: Pros & Cons
Pros: Great performance for its size and price, attractive exterior treatment, good fuel economy, a rich historical legacy…
Cons: Inexpensive materials decorate the interior—and it shows, poor rearward visibility with the convertible top retracted, a six-speed gearbox would be nice to have…