We've driven a few different models of the Fiat 500 since its U.S. debut in 2011 and enjoyed the little Italian icon for what it is: a fun city car. That whetted our appetite for the performance version of the car — the turbocharged Abarth. Would it live up to our expectations?
Exterior: The Abarth, a performance division of Fiat, has the familiar retro look, which harkens back to the original 500 but adds attitude through optional styling touches such as 17-inch painted aluminum wheels ($1,200), double-tip dual exhausts, side ground effects and a spoiler. Our tester was white (bianco) with red accents: side mirror caps and racing stripes ($350), and brake calipers. Forget you're not driving a normal 500? The car carries numerous Abarth badges with the distinctive scorpion logo.
Performance: Lyra calls it a "kitten with a tiger's growl," and that's a good way to describe the turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder and its loud exhaust note. Peter found that note irresistible and loved revving the engine to hear its gurgling sound. With 160 horsepower, we were pleasantly surprised that there was little torque steer in the front-wheel driver. The console-mounted 5-speed manual shifts smoothly, but we would have expected six gears. (Sorry, an automatic is not an option.) The Abarth's sportier suspension tuning can lead to a kidney-rattling ride. Peter hated it during his first drive — on a windy night over the Howard Frankland Bridge where he was jolted by every bump on the bridge. After lengthy drives, we both had sore backs. Other annoyances: The turbo-boost gauge has a shift indicator that flashes when you should up-shift, and can be distracting. (This car demands to be revved!) Thankfully, it shuts off in sports mode. Also, because of the little car's narrow track, you'll feel body lean on tight turns.
Interior: It's colorful and sylish, with red-leather seats and a modernist, body color-matching dashboard. Alas, we had several complaints. The dash-mounted TomTom GPS ($500) can block some of the driver's view. Thankfully, it's removable, but it's of little use on the seat or in the glove box. The orange-glowing speedometer seems too dim; we'd like a brighter display on what is a cluttered instrument cluster. The seats lack both lumbar support (those bumps!) and adjustable headrests. The angled headrests hit Peter in the middle of his head — taller drivers beware. Also annoying: We found ourselves fumbling to adjust the audio volume because the control isn't a dial. Not that we expect any, but there is little rear-seat room.
Our 3 favorites
Wheels: Color-coordinated and forged-aluminum. Sharp.
Sound: The gurgle is irresistible.
Grip: One of us liked the thick, race-inspired steering wheel.
Attitude: The Abarth has plenty, from the menacing growl to the bright-red seats.
Logo: The scorpion badge is sharp.
Beats Audio: Can't go wrong with Dr. Dre's 10 speakers in a small space.
The bottom line: The Abarth is a fun ride for zipping in and out of city traffic. But the price can quickly escalate with options, and that's not so fun. For those who favor comfort and back health, this isn't your daily driver.