A tiny package with so much sting, my second take on the Fiat 500 Abarth

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I’ve recently been spending some time behind the wheel of my buddy’s Fiat 500 Abarth and I find myself thinking about it a lot. I drove one briefly a few years back when they first came out and I was enamored with it, but spending more time with the Abarth only makes you want one at a deeper and deeper level. It has all of those intangible things that don’t immediately jump out on paper, and those things give it what I call “staying power.” The Abarth offers a depth of experience that will keep it interesting long after you sign on the dotted line.

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I’ve driven many of the hot hatches out there and I cannot say the same about most of them. Being fast and handling well is great, but most modern hot hatches still struggle to shake off that “normal” feeling from the economy car they are based on. The Abarth does away with “normal” the second you turn the key, as it barks to life with the vigor of a Ferrari.

The Abarth is an inspired little machine and you can tell it was engineered to be as exciting as possible. I mean, why shouldn’t a hot hatch have a loud exhaust that announces its presence to everyone around you? Why shouldn’t it backfire so loudly that people in rough neighborhoods will duck for cover thinking there’s a drive-by shooting going on? Why shouldn’t a hot hatch have the vivid flavor of bright colors and racing stripes to show the world that it’s something special? And why shouldn’t every aspect of the car’s controls and handling be fine-tuned to connect with the driver as deeply as possible?

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It is clear that the Italians knew exactly what they wanted the Abarth to be when they made it. There’s almost no sense of compromise in the way it drives, no sense that anything from the basic Fiat 500 was left as “good enough.” The Abarth feels focused and finely tuned for the purpose of driving excitement throughout its every detail, from its appearance to its sound to the experience behind the wheel. It has a sense of “special” that nothing else in the sub-30k range can match. The Mini Cooper S comes the closest, but requires numerous options to hit the same mark (likely bringing it over $30k). Another close one is the Ford Fiesta ST which has phenomenal dynamic ability but lacks the theatrics of the Fiat in style, sound, or a general sense of flavor.

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The Abarth’s biggest win for me is the way it connects with the driver, like at such a deep level in your brain that you actually forget you’re driving. You seem to become the car and the car seems to become you. There was a moment on my recent drive where I was holding a very good pace through some corners in the woods and the car literally seemed to disappear around me. I literally felt like I was flying between the trees like Luke Skywalker on his speeder on the Forest Moon of Endor.

It’s something about how the steering gives you minutely increased resistance with every millimeter you move the wheel further off-center. You just know intuitively how much the wheel is turned and the sensation coming through the wheel to your fingers tells you about the surface beneath. Mix that steering connection with a chassis that responds instantaneously to your every input and you have a car in total sync with its driver.

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The Abarth is a hot hatch in the most proper sense. It’s lightweight, turbocharged, and loves to fly down backroads at highway speeds while unashamedly making a racket for anyone within earshot. Its focus on fun and relative lack of compromise on mundane concerns makes it feel just right, like why doesn’t everyone else make their cars this overtly appealing?

Sure there are much faster cars. On the broader spectrum, the Abarth is punchy at best. But they really nailed the flavor of what an enthusiast car should be, and that is far rarer than a car with a lot of horsepower these days. Hell, even a Camry V6 has over 300hp now, but it doesn’t have any extra zing about it.

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If I had one complaint about the Abarth it was that its power seems to fall off pretty drastically in the top end. It has good initial punch as boost hits, but then it seems to lose most of its breath right around highway speed. Luckily, there are some easy ways to fix this!

My buddy has done two modifications to his Abarth, the first was a stronger replacement for the factory diverter valve (helps to keep the boost up when you shift). The second mod is a piggyback tuner from Madness Autowerks. All I can say is that these two small modifications really complete the Abarth experience. It totally fixed any gripes I had with the power falling off in the top end, and it only cost a few hundred bucks to make happen.

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Basically, the car now has about 20% more power in general, but it also no longer falls off in the top end. It isn’t night and day faster than stock in terms of outright pace, but it is definitely noticeable when you switch between stock mode and the Sport modes. It takes the Abarth from 160bhp to around 190-200bhp, but the difference you really feel will be when you keep the throttle pinned to the floor above 80mph. It just doesn’t want to quit anymore and it pulls strongly well into the triple digits.

Keep in mind how small and light the Abarth is, and realize that going 110-120mph in such a tiny car is quite a thrill. There’s a very real sense of danger at that speed and now the car is more than willing to get there. To get the same sense of danger in a more solid Porsche or a Corvette you’d have to be going 150+. So the adrenaline rush is more attainable in the little Fiat and it’s extremely satisfying on the road.

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More power is certainly possible too with a high flow downpipe, a bigger turbo, etc. but I must say the piggyback and the diverter valve combo gets the car to the point where I don’t feel like its lacking anything. More is just more, but it wouldn’t be required for the car to be totally satisfying.

Yes, with the light mods, this little Fiat may well be my perfect idea of a hot hatch. The Volkswagen GTI, while very capable and quite worthy overall, is just too big and too heavy to really capture the full hot hatch magic at this point, at least in my opinion. Other than the plaid seats, the MK7 GTI is also severely lacking in character compared to the rambunctious little Fiat. I get that the larger, much nicer GTI is probably a better everyday car for most people. I’m not knocking that, but I don’t think the Abarth is a better hot hatch in the classic sense. The Abarth just does a lot more to light my pants on fire, and it’s all that extra intangible stuff that will keep me interested over time.

Agree or disagree, I’ve driven both and that’s my opinion. (I can already feel the anger from the VW fanbase)

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Dollars and sense

I’ve already covered much of the Abarth’s direct competition, but when you start to talk numbers that Fiat really starts to make sense. It’s a fairly cheap car, generally sub-25k unless you spec every single option. That said, it’s no secret that Fiats haven’t been selling all that well, and there are showroom deals to be had on these. My buddy got this car at the end of the model year, brand new, for under $20k out the door. For that price, this is by far the most satisfying brand new car available.

My advice is to do a little extra work to find a great deal on an Abarth because there are deals out there to be had.

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Summary

Like all Italian cars, the Fiat 500 Abarth is not for everyone. You have to be committed to having a remarkable experience and be willing to compromise on some of the mundane functional stuff. That’s why more of the hot hatches out there won’t match the flavor and experience of the Abarth.

The decision to buy an Italian car is much like the decision to fall in love, its a risk, but the upsides are huge. It’s a decision you’ll make with your heart rather than your head, and, overall, you’ll be happier for it. Drive one and you’ll want it.

Also, you’ll have a car with a scorpion badge, and how freaking awesome is that!

-Nick Walker

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