Few cars are pure joy to drive, yet cost less than $30,000. I’d put the Mazda Miata at the top of those, and a few models of the Mini Cooper would slot into this price range. But Fiat’s 500 Abarth is a relative newcomer and blows the others away on price.
The Abarth starts at about $21 grand, including delivery, and that’s down about $2,500 from a year ago. That doesn’t happen often!
But in its size, like the Miata, lies the Fiat’s fun, nimbleness and, well, joy.
In its lower lines, the Pop and Lounge models, the 500 carries a mild 1.4-liter Multi-Air I4 that generates just 101 horsepower, leading to superb gas mileage. Well, the racier Abarth, which Fiat says is pronounced AH-bart, bumps that up substantially to 160 horses thanks to dual intercoolers, turbos.
Now you have some pop when you slip the 5-speed manual through the gears. Second and third punch up the torque (a 170 rating) and by fourth you feel like you’ve had a little mini vacation. Five speeds keeps it all simple, but adding a sixth would allow its small engine to bring the revs down and quiet the interior some.
Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the grumbling burble of this little turbo as it was amplified via dual exhausts. But I kept wanting to shift to sixth on the freeway as its continued grumble made listening to the radio nigh to impossible.
So it’s quick, not fast, and easily rolls along at highway speeds. But it’s in town that the Abarth shines as its playful nature takes over. You maneuver wherever you want, in between other cars as you zip along Capital Drive or Blue Mound Road, or simply slipping into a tight parking spot downtown. Driving is easy.
The car handles well, so a run up to Holy Hill can be a blast. It feels well planted in turns and I gotta admit, once I even chirped the front-drive tires when accelerating away from a stoplight. Ha!
Ride is really pretty well controlled for such a small wheelbase car. The Abarth gets a sport-tuned suspension, and that may have helped it quite a bit, although past rides were smoother than one might expect too. Still, there can be a bit of suspension chatter and interior jiggling on our many Southeast Wisconsin rough cement roads. But in a subcompact, you might expect worse.
Braking was fine with four-wheel discs and a stability control system. I should mention though that the shifter, while easy to slide from gear to gear features quite long throws, unlike the sweet short shifts of the Miata.
Inside, the bright light blue test car, which featured black racing stripes on its lower sides, was stylish, generally carrying a circular theme (a la Mini) on gauges, buttons and other controls. Everything is within easy reach and easily understood.
It helps that the Fiat 500 is a simple car without a load of bells and whistles so buttons and dials are kept to a minimum. That adds to its appeal to drivers who like to be fully engaged while behind the wheel.
The Abarth adds a racy and practical flat-bottomed leather steering wheel. That provides more leg and knee room when entering and exiting the car. Looks cool too!
This one came with black cloth seats featuring a red racing stripe of sorts in the middle. There also was red stitching on the leather wheel and large main gauge hood. Likewise the dash face was bright light blue to match the car’s exterior, something that pleased my 8-year-old grandson. Otherwise the interior is black.
Seats are well formed and supportive, again putting the emphasis on performance. They were heated, part of an $895 equipment package, and they were more comfortable than those in a Mini Cooper Countryman that I drove adjacent to the Fiat test drive. Headroom is vast in front, while all room is limited in the rear seat. A child in a car booster seat fits though.
I liked the controls. There’s a big main gauge right in front of the driver, although the hood over it is way too tall. The center stack buttons and 5-inch touchscreen are easy to use though. In addition, phone and cruise buttons are on the tilt steering wheel hub. Note the wheel does not telescope. Round power window buttons are located on the center stack extension that angles toward the shifter. It’s an odd location that took a while to get used to.
There also was a rattle mid-dash that an occasional fist pound atop the dash would quiet, and the grumbling exhaust seemed to create a buzz somewhere in the rear of the car, most noticeable in third gear.
The rear hatch opens to a fairly deep storage area that would easily hold a couple pieces of luggage, or a full complement of grocery bags. Rear seats fold forward to increase cargo space, but do not create a flat storage floor.
Gas mileage remains a Fiat 500 strong point. I got 35.7 mpg in about a 50-50 mix of city and highway. The EPA says to expect 28 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.
As mentioned early on, pricing is a major selling point. The blue test car started at $19,995 plus $955 delivery fee. It added four options and ended up at $23,020, about $3,000 less than a similar Abarth I’d driven several years ago.
The 500 remains an eye-catching runabout that’s easy on gas and delivers a lot of fun per dollar.
Special Note: If you love Fiats, or think you might, the Fiat FreakOut National Convention rolls into Milwaukee July 19-23. This is the first time the Fiat and Lancia annual owner’s convention (34th annual) has been in Milwaukee and usually draws up to 500 people. You can learn more at www.fiatclubamerica.com.
FAST STATS: 2017 Fiat 500 Abarth
Hits: Cute, eye-catching runabout with sporty handling, a bump in power and stylish interior with flat-bottomed steering wheel, easy controls, heated seats, major headroom, plus stellar gas mileage. Grumbling, racy exhaust tone!
Misses: Grumbling, racy exhaust tone gets old, buzz in rear of car, rattle in dash, small car ride, near useless visors.
Made in: Toluca, Mexico
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Weight: 2,512 lbs.
Length: 144.4 in.
Wheelbase: 90.6 in.
Cargo: 9.5 cu.ft.
MPG: 28/33 (EPA)
MPG: 35.7 (tested)
Base Price: $19,995
Invoice: $20,615 (includes delivery)
Popular equip. package (Sirius/XM 1 yr., heated front seats, auto temp control A/C w/filter, Black seats), $895
Black-trimmed lights, $245
Black mirror gas cap w/body side stripe, $295
Test Vehicle: $23,020
Sources: Fiat, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage