The Fiat 500 Abarth is not nuanced in any way at all.
Now before you go correcting my verbiage, Google the definition of the word “nuanced.” For something to be “nuanced,” it must have, and I’m quoting dictionary.com directly here, “a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etc.”
The Fiat 500 Abarth certainly has differences and distinctions in expression, meaning, and response from any other automobile on the road. That is indisputable. But the key word in that definition which disqualifies it from being used to describe the Abarth is “subtle,” because not a single part of this tiny Italian dome of rampancy, from its headliner to its lug nuts, possesses one iota of subtleness.
Not even the Abarth’s first impression is conventional, because its most distinctive feature means you will more than likely hear it before you see it. The exhaust is constructed with only one restrictive apparatus: the catalytic converter. There are no mufflers and no resonators. So, it is loud. Properly and obnoxiously loud.
If you get an Abarth with the manual transmission (which it was equipped with exclusively until this year, when Fiat lost a little bit of their nerve), and you back off the throttle above 4000rpm in gear, you will hear the exhaust burble and pop against the backpressure, and if you rip the perfect 1-2 shift at full throttle and redline, you will make the exhaust backfire with the volume of a muffled gunshot.
Yes, the Fiat 500 Abarth does this right off the showroom floor. It’s practically an antonym for the word “subtle.”
I also want to go on record as having said this: the Fiat 500 Abarth has the best exhaust sound of any production 4cyl automobile ever made. Just starting it up and pulling away from a stop at idle will sound threatening, with the turbo whistling through the growling exhaust as it starts to spool up. But plant your right foot, and the Abarth will terrify passersby with its unbridled fury. The general public would have you believe that 4cyl cars sound wimpy and wheezy, but the Abarth sounds like it’s coming to destroy everything you cherish in life.
It’s flabbergasting then to learn that the engine, like the rest of the Fiat 500 Abarth, is so tiny. Displacing only 1.4L, it gets its 160hp and 170 ft-lbs of torque from a turbocharger and not one, but two, intercoolers, and while that may not seem like much horsepower today, especially when most 4cyl midsize family sedans have more, keep in mind that the Abarth is only just over 12 feet long, and tips the scales at a slight 2,512lbs. So that power and torque are able to do a lot more. 60mph comes up in 7 seconds, and the quarter mile is dealt with in 15.4 seconds at 88mph, and while those aren’t earth-moving times, the Abarth’s size and weight makes you sense what power it does have in a way that no other sport compact car can replicate.
Part of that is with torque steer, as the heavier-duty five-speed manual transmission does not contain a limited-slip differential. It does contain dual-cone synchronizers for 1st and 2nd gears, but the shifter is a letdown, as it’s the only part of the car that practices sensory deprivation. It’s rather mushy, and the throws are surprisingly and unappealingly long for a dash-mounted design, so you can’t really feel those synchros doing their thing.
What is overtly sensory, however, is the chassis. Twin-tube shocks front and rear (the fronts are made by Koni), coupled with a massive 22mm rear swaybar, make the extremely short-wheelbase Abarth a very, very lively car to throw into a curve. This setup virtually eliminates body roll, no matter how hard you’re cornering, which is good. But no amount of suspension tuning will make such a minute car feel stable on a twisty road that also happens to be bumpy. The Sport button on the dash, in addition to quickening the throttle response and bringing the turbocharger’s maximum boost pressure from 12lbs to 18lbs, also removes some of the electric steering assist, which further focuses the car’s behavior. As such, you’ll be able to corner with 0.91g of lateral acceleration, demonstrating that, under ideal conditions, the Abarth can actually stick to the pavement quite well. But, especially if yours is equipped as my test car was, with the optional 17-inch Pirelli P-Zero summer tires, it’s a very twitchy and nervous car when it has to change direction.
It’s possible, though, that Fiat purposefully designed the 500 Abarth to drive like this in hopes of distracting you from its gross impracticality. To whinge about the interior space of a car as eensy-weensy as the Fiat 500 is belaboring the obvious; there’s very little headroom, there’s essentially no legroom for anybody in any seat, and it’s one of a small number of hatchbacks that I can recall where the EPA rated the cargo capacity with the rear seats up as less than 10 cubic feet. But I can use another superlative to describe the Beats stereo in the Fiat 500: it is the most unnecessarily complicated electronic gadget I have ever had to use. Have a portable MP3 player and want to integrate it into the stereo? Once you plug it in, you have to use the buttons on the steering wheel to choose the artist or album through the gauge cluster and… you know what? Forget it. I’m getting frustrated just thinking about trying to operate it.
It’s issues such as those that, to many people, will be a deal-breaker for the Fiat 500 Abarth.
Not only is it brash and uncouth to the point of civil unrest, but it’s utterly useless to anyone with a family or with more cargo than a duffel bag, and, at an as-tested MSRP of $27,100, it doesn’t exactly make up for it by being economical, either. It’s a difficult car to live with day in and day out.
But, allow me to say this.
The 21st century is an age where we expect all our devices to be capable of performing all the same tasks. We’re browsing the Internet on our TVs and video game systems and cell phones while we’re watching movies on our computers and our tablets, and cars have followed the same trend. I’ve tested many cars that try to be stylish yet sporty yet practical yet economical, and many exceed at one only to fail at another.
But the Fiat 500 Abarth is different and distinctive in expression, meaning, and response because it claims to be capable of only one task… the task of being unwholesome amounts of fun to drive.
It does that to the tee, and I respect the hell out of Fiat for deliberately building it so that is all it can do.
Price as tested: $27,100
0-60mph: 7.0 sec
1/4-mile time: 15.4 seconds at 88mph
Lateral skidpad acceleration: 0.91g
60-0 braking distance: 119ft
Torque: 170 ft-lbs
Weight: 2,512 lbs
Fuel economy: 27.3 mpg
Test vehicle provided by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Be sure to check out the other two hot hatchbacks in this comparison, the Hyundai Veloster Turbo and the Ford Fiesta ST.
Please subscribe above for future Orlando Autos Examiner articles to be emailed to you…
… and please send me an email and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.