Forget logic. Forget rationality in any sense. When was the last time you just had fun for the hell of it, consequences be damned? College? High school? Yesterday afternoon? Within the confines of bounded rationality, we look at the average transaction price of a new car—around $31,000—and say that we must get the biggest, most useful bang for our collective buck. Most people would end up with a larger car or a full-size pickup truck for that kind of money.
But there's another option: The second-smallest four-passenger car on the market today. That's the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth for those of you not quite in the know. The Abarth is the antithesis of practicality. It's tiny, and it weighs about the same as the Beetle you once owned while in college. You remember, the car you had a long time ago before you gave up on fun and decided to become a grownup.
Fiat is banking on the fact that all hope isn't lost on the baby-booming and Gen-Xing customers who have enough money to plunk down on a plucky subcompact sporty runabout. Our job is to tell you if what's waiting at the other end for those self-proclaimed spontaneous, fun-at-heart people is worth the well-studied capital expenditure.
What We Drove
Not like it has to cost $31,100, it's just that ours did. The starting price for the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth, the highest-performing version of the subcompact car, is $26,700, including $700 for destination and handling. Abarth models are amped up from the 100 horsepower in the standard Fiat 500 and 135 horsepower of the upgraded Fiat 500 Turbo to 160 horsepower, which is still less power than you'd get in a base-model Toyota Camry.
That said, the car is considerably lighter than most anything in your life, so it's decently quick. Among the options our tester included were leather-covered performance seats ($1,000), a Beats by Dr. Dre audio system ($700), a comfort and convenience package ($650) that features heated seats and automatic climate control, black mirror caps ($350), a lousy TomTom navigation kit ($500), and forged 17-inch wheels ($1,200) with all-season tires.
In crash testing, the IIHS gave the 2013 Fiat 500 an overall "Good" rating; the cabriolet has not yet been tested. On the practicality front, the Abarth can accommodate two child seats in the back, but installing them might be a bit of a chore. We recommend opening the top first.
One thing about tiny cars is that they invariably have a tiny wheelbase, which is the distance between the front and rear axles. That, in effect, means that they're most likely going to be choppy over the road because there's less space to dissipate a bump. Adding to that inextricable fear of harshness is that the fact that the Fiat 500 Abarth has a stiffer suspension than any other Fiat model. So this thing ought to ride like a Conestoga wagon on its way across the Great Plains, right?
Well, it doesn't. In fact, giving credit where it's due, the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth rides just as well as many far larger cars, a testament to the work that Fiat's engineers put in to make this car up to snuff for 'Mericans. With the exception of the car's warbly snarl of an exhaust note, not much of this car is overtly sporty when you're plodding along at normal speeds. The little 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo engine provides ample power, and both the clutch and five-speed manual shifter are as easy as can be to use. If you want an automatic transmission, you don't want an Abarth.
We actually fit three people in the car with surprising ease, one of whom was obviously in back, meaning that you don't have to give up on impracticality if you do, indeed, carpool to work each morning and decide this is the car of your dreams. You also don't have to be Lieutenant Dan, but it does help to have a shorter pair of legs if you plan on routinely sitting in back.
The Grocery Run
Like every other Fiat 500, this car is tiny, making it easy to park just about anywhere. Unlike other 500s, this drop-top has a real trunk instead of a hatchback. That means loading sheets of plywood, furniture (albeit not yet built), and other larger items is left to another car, or you opt for at-home delivery. For everything else, though, the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth serves as a perfectly amicable little runaround car, braving the ardors of parallel parking and mall lots with limited struggle.
While fitting a week's worth of groceries into its trunk shouldn't be too much of a problem for a couple, shopping for just about anyone more than that means you have to start using the back seat for room. And if that's the case, you either have to be driving with few passengers or a good group of understanding participants. Hey, it's like everything else from Italy: When you're here, you're family. Or at least you're going to feel like it whether you want to or not.
The Weekend Fun
This is more or less the part that justifies the Abarth's massive price hike over the regular Fiat 500. The Abarth certainly isn't the fastest car on the road, but it makes a strong case for being among the most fun cars you can get for the money. There's some play in the car's handling, providing lean and pitch over the road, diving into hairpins with the sort of theater that you'd get from an old-school sport compact car like an early 1990s Nissan SE-R or Volkswagen GTI.
And it's accompanied by that boisterous exhaust note that never goes away. In fact it only gets louder as the engine revs build. It's best to shift before the car's 6,500 rpm redline, though, because the little turbocharged engine runs out of steam on the top end, leaving you to short shift to get the most out of this rambunctious mongrel.
Seeing as this is a convertible, if you pop the top, the fun don't stop. In fact, you get to hear more of that throaty exhaust note, which is a bit like seeing Rick Astley for the first time: A tiny little ginger guy who belts out deep, Luther Vandross-like croon. With less roof separating you from that noise, it makes you want to step on the throttle more and let the car sing. The unfortunate part is with the top's operation. It's not a true convertible, retaining the door frames of the coupe. When you lower the soft top, it takes two presses of the button, the top takes forever to go down, and when it's down, it blocks almost all of your rear view. There's also some noticeable chassis shudder over bumps that's not there in the stiffer coupe.
To put the top back up, it takes three button clicks, making it longer and more complicated than it was on the way down. Believe us when we say it's far worse in operation than written world could aptly describe.
Objectively, the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth is an awful car. It's small, expensive, there's a bit of chassis flex that the hardtop model doesn't have, it's loud, the TomTom navigation system is awkwardly placed, the top blocks rear visibility when it's down and doesn't allow a truly open-air experience, and it really should be positioned as a Ford Fiesta ST competitor instead of being priced up there with the Mini Cooper S. There's no way to justify this car's cost when a BRZ or Focus ST can be had for far less coin.
That said, subjectively, this car is way up there on the fun-o-meter. It's much more enjoyable to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, and this Abarth is some of the best proof yet. It makes mundane commutes enjoyable and gets fantastic fuel economy to boot. If that weren't enough, chances are if you do take the time to lower the top, you'll get plenty of thumbs up, people yelling "The Italians are coming!" in reference to Fiat's risqué new advertising campaign, and may even get a phone number or two.
This car is hugely flawed, but it's marvelous. If it were our money, though, as much as we like hearing the Abarth's exhaust growl with the top down, it's not much muted with the much cheaper hardtop. If we were going for a sporty, cute cabrio, the Volkswagen Beetle Turbo and Mini Cooper S would both be ahead of the Abarth on our list. But for $5,000 less, the Abarth hardtop is a much tougher act to beat. Then again, so are a good number of other cars that add some of that rationality back into the decision. Much as we hate to say it, much-needed rationality at that.
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