Good things, they say, come in small packages – and often, it’s true. It’s especially true in the tech world but unfortunately not so much in the car world. While tech bits often get better as outward dimensions decrease, the same cannot be said for cars. Small cars are often far less speedy, track capable or technologically savvy as their larger counterparts.
Small cars – or ‘subcompacts’ as we often refer to them – are built on a budget for a budget-minded individual who simply wants a car but doesn’t want the cost associated with a vehicle of any real substance.
So let’s just agree to write-off small cars as harsh or boring little things built for people who value what they drive about as much as the brand of beans they consume. Right? Well, not so fast.
Believe it or not, a company has built a subcompact car that isn’t all that bad. I present to you, the 2013 FIAT 500 Abarth Cabrio. The little FIAT, as small as it may be, is actually quite couth. Let’s look at why.
Add more money, get more power
First, FIAT designers start with the standard 500, which has been styled – not surprisingly – after the original 500 from the 1950s. Some have accused the standard 500 of being overly twee but I rather like it.
The standard FIAT 500 starts at $15,000 and features a normally aspirated inline 1.4-liter four-cylinder that FIAT calls the “MultiAir,” along with four seats and a manual transmission. Pretty simple but well-priced. Now add over $10,000 worth of stuff.
Believe it or not, a company has built a subcompact car that isn’t all that bad.
To make the $26,000 Abarth, the indelicate Italians took the cute little 500 and added a big turbo charger, more robust five-speed gearbox, very, very stiff suspension, a burbling, blaring exhaust, and to top it all off, some scorpion badges.
The result is a car that is cute but is also capable of scaring the bejesus out of you.
The FIAT 500 Abarth Cabrio can do 0-60 in around seven seconds. This doesn’t seem very fast on paper but in reality it seems mighty quick. The 500 was designed to handle no more than 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque. The Abarth makes 160 horses and 170 pound-feet of torque – around 63 percent more power than stock.
Where does all that newfound power come from? The 18 PSI turbocharger, which is fed thick, cool air from the two intercoolers on both the driver and passenger side air inlets. This honking turbo spins up to 230,000 RPM to smash air into the little MutliAir engine so that it can produce 117 horsepower per liter.
All that massive power is sent through the five-speed transmission hooked solely to the front wheels. This isn’t unusual for small performances hatches but with the Abarth, the front and rear wheels are so close together that any change in torque or steering angle means the Abarth is quickly veering off in another direction. This makes the Abarth very, very exciting to drive fast, if not a bit frightening.
Once you figure out how to wrangle the unbridled Abarth Cabrio, though, it’s a real kick of a car. Push the Sport mode button, and the Abarth gets even trickier. Sport mode makes the steering heavier, ramps up throttle response, pushes more carbons into the exhaust for an improved sound, and also draws 20 more pound-feet of torque from the engine.
Sport mode also allows you to make best use of the sportier Abarth suspension, which is 33 percent stiffer and 15mm lower in the front while the rear section is 300 percent stiffer than European 500s. This hardcore suspension does a splendid job of pushing the 17-inch Abarth wheels – now backed by some big brakes – down onto the pavement.
Track time in an Abarth? Yes
FIAT brags the Abarth is very racetrack capable. It is, kind of. With the traction control as ‘off’ as I could get it, the Abarth was well suited to the track – at least for a while.
On a first few laps, the Abarth was agile and responsive both under acceleration but also in the corners. That tiny wheelbase, though, made a fool of the tightly wound suspension, as the Abarth felt like it might tip over in high-speed, tight cornering.
…the front and rear wheels are so close together that any change in torque or steering angle means the Abarth is quickly veering off in another direction.
I’d wager it’s happier on twisty public roads, however, as the tough suspension and tiny body get quickly overwhelmed by sweeping corners and rumble strips out on the track. Some hard braking into a chicane, too, and the brakes will succumb to fade rather quickly. On the open road drivers will likely never find the braking power of the Abarth inadequate.
Hit the button to roll the cloth top down and you can hear every sensuous note from the ridiculously loud exhaust. The exhaust note, though, is no accident. FIAT fitted ten different exhaust systems to the Abarth before they found just the sound they were looking for.
As wonderful as the exhaust tone is for the driver, I can’t help but feel that most Americans will think it stupid, as most have no idea what the Abarth is. As I rumbled and crackled through downtown Portland, I fear most people looked upon me with disdain, assuming I had simply fitted a loud exhaust to a cheap subcompact. It was slightly embarrassing, at least until the road got curvy again.
Room to breathe
Clearly, then, the Abarth is a sporting little hunk of Italian steel. So how about creature comforts?
Often, when an automaker takes the roof off of a car, it improves driving pleasure but makes the car itself ostensibly worse due to a decrease in body rigidity. The Abarth seems to only improve from being cabriol-ized. The interior is not only sunnier but also roomier. The hardtop 500 left passengers feeling like they were sitting on the car rather than in. The Cabrio opens up the space more, allowing passengers to feel like they really fit (at least in the front seats).
FIAT says the 500 can seat four. Four Italians, maybe. Certainly not four Americans, though. Ignoring the cramped backseat, which is essentially a luggage shelf with seatbelts, and most anyone can find something to like about the Abarth’s cabin. It has sporty looking bits all over, and a bit carved out of the dash to accommodate a small Garmin satnav system, which stows easily in the glovebox when not in use.
That Garmin GPS, however, is essentially the tech high point of the Abarth. FIAT says it has a traction control system that can be set to “On” to “Partial Off” or “Full Off.” I was never able to fully figure it out, though. Once I somehow got it turned all the way off, the Abarth can front-wheel burn out with the best of them. I do know that.
Ultimately, unlike other performance cars around the $26,000 mark, the Abarth is brash and a bit unreasonable. It’s stylish, loud, and a bit hard to handle. It is, then, just like the Italian girlfriend you wish you had. It delights, can frustrate and leaves you wanting more.
Is it worth the money, though? If you’re an inner-city dweller who wants a shout-y convertible that’s easy to park, a hoot to drive and not all that bad to look at, the Abarth Cabrio is for you. If you want an out-and-out track machine that will be cool, composed, confident and perhaps fly a bit under the radar, then maybe you should consider the Scion FR-S Convertible.
- Distinctive styling
- Ear-melting exhaust note
- Easy to park
- Pretty impractical
- Low-tech interior
- Hard to handle in full-throttle cornering