2019 Fiat 500 Abarth first drive review

Fiat’s revised 500 Abarth is an Italian thrill ride anyone can afford

Fiat’s diminutive hot hatch delivers style and track capability, but a lack of substantial updates sees it falling short in other areas.
Fiat’s diminutive hot hatch delivers style and track capability, but a lack of substantial updates sees it falling short in other areas.
Fiat’s diminutive hot hatch delivers style and track capability, but a lack of substantial updates sees it falling short in other areas.


  • Nice turbocharged, four-cylinder growl
  • Sharp design
  • Affordable track capability


  • Cramped interior
  • Lackluster infotainment

With a few lapping sessions already under our belt, we decided that, this time around, we were really going to wring this thing out for all it was worth.

Coming out of the sweeping, 20-degree banked bowl that comprises turn eight, we mashed the throttle to the floor. The tires gave a cry of protest as we teased the limits of grip, and the engine snarled as it quickly approached its redline. Corner exit in the rear-view, we glanced at the speedometer as we grabbed for fourth gear: 68 miles per hour.

In an era where 700 horsepower has become commonplace, the Fiat 500 Abarth serves as a reminder that “slow car fast” can often provide the kinds of thrills that many assume are reserved for high-dollar performance machines. When we returned to the pits, our palms were just as sweaty as they were a few weeks before when we tore around Autódromo do Estoril in the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ, the current production car lap record holder at the Nurburgring.

2019 Fiat 500 Abarth
Bradley Iger/FCA

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Abarth, its performance division, Fiat brought us to Streets of Willow course at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California, to put the latest track-tuned version of its diminutive hatchback through its paces with some expert instruction from the Skip Barber Racing school. With a 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged engine under the hood and a chassis tuned for the rigors of the race track, the 500 Abarth is far from a mere appearance package, and Fiat is as determined as ever to prove it.

“If you really think about what Fiat stands for, it’s all about fun-to-drive vehicles with Italian design”

“If you really think about what Fiat stands for, it’s all about fun-to-drive vehicles with Italian design,” explained Pieter Hogeveen, the director of the Fiat brand in North America. “And here in the US, what’s really interesting is that about 40 percent of our sales are Abarth models. There are not many brands out there that can say that their performance arm carries so much of the sales weight.”

Fiat has sold over one million examples of the 500 worldwide since launching the model in 2007. While the company would like to point to style, quality, and comfort as the core rationale behind the 500’s success, accessibly may be the biggest factor: The 2019 Pop trim starts at just $16,245, while the Abarth promises track-tested performance and durability with Italian flair for $21,995, putting it right in line with the larger (and heavier) Ford Fiesta ST while undercutting the Mini Cooper S by more than $5,000.

Design and tech

The 500 Abarth’s performance intentions are made clear at a cursory glance. Red brake calipers hide behind standard 16-inch aluminum wheels, Koni dampers and performance springs provide a hunkered-down stance, and a dual-exit exhaust system – along with a model-specific wing – bolster the visual drama out back.

Inside, it’s a similar story: A prominent turbo boost gauge, along with a leather-wrapped, flat-bottom steering wheel with contrast stitching and aluminum pedal covers all add to the festivities, while high-back sport seats are also on hand and provide a tangible performance benefit that goes beyond mere aesthetics.

But it’s here where one realizes that the 500’s small footprint and low price tag cuts both ways. Lustrous paint can only do so much for the abundance of cheap plastics on board, and the Fiat’s city car intentions translate to a premium on interior space for both passengers and cargo, the latter of which totals 9.5 cubic feet with the rear seats up, or 26.8 when down. These figures make the 500 smaller inside than its main rivals, which have a bigger footprint.

Although outright thrust isn’t the 500’s strong suit, the sounds, sensations, and responses of a track machine are here.

The pint-sized theme continues with the infotainment system. Although the Uconnect 5.0 system on board operates reasonably well, it’s not exactly feature-rich. Navigation is optional, and while basic connectivity features like Bluetooth, USB, and an auxiliary port are here as standard, the system still does not offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. The 5-inch touchscreen also lacks the physical real estate needed to avoid looking low-rent. The Fiesta ST’s available SYNC 3 infotainment system will do a better job of scratching your technology itch than the Abarth’s standard setup.

But outside of those quibbles and a few ergonomic curiosities, the cabin of the 500 Abarth is livable space for the business of spirited driving, even for taller individuals like your author. Just don’t expect any thank you cards from your rear seat passengers.

Driving experience

The 500 Abarth gets its motivation from a 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers 160 horsepower and 183 pound-feet of torque. It’s bolted to a five-speed manual transmission as standard, while a six-speed automatic is optional. Mini and Ford both offer more powerful alternatives, but the trade-off is that those vehicles are larger and heavier.

Left to its own devices, the automatic serves its purpose well. However, when on a track in a relatively low-horsepower vehicle, gear selection is crucial, and we generally opt for manual control over the transmission’s behavior for that reason. In the 500 Abarth, that control is provided exclusively by the shifter on the center console, and that setup proved to be a fair amount of work to use effectively at speed. Paddle shifters would be a big improvement here. For now, opting for a manual gearbox is probably the better call for anyone who plans to do a significant amount of performance driving with their 500 Abarth.

2019 fiat 500 abarth review fullwide
Bradley Iger/FCA

Although outright thrust isn’t the 500 Abarth’s strong suit, the sounds, sensations, and responses that comprise an entertaining track performer are here. While 64 percent of the 500’s weight is situated over the front end, the Abarth models get summer tires at all four corners which provide admirable grip despite the 500’s inherent desire to understeer at the limit.

And, as the Skip Barber instructors pointed out, the Abarth is tuned to respond well to trail braking – diving toward an apex with reckless abandon while the weight is loaded on the front end gets the best out of the car – along with a dab of rear-end rotation if you’re willing to commit to it.


Fiat offers a four-year, 50,000-mile basic warranty, a four-year, 50,000-mile powertrain warranty, and a 12-year, unlimited-mileage warranty against corrosion on a new 500 Abarth. Four years of roadside assistance is also included. 

How DT would configure this car

One thing the 500 Abarth certainly isn’t lacking is style, and if we were configuring a car for ourselves, we’d be looking to leverage that. To our eyes, a Vesuvio black pearl example with a red roof, red mirror caps, and side stripe accents paired with the optional forged 17-inch bronze wheels would be an exceptionally sharp combination.

We’d also opt for the Beats premium audio system, along with the optional leather sport seats, to make cabin a bit more inviting. We’d skip the optional navigation feature, though – you’ll probably end up using your phone through Bluetooth most of the time with this system anyway.

An optional power-operated cloth top is available on all 500 models, including the Abarth, which can be operated at up to 60 mph. While we’d consider springing for it on a Pop or Lounge-trimmed 500, it doesn’t really jive with the mission of this performance model, so we’d probably leave that box unchecked as well. Same goes for the optional power sunroof, which will add weight, raise the center of gravity, and reduce headroom (when closed, of course).


“FCA, as a corporate entity, has a battery of durability tests that all of our vehicles have to go through,” explained Daniel Fry, lead engineer on the 500 Abarth. “In the development of these Abarth models, we’ve also drawn on the knowledge we’ve accumulated from fifteen years of putting SRT badges on cars. Things like autocrossing on a sweltering Texas summer day to ensure we have adequate cooling for turbocharged powertrains, to doing 24-hour, endurance-style track tests to validate durability. We do these kinds of evaluations to make sure that when we put an Abarth badge on a car, it keeps that authenticity.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as a marketing line, but after dozens of laps around Streets of Willow, this fleet of 500 Abarths remained willing and able after hours of back-to-back track sessions throughout the day.

While the 500 isn’t exactly an ideal platform for a performance car, nor will it deliver hair-raisingly quick lap times on a road course, there’s a certain unshakable charm that the 500 Abarth provides which makes up for a lot of its perceived shortcomings. Unless you’re in sanctioned competition, the ultimate goal of any day at the track is to have a good time. And in that regard, the Fiat 500 Abarth does indeed deliver.

Product Review

If you don't know about Genesis yet, the G70 is going to change that

The 2019 Genesis G70 is Korea’s first attempt to take on the vaunted German trio of BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Competition doesn’t come much tougher than that.

In McLaren’s 600LT Spider, the engine is the only sound system you’ll need

The McLaren 600LT Spider is the inevitable convertible version of the 600LT coupe, itself a lighter, more powerful version of the McLaren 570S. The 600LT Spider boasts a 592-horsepower, twin-turbo V8, and a loud exhaust system to hear it…

Fast and Furious fans get revved up: Toyota’s Supra sports car is back

The 2020 Toyota Supra made its long-awaited debut at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show. The resurrected sports car, famous for a role in The Fast and the Furious, goes on sale in the U.S. this summer.

2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 is ready to strike with over 700 hp

The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 revives one of the greatest names in American muscle cars, and gives Ford some ammunition in the horsepower war with Chevy and Dodge. Debuting at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show, the GT500 boasts over 700 hp.

Hyundai’s Veloster N hot hatchback will prove its mettle on the track

The Hyundai Veloster N will go racing to prove the credibility of Hyundai's new N performance division. Unveiled at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show, the Veloster N race car will compete in a class with other small cars.

Nissan IMs concept teases a future long-range, autonomous electric car

Debuting at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show, the Nissan IMs is an electric car with a 380-mile range, autonomous-driving capability, and a backseat designed for being chauffeured. Too bad it's just a concept car.

The 2020 Lexus RC F goes on a diet to run faster and hit harder

The Lexus RC F has been one of the heavier cars in its competitive set since its introduction. The Japanese firm's engineers set out to shed weight as they gave the model a mid-cycle update.

Lexus LC convertible concept teases a new open-air flagship

Debuting at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show, the Lexus LC convertible concept adds open-air motoring to the sleek LC's resume. But Lexus won't commit to a production version of the car just yet.

Muscle cars, trucks, and EVs roared into the subdued 2019 Detroit Auto Show

The 2019 Detroit Auto Show was the quietest edition of the event in recent memory, but that doesn't mean nothing significant happened inside the Cobo Center. Here are the new cars and concepts we saw at the show.

Big tech, bigger grille: BMW updates its 7 Series flagship for 2020

The BMW 7 Series will enter the 2020 model year with a host of updates inside, outside, and under the sheet metal. The new-look nose with a jumbo grille hides updated engines, while passengers benefit from smart tech features.
Emerging Tech

Ford’s sweaty robot bottom can simulate 10 years of seat use in mere days

Ford has developed 'Robutt,' a sweaty robot bottom that's designed to simulate the effects of having a pair of human buttocks sitting on its car seats for thousands of hours. Check it out.

Robomart’s self-driving grocery store is like Amazon Go on wheels

Robomart's driverless vehicle is like an Amazon Go store on wheels, with sensors tracking what you grab from the shelves. If you don't want to shop online or visit the grocery store yourself, Robomart will bring the store to you.

Ford has a plan to future-proof the hot-selling F-150 pickup truck

Worried about the threat of rising gas prices, Ford will add the F-150 to its growing portfolio of electrified vehicles. It is currently developing a hybrid F-150, and it will release an electric version of the next-generation truck.

Ford’s Mustang-inspired electric crossover will spawn a Lincoln luxury version

Lincoln will get its own version of parent Ford's first mass-market, long-range electric vehicle. While Ford's version will have styling inspired by the Mustang, Lincoln will take a more traditional approach.