Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Car of the moment: Fiat 500 Abarth

Back at the beginning of this blog, I initiated a Car of the Moment category that I intended to do semi-regularly, but it's kind of fallen to the back burner.

Well, I woke up this morning (read: mid-afternoon [NYE 2012 kept me up till the wee hours of the night]) and decided I wanted to start the year off in the most relaxing way possible, so I went car shopping.  That's right.  Nothing makes me like life more than car shopping. That's akin to someone saying the sound of a dental drill can put them to sleep, but there it is.  I'm weird, I know.

So after getting out of bed, spending too much time in the shower and putting on my nicest tattered jeans and paint-splattered T-shirt, I made my way to the Fiat dealership to drive a car I've been curious about since Catrinel Menghia made her mainstream debut advertising it. You may remember it as the commercial that made me and every other gay car guy straight for one minute.

After introducing myself to Brian, the nice young salesman who pounced on me first, I explained the situation.  I had driven most of the new hot hatchbacks, including the Volkswagen GTI, the Mazdaspeed 3 and the Mini Clubman S (actually, that one's technically a wagon), and I was curious to see how the littlest of them all stacked up.  I also told him that I drove a standard, non-Abarth Fiat at the auto show last year and was disappointed with how sluggish and bland it was to drive.

Fiat has been selling the Abarth-edition 500 in Europe for years now, but it just made the trip across the Atlantic in 2012. To make the standard cutesy-fruitsy 500 a fire-breathing Abarth model, Fiat strapped a turbo to the engine, firmed up the suspension and retuned the steering for better response, among many other little upgrades.  They also up- or downgraded the styling, depending on your point of view.

The 500 is already a distinctively styled little car (my dad says teenage girls from Southern California would love it) and the Abarth takes some of the cuteness away by adding stylish wheels and tires, an aggressive body kit and a racer-chic rear spoiler. It looks a bit more macho, but it also looks like it was designed by a 6-year-old boy, for better and worse. It's definitely silly and not for anyone who takes him- or herself too seriously. I wondered if those differences would make the Abarth more fun than the disappointing standard 500.

Brian graciously handed me the keys to a black Abarth model parked in the front so I could find out. After folding my parents into the tiny little car, I switched the ignition and instantly fell in love as soon as I heard the exhaust.

Some cars live and die by the sound they make. The Ford Mustang GT has always had a baritone voice, while the Chevrolet Corvette's small-block V8 makes a deep rumble. Ferraris are known for wailing and shrieking down the road and Porsches make a distinct mechanical clatter unlike anything else. The sound of an engine, if unremarkable, doesn't necessarily detract from the experience, but if it makes a unique sound, it adds so much to the joy of driving.

The Abarth is a prime example of the latter.  Its exhaust makes a snarling, cracking sound unlike anything except perhaps a tuner Lamborghini. From the moment you turn the key, it makes its intentions as a grown-up shifter kart clear. At idle,  it sounds like a tiger chuffing, in the midrange it growls low and at high speed it positively roars, enjoying every second of punishment you give it. I never got sick of revving the engine, just to hear the pops and backfires on overrun.

But the fun doesn't stop there.  The throttle is responsive and the clutch is progressive and easy to use, so pulling away from a stop is a no-drama affair, even if you're a man-pedal novice.  The steering is appropriately heavy, yet lighter than that of a Mini Cooper's BMW-like helm. I preferred the Fiat, because a small car should have light, responsive steering.  When it comes to controlling the car, the only chink in the Abarth's armor is the shifter.  Shift feel is good, but with closely spaced gates, it's easy to hit second gear when you wanted fourth or fifth gear when you wanted third.  I suspect you'd get used to it.

Out on the road, the Abarth is an absolute gas. There's some lag between when you plant your right foot and when the turbo kicks in, but when it does, there's this prodigious rush of thrust that forces your head back into the seat. I saw my mom in the rear-view mirror bouncing off her headrest a few times during the drive, which kind of made me laugh (sorry, Ma).  With the stability control off and the pedal floored, the Lilliputian sports car is able to lay two 20-foot long strips of burned rubber from a dead stop, no doubt aided by the electronic limited-slip differential, which helps keep both of the front wheels turning and prevents torque steer.

The car also handles well.  It has plenty of grip, but then again, it's so light that bicycle tires would probably be enough to keep it on the road.  It's also very agile.  I never experienced understeer or oversteer on my admittedly tame test-drive, and it never felt like it was trying to disobey me or go in a different direction than I wanted.

The interior is made of cheap plastic, but it's exuberantly styled.  Thankfully, the only available transmission is a five-speed manual whose knob falls readily to hand.  The steering wheel has a thick, sculpted rim that feels great underhand and the tachometer and speedometer are actually concentric circles, with the speedometer's rim and needle resting just outside the edge of the tach.  The sound system made decent noises (just turn it off and listen to the exhaust) and the climate controls were easy to use.  The driver's seat was supportive and comfortable, but the passenger seat isn't height-adjustable, so taller passengers won't like life as much as the driver.

Shortcomings, it has a few.  The firm suspension so necessary for good handling and response also makes for a pretty harsh ride, likely exacerbated by how short the car is.  You feel every bump in the road, which is desirable for enthusiastic driving, but likely would get old on a daily commute or long road trip.

Also, the Fiat is smaller and lighter than a car whose very name is a synonym for tiny, so you can't expect a ton of space inside.  My six-foot frame was comfortable in the height-adjustable driver's seat, but my dad complained a lot about his head rubbing the headliner.  My mom also said the back seat was tiny and uncomfortable and even ended up with a bit of knee pain for the rest of the day (I feel bad she had to sit back there, but she wanted to come with and she can't drive stick because of that knee). And the trunk is laughable. Barely a day's worth of groceries would fit back there without folding down the rear seats.

At the end of the day, the Abarth 500 (which gets its name from Karl Abarth, the legendary Fiat racer) is a total joy to drive. The sounds it makes, the responsiveness of the throttle, turbo and steering and the exciting styling make it a grown-up toy car, something that just wants to play. The rough ride and little size are unfortunate side effects of what makes the Fiat the perfect car for me. Sure, I'd feel a little silly showing up in it to nice events and it would only serve to convince the world that I am in fact very, very gay, but all it would take is turning the key to make me fall in love and forgive every other shortcoming, just to hear that engine snarl.


  1. Welp. I read the review, and I approve (or support, whichever phrasing is more to your liking) you replacing of the Clubman in your imaginary garage with this... Just so long as the Tahoe/Suburban/ANY suv is still in the picture. For the boat, of course.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. D'oh! I accidentally removed Christopher's comment and I would love for him to repost it! In case he doesn't, he said that the Abarth looks cute but that it's not as good as the GTI or the Mazdaspeed3 or something to that effect.

      My response is that I agree 100%, but I'd still take the Abarth. It's slower, smaller, less comfortable and louder, and even though it has less power and weight, it gets about the same fuel economy. But I'd still take it because it's just so silly bonkers fun and it makes me smile more than the Mazdaspeed3 did (although I've yet to drive a Mk6 or Mk7 GTI, so I can't say anything about them).

      Please, repost Christopher!


Be nice, mmmmkay? I allow anonymous comments, but not anonymous (or even attributed) douchebaggery. The Gay Mormon Pioneer's tolerance for hate and venom are incredibly low, but his love of communication and debate are high, so have an opinion, but be kind and gentle when you share it.

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