Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth

Price as tested: $23,200

Fiat has not sold a car in the United States in decades, but in the past couple of years, following its acquisition of an ownership stake in Chrysler, Fiat has introduced a brand new 500 to lead its charge back into the US market. Abarth, Fiat's in house tuning arm, got a hold of the 500 with the intention of turning the 500 into a rip snorting micro machine with go-kart like reflexes. Have they succeeded in building a car that will appeal to the American enthusiast?

The Good

Like the Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500 starts life as a cutesy and bubbly little car, and the TV ads for the base models only help reinforce this image. However, after going through the Abarth treatment, the 500 looks a lot more aggressive than its standard counterpart. It is a look that I actually warmed up to quite quickly as it offers an aggression that is very much lacking from the normal version. My favorite part about the Abarth would have to be the wheels. Sure, they may seem a bit small at 16 inches, but they fit well with the car. The red painted brake calipers behind the wheels give it that extra sporty looking punch that Fiat was really trying to get across with this car. 
  

The interior of the 500 Abarth was surprisingly well put together and the quality of the materials are actually quite good. The reason for my surprise is mainly due to the price of the car. With an MSRP of $22,700, one would expect fairly mediocre interior materials, especially when cars in the same price range have trouble moving away from cheap plastics and itchy fabrics. I was especially surprised at the quality of the leather used to wrap the steering wheel and the shift knob. A lot of times, manufacturers that make cars in this low $20,000 range tout that their cars have "leather-wrapped" steering wheels, but usually use such poor quality leather that linoleum would feel better to the touch. Speaking of plastics, every bit of it in the 500 was very well put together. Sitting in the tiny cabin, I definitely would not think I was in a car priced in the low $20,000 range. It is also very well equipped for its price. While the $23,200 as-tested price only includes a removable navigation unit that was stowed away in the glove box, this car has all the standard features most people will ever need (e.g. bluetooth, mp3 radio, etc.). I am also rather pleased that Fiat did not feel the need to slap chrome on every surface simply to up the "bling" factor.

Upon starting the Fiat 500 Abarth for the first time, the driver is treated to a surprisingly snarly exhaust note. I was quite taken aback by the sound because I had expected some sort of cute, buzzing, "happy" exhaust note to emanate from such a car. Under hard acceleration, the exhaust note is actually a joy to listen to from inside the cabin. The engine itself, despite its relatively diminutive size, pulls pretty hard. Combined with the 500's light weight, the Abarth certainly feel like it accelerates quickly, enough to give me a pleasant surprise.

Handling is definitely this car's strong suit. A well-sorted suspension makes it relatively pleasant to drive on a daily basis, but also handles corner with aplomb when thrown into them. Coupled with the car's short wheelbase and quick steering, the Fiat 500 Abarth really does feel a bit like a go-kart. A moderate bit of body roll is present, but this could be attributed to the car's rather high center of gravity as a result of its tall profile to wheelbase ratio. Speaking of the steering, I was actually quite impressed with the Abarth's steering rack. Though it does still feel a bit dull compared to a hydraulic rack, it is one of the better electric power steering setups I have tested to date. With sport mode active, the steering not only feels a bit quicker, but proves properly weighted. With just enough feedback, weight, and ratio, the Abarth actually felt quite confident going diving into corners. What is lacking, as is the case with nearly every electric power steering rack I have experienced to date, is on center feel. However, I do feel that the steering's cornering manners more than makes up for this shortcoming. 

Being a tiny hatchback, I had expected the Fiat 500 to be pretty lacking in the cargo department. Once again, the little car surprised me with the amount of available cargo space. Rear seats up, the Fiat 500 provides 9.5 cu.ft. of space, nearly double that of the Miata. With the seats down, the Fiat 500 can gobble up to 30.2 cu.ft. of cargo. The 500 Abarth's closest competitor, the Mini Cooper S, has similar  length and wheelbase dimensions, but cannot even provide the same amount of cargo space.
 
The Bad

Of course, no car in this price range is going to entirely free of faults. For instance from certain angles, the Fiat 500 Abarth looks pretty darn aggressive, but from head-on, its original, cute, bug-eyed nature shines though and sort of overpowers the aggressive nature provided by the sporty wheels and aero kit. Much like many of Mazda's current cars, the front of the car looks like it is smiling. It is quite a shame, but considering the fun, cutesy nature of the base model, it is unavoidable. 
 
Inside, the materials of the 500 Abarth are quite good, but it is very difficult to enjoy the interior when you cannot find a comfortable seating position. The problem with the 500 is that the clutch pedal and shift lever are placed in a position that does not match well with the steering wheel. This left me having to adjust the seat to a point where I was almost hunched over the steering wheel and made reaching for the dash mounted shifter feel incredibly awkward. Having that gigantic shift knob on the shift lever only made things more awkward. The reason behind my awkward seating position? The clutch pedal. The 500 Abarth has an unusually long clutch pedal travel. I am not exactly very tall at 5'8", so in order for me to fully depress the clutch pedal, I had to move the seat pretty far forward. I tried to only push the clutch pedal in most of the way, but the gates remained locked, preventing me from putting the lever into any of the gates. Since the angle the shift lever is mounted is already somewhat awkward, the hunched seating position just made it feel worse reaching for the shift lever. 

Since I am already on the topic of the transmission, I do need to point out how vague the transmission feels. During my test drive, there were times when I felt like I was guessing where the correct position of the next gate was. Once the correct shift gate is located, the shifter gives a good "thunk." It really is a shame that Fiat could not sort out the gates better and shorten the clutch throw. If those two problems can be fixed with the mid-cycle refresh, then I think the 500 Abarth could have one of the best transmissions in its class. 

My final gripe with the car actually has to do with the exhaust note. Sure, it sounds great from inside the car, but outside, it is a different story. I am not quite sure what Fiat did with the exhaust tuning, but from the outside, it sounds like a diesel truck. The salesman let me pull the car out from the Fiat lot, so I did not notice it until he needed back the car onto the sidewalk after returning to the dealership. As the salesman was backing the car up, I kept turning to look for a diesel powered Ford Super Duty trolling the Fiat lot. It finally dawned on me that the noise was coming from the 500 the salesman was parking.


Summary

The Fiat 500 Abarth is easily one of the most surprising cars I have test driven in a long time. What I had originally thought would be a cute, soft, spongy, body rolling nightmare ended up being largely the opposite. Besides the car's engine and road manners, cargo space was decent, the interior was very well trimmed, and the car is very well equipped for its price. Would I buy one though? Probably not. While the car is still a bit too cute looking for my tastes, that is not the main reason I would not get one. As it stands right now, the awkward seating position and iffy feeling shifter really turn me off from wanting to buy this car. It is quite a shame too because the 500 Abarth has great potential to be a fun, practical, and affordable vehicle. As long as Fiat is willing to make some tweaks to its mid-cycle refresh, I will probably be back at the local Fiat dealer to check out the car again.

Special thanks to Power Fiat of South Bay located in Hawthorne, CA!