Stick Shift: 2016 Fiat Abarth Cabrio

Image via Fiat.

Let me start by making something perfectly clear. When I describe the new 2016 Fiat 500C Abarth as hot hatch, I’m not referencing the hot hatches of today. I’m drawing comparison with the feisty sport compacts from 15 to 20 years ago. Before the Subaru WRXs’ evolution to the more refined and more boring. Before the Golf GTI was a comfortable cross country companion and nearly 40K to buy. When the cheap-mans’ two door sports car could be beefed up by aggressive factory tuning, and filled to overflowing with unrefined character and charm. For anybody who grew up with the spirit of ‘Fast and Furious’ in their hearts, the Fiat 500 Abarth stands almost entirely alone in 2016 as a tuner friendly hot hatch that has been unapologetically upgraded in house, to deliver those ear to ear grins many other similar car models have forgotten the importance of still delivering.


On the outside, this little round Italian will already have you licking your lips in anticipation for whats to come. With round halogen headlamps, fog-lamps, a big smiling front grille and that famous scorpion Abarth badge front and center, this Fiat 500 immediately communicates that it’s something special. Lets talk about the wheels for a second. They’re an optional add-on, but well worth the extra $1,400 as you get four 17” forged bronze beauties. 12 spokes on each if my count is correct, reminiscent of the old British touring cars. In a word, gorgeous. Tucked behind are Rosso red brake calipers and big disc brakes. Running from the front wheel well all the way back is a black Abarth racing stripe, everything ends abruptly with a small spoiler and chopped rear end with dual bright exhaust tips.
On the inside, the circular theme continues. Orbed vents, round buttons and other circular controls polka-dot the interior in a manner that’s not immediately intuitive by our American car standards, but that’s part of the charm of this little Italian spark plug. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is meaty in your hands, flat-bottomed and comes with all the audio controls you’d need, a good thing considering the audio dash controls are so ill-placed on the center console that I had to lean forward in my seat just to reach them. The large center interior panel is painted the same Giallo Moderna Perla Yellow as the exterior, and really helped to bring the outside in. Also helpful with this is the Cabrio “convertible” soft top. It’s easy to operate and fully retracts to within a couple inches of the trunk lid. When closed, their was no detectable wind noise, though the fit could’ve been a little tighter, as some of the metal bracket could still be seen peeking out from under the fabric top. I’d report on how patent it was to water and rain, but this is Phoenix, so how could I possibly know.
Although the rear seats are nearly non-existent, requiring even my three-year-old to sit cross-legged, the front seats are nicely bolstered and surprisingly comfortable. They’re also heated. I do wish the tilt steering column would also telescope, making life easier for the more vertically endowed of us.
Now for the good part. Although the engine tucked under that adorably rounded hood is only a 1.4L 4-cylinder; the eager little turbo bolted to it is boosted to within an inch of its life and begging for the abuse you’ll no doubt heap upon it. Making 157 hp and 183 lb. ft of torque, you’ll find little turbo lag and plenty of power to have a ball at any speed. Helpful in the overall thrill is that raucous, rowdy exhaust. Overtake slower traffic anywhere north of 70 mph and those dual chrome exhaust pipes will spit, crackle and snarl their way to the front. Turning heads the whole way. The Fiat Abarth makes an average for its segment 27 combined mpg. With a gas tank that can only hold 10.5 gallons, you’ll find yourself making frequent stops at the local gas station. Especially if you drive anything like me.

My model came equipped with the expensive but incredibly impressive 6-speed automatic transmission. I was amazed by the snappy gear changes and fast throttle response. Especially in the ultra aggressive ‘Sport’ mode. Still though, this seems like a car that’s more suited to a traditional manual gearbox. Save some money and get the stick. Steering feedback is terrific and has just the right amount of heaviness in the wheel. The Abarth corners flat and confidently, with just a hint of understeer given its front-wheel-drive configuration. A stiff chassis, bolstered with performance-tuned dampers and anti-roll bars plays a big part in making the new 500C an engaging and thoroughly entertaining driving experience.
The 2016 Fiat 500C Abarth is a welcome throwback to a time where many hot hatches could still be described with words like feisty, rowdy and mischievous. Though the exhaust can be a little droney at times, the interior space tight and the suspension a little stiff; the Fiat 500 Abarth is unequivocally and unapologetically a little unpolished, but unquestionably a character-filled blast to toss around.
Admittedly, a base price of $26,695 is more than a little disheartening, especially considering that it’s all too eager to climb higher with optional add-ons. With a price tag like that I don’t think navigation, leather seats or even a back-up camera is asking too much. Still, get behind the wheel and punch it and you’ll be surprised by how much of the little stuff you’ll forgive. Ditch the premium audio by Beats and stick with the manual shifter to keep the price down. Forget ultra refined and instead embrace what was so great about cars like this to begin with. Not a whisper quite, soft ride brimming with the latest in vehicle tech, leather and wood trim. It’s about the driving. Just don’t skip on the fancy wheels. Whatever you do.

Price as tested: $33,315

By: Brandon Randall 

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