Our excitement for the Fiat 500 ending up on our roads was unparalleled. Some pragmatic skeptics couldn’t understand why we’d give a second look to a trumped up Fiat Panda in a period costume, but we payed no attention: the charming Cinquecento was coming to fulfill our weekend-drives-to-Portofino fantasies. The naysayers had their day in the sun when we eventually found it cute, but far less dynamic than we expected, feeling then slightly foolish for our make-pretend. The 500 settled in its role as a decently styled runabout relegated to average A-segment roles, but the hopeful hung on to the hope that Fiat’s close relation, the Abarth, would follow its emigration. We weren’t disappointed. The puckish Italian cousin came to party: Toned, loud, and topless.
It was a wild series of events that saw Fiat’s return to American roads after an unceremonious exit. US automakers came under a lot of scrutiny during an economic crisis that rattled the country so severely, we’re still feeling the effects. While The Big Three started shedding weight, reorganizing, and throwing in with different partners, Chrysler saw 20% (and later over 50%) of its company bought by Fiat. This gave the Italian automaker access to Chrysler’s distribution network, and people immediately started to ponder which exclusive European autos might make the crossover. The newly reimagined Fiat 500 was the first make the trip.
The Fiat 500c Abarth Cabrio is the 500 that adds a drop-top to all the other Abarth advantages: a 1.4 liter turbo engine that’s capable of 160 hp and 170 ft. lbs. of torque, a nimbler suspension, 16” aluminum wheels and an exhaust note to die for.
We can all spot the 500’s distinctive silhouette from a mile away by now; the tiny, bubbly body with a fascia that looks about aggressive as an infant does when keys are jiggled in front of it, even with the beefed up air intakes. The Abarth version replaces the Fiat badging with scorpions, runs a contrasting stripe down the side, drops the car an inch, and sports 16” aluminum wheels to carry it all around. They come standard with Pirelli Cinturato p7 all season tires, but you can opt for the P-Zero Neros if you want something a little more grippy out of the lot. Both, by the way, are wider than the standard sets found on the regular 500.
Of course the centerpiece is the push button cloth top that slides down the pillars and tucks away past the rear seats. The way that the frame of the car remains and only the top is pulled off gives the Fiat the appearance of a sardine can with the lid peeled back and wound up with a key, and that somehow inexplicably adds to the charm. Lower down the back, a rear diffuser also houses twin exhausts from which trumpet the cars very distinct exhaust note.
Peeling back the roof reveals the jam-packed, stylish interior that kicks things off with an exterior-matching dash. All bobs and buttons harken back to the small touches found in the original car. This is where all the retroness stops, as beyond that is a concentric instrument cluster where the speedometer and the RPMs run on different sides of the same track. In the center of that is a digital info display where you find your fuel gauge, engine temp, time and other data. To the left is a boost meter indicating your turbo PSI’s and a prompt to shift for optimum efficiency. The seats are unique to Abarth, bolstering driver and passenger while allowing loads of leg room for passengers in the rear. Everything is wrapped in black leather and accented with red stitching.
“Trepidatiously” is how I can describe climbing into the Fiat. I can indeed be counted in the number of people who were way too excited to drive what is basically an a-segment economy vehicle with a retro dress when the vanilla 500 was definitely headed our way, and I am also one of those that suffered the disappointment I had set myself up for. The body rolling and struggling to climb a hill at any decent rate muddled any exuberance to be had from the experience. I walked away feeling like a sucker, like I’d fallen for a ruse that, though I knew better, I wanted to believe. My skin was a little thicker when the little Fiat got the Abarth treatment, particularly so when it rode in on the coattails of the abnormal spike in Charlie Sheen celebrity at the time though its marketing. In an unusual way, they kind of hit the nail on the head: You can have your “Emilio”, but if that doesn’t work, there’s the lunatic sibling that will be way more fun. While the standard 500 failed to meet my expectations, the Abarth exceeded them.
Ever meet someone who brought out the best in you? Who, in their unabashed attitude, gives you a little second hand confidence from their presence? You wouldn’t admit it, but slowly, a little more color appears in your wardrobe, strangers who’d get little more than a head nod get embraced, and you suddenly walk to the rhythm of a high-hat being played in the ether of your mind. This is what the Abarth Cabrio does to you, and I specify the Cabrio purposefully.
I’ll explain. The 500, coupled with a turbo and given an Abarth-worthy tune, gives what the 500 previously lacked in power, giving you plenty to get around and some to play with as well. It still feels like a tiny economy engine when cruising, but at least now you have the ability to squeeze some more out if you have to. The Abarth responds best when the “SHIFT UP” indicator is ignored and shifts are made high. Pressing the sport button unleashes some of the self imposed torque limitations at low gears, and the shift indicator now prompts you when shifts are better for performance rather than economy.
Also, where the bog-standard Fiat has an uncomfortable roll in bends, the stronger damping in the Abarth’s improves suspension can be felt in every turn, like a tightly flexed leg muscle. That, coupled with the wider wheels and lowered stance adds up to a vehicle that’s fun to drive on windy back roads and that’s zippy on the highway.
So why single out the Cabrio? Here’s why: while all of that is true for both the coupe Abarth and the Cabrio, it’s the drop top that makes you feel so cool. That amazing friend that made you shine from their reflected glow only has that ability when you can be seen with them. You experience all this fun stuff in the coupe, but the Cabrio puts you on stage front and center, where every can see you having a good time. Suddenly, all the sensations are heightened, and everyone can see you smiling. Before you know it, you’re driving through town, free hand snapping its fingers to uptempo jazz riffs being pumped out of the 6-speaker Beats audio system while each shift is punctuated with the bellow of an exhaust that sounds like a mechanical bassoon. These are the moments where it stops being a 500 and becomes a Cinquecento.
Will every day be a party with the Abarth 500c? Probably not. In keeping with the cool friend analogy, he/she’s only awesome in the short visits when you see them at their best. If you had to see them day by day, your image of them would probably lose its luster as they go through the daily slog. If you live in a part of the country like parts of California that has one perpetual climate, you can get the most of the Abarth Cabrio. If you live in a place with seasons, the days where you curse the car will outnumber the exuberant summer jaunts. Starting at a price of $2,600, with all the bells and whistles, our test vehicle topped out at $31,000, and that includes a bespoke TomTom navigation unit and an Abarth track experience purchasers can attend where someone shows them just what the lil’ Fiat is capable of. Again, It’s a high price to commit to if you’re really going to only get the most out of it a third of the year.
When I meet people who’ve driven the Fiat Abarth 500c, I want to assume that they had a similar experience as I did and swap stories if they did like some legendary Bill Brasky-like figure. I’m also hesitant to even ask in case they didn’t. Either way, I can’t wait for next summer.
Curb Appeal: With the hippest cat on the block, everyone wants to join the party.
Notable Rival of the Week: Rain on photo shoot day, friends who got sick of hearing “Tu vuò fà l’americano” for the 50th time.
Price & Availability: Available now. base price $26,000. Test vehicle priced at $31,100
Fuel Economy: 28 city mpg, 34 highway, 31 mpg combined
Bottom Line: The summer fling you’ll talk about for years to come
Words By – Alex Kalogiannis
Photos By – Sean Spencer