Either I’ve been an unlucky Californian, or I haven’t been frequenting the right places. The Golden State is responsible for many a Fiat sale, yet for the life of me, I can remember only ever seeing two (2!) 500 Abarths on public roads. I briefly shared a freeway with one. The second sighting was more memorable. I was walking down the street when the noise of someone parallel parking drew my attention. The distinct noise of a manual transmission vehicle in reverse came courtesy of a 500 Abarth’s exhaust. But the real reason the moment was memorable was because of the small dog standing in the 500 Abarth driver’s lap, its head looking out the side window, with as big a goofy canine grin as you can imagine.
Fiat 500 Abarth owners probably grin every time they whack the accelerator pedal and introduce loud noises into the environment. Fiat calls the exhaust growls [a] “menacing Abarth-tuned sound.” 500 Abarth purchasers are primarily male. Which brings us to the new 500 Cabrio (500c) version.
The 500c Abarth expands the Fiat showroom in an attempt to extend its shopper reach and make up for the brand’s decades-long hiatus prior to the 500’s fashionably late arrival in the U.S. for the 2012 model year. For an extra $4000, the 500c Abarth buyer gets a folding cloth roof. The cabriolet version of the 500 isn’t like a normal convertible. The cloth top doesn’t make up the entire roof — there are still hard A-, B-, and C-pillars linked by the roofline. As a result, structural rigidity isn’t completely compromised — there’s supplemental bracing in the pillars and underneath the car. The top behaves like a moonroof because it can retract partially or the entire way, and you can see the fully folded roof in the rearview mirror instead of it being hidden. Additional consequences of the cabrio top: The antenna is integrated into the windshield rather than attached to the roof; a cloth-top-mounted spoiler is said to generate greater downforce (though it moves with the top); and fellow motorists can get a better view of your Abarth-logoed cap, Prada sunglasses, and wind-tussled hair.
Inside, everything you’ve ever read about a Fiat 500’s interior rings true. From the lounge-like seats to the “classic” short-leg/long-arm seating position to the dashboard-mounted Garmin GPS that blocks the forward view, it’s all there. The Abarth steering wheel is flat-bottomed, thick-rimmed, and about an inch too wide in diameter. The wheel’s largish size is likely by design so the driver can easily see the combination boost gauge/shift indicator residing to the left of the gauge cluster (visible through the top spokes). An $850 Comfort/Convenience Package nets automatic climate control and heated front seats, and $1000 buys a set of leather bucket seats with mildly thickened bolsters. A Beats by Dr. Dre seven-speaker sound system ($700) is offered for the first time in a cabrio, says Fiat.
Headroom and cargo volume are the two areas most prominently affected when roofs get chopped. For the record, the 500c Abarth’s front headroom of 38.6 inches sits between the 500 Abarth (38.9) and the 500 Abarth with a sunroof (37.6). In the back, there’s 1.3 inches more headroom (36.8) than the hardtop (35.5). Overall, the 500c Abarth has slightly more passenger volume (76.2 cubic feet versus 500 Abarth’s 75.5) but loses 4.1 cubic feet of cargo space (backseat up) in a direct statistical comparison (5.4 versus 9.5 cubic feet).
Driving the 500c Abarth is a familiar experience. The 160-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder pulls cleanly in the midrange and at the top of its operating range. The console-mounted, five-speed shifter’s throws are longish, with easy-to-locate gating. Pressing the Sport button bumps torque output from 150 to 170 lb-ft, changes the throttle mapping, and adds heft to the column-assist electric power steering. In Sport mode, the gas pedal is mercifully not too jumpy, making smooth throttle application easy. Fiat claims the 500c Abarth will go from 0-60 mph in the low sevens, but we predict a high six to be more likely.
The handling is entertaining. With stiffer springs (33 percent stiffer front and 12 percent rear than 500c Pop/Lounge), increased roll resistance, and a 0.6-inch lower ride height, the 500c Abarth encourages drivers to explore their driving abilities. The serious driver will find the three-stage stability control (on, partially on, and off) intriguing. And since the front wheels are set from the factory to -1.5 degrees for more camber gain and cornering grip, you might as well make as much use of the available tread as possible. You know, so the front tires will wear more evenly.
We’re looking forward to hosting a 500c Abarth for a First Test, but a brief drive invokes many of the same feelings as when piloting a 500 Abarth. The cabrio car only weighs 33 pounds more than the hard-roofed model, per Fiat scales. The nose heaviness defaults to understeer, but this can be mitigated with appropriate steering and throttle inputs. The interesting bit is that when the car gets really wound up, it feels ready to oversteer. Not in the OMG-let’s-film-this-and-put-the-video-on-YouTube-for-crazy-likes kind of way, but in the novel-for-FWD, easy-to-straighten-out-on-power way that is amusing at best. Time spent on the figure-eight course, flicking the steering wheel at different states of accelerator pedal depression (don’t try this in public, kids!), will reveal the extent with which, if any, the car will slide in a controllable manner. The 500’s high seating position continues to exaggerate much of the car’s body motions to the driver’s senses, whether it’s in pitch, dive, roll, or heave. Around town, the ride is acceptably firm.
But the real novelty is the sound. When driving down the street, you’ll have to really focus to hear wind and road noise over the sounds of the engine and exhaust (mostly the exhaust. Flogging the 500c Abarth will make your friends think you spent too much money on an aftermarket exhaust. And if the cloth top is down, let’s just say that a car already known for its sound will become even more defined by the noise it makes. If the Abarth sound is your kind of ruckus and you get the cabrio, expect to have a big, goofy grin on your face all the time.
|2013 Fiat 500c Abarth|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 4-pass, 2-door convertible|
|ENGINE||1.4L/160-hp/150-170-lb-ft turbocharged SOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||2550 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||144.4 x 64.1 x 59.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.8 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||28/34 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||120/99 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.64 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|