Feature: The little car that could: 2014 Fiat 500C Abarth review

Photography courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

The Fiat 500 is one of a few beloved cars to carry a distinct heritage. The icon of the Fiat brand from 1957 to 1975, the original Cinquecento (Italian for 500) was developed to bring automotive transportation to the masses. Designer Dante Giacosa wanted a car that could fit anywhere without overcrowding the small European streets, so he started with a rear-engine platform. Minimalist in its design, the Cinquecento had an engine to match – the original 479 cc (0.479 litre) inline-two cylinder engine was barely capable of 20 horsepower (15, to be exact), but it offered go-kart fun and had an amazing fuel economy of almost 4 L/100 km. And that was before efficiency even mattered. 

Jump ahead 56 years and the Cinquecento has been almost completely transformed. Gone are the days of rear engines and exposed interior hoses and body work; now the 500 represents the best of what the original stood for – classic styling and a fun experience.

In this case, every area of the 500C (for cabriolet/convertible) was injected with an extra shot of styling and performance, courtesy of Abarth. The company is long-known for its tuning relationship with the Italian brand, and this cabriolet is chalk full of eye-catching colours and a zippiness that can’t help but put a smile on your face. 

Compared to similar compact models, the Fiat’s meager size is evident when you walk up to it. Straight away, questions run through your mind whether the performance of this little three-door hatch can match its cool exterior styling – complete with 17-inch aluminum sport wheels, rear hatch spoiler and a cool ‘Abarth’ graphic along the bottom trim (the latter both optional). 

Unsure of what to expect, I open the door and am pleasantly surprised by a flashy red-leather interior, often associated with cars of esteemed quality and performance. It matches the off-white, ‘Bianco’ exterior nicely, and ties in the black and white accessories and paneling for a sporty feel that just makes you want to drive it. The bucket seats are firm and offer a good amount of upper and lower body support – sporty enough to keep me secure, but not so much that I can’t move around. The only shortfall was the height adjustment, or lack of. I would have liked the seat a bit lower to feel more connected with the car. On the aesthetic side, some of the harder materials leave a bit to be desired, but the white dash panel and black and chrome accents give the car a clean, luxurious appeal overall.

With the clutch in and the key turned, the exhaust of the Abarth lets out a quick growl that gets you excited for what’s to come. The 1.4-litre, turbocharged inline-four is mated with a C510 five-speed manual transmission that features larger half-shafts and constant velocity (CV) joints to accommodate the added power (160 hp, 170 lb-ft of torque), but the Abarth still offers the fantastic fuel economy of its original sibling: as low as 5.7 litres used per 100 km. This isn’t just a dressed up 500. 

The car’s get up and go is quite impressive, too. The turbo boost gauge located beside the wheel quickly spikes to 20 psi and the shift indicator lets you know when to throw it into the next gear, but cheat a bit and you can really get this hatch moving. The exhaust note is strong all the way through the rpm range, but not enough to be a bother for longer drives. Really, it’s an enjoyable accompaniment within the cabin. 

What I found most impressive about the Abarth’s acceleration was its ability to do it at speed. On the highway, the car hovers around 3,000 rpm at 115 km/h in fifth. Combined with the turbo it has plenty of power in the upper rpm range, so when I hit the gas I experience a surprising push. One can assume a small car should be quick, but typically they suffer the faster you go. Thankfully, there’s no shortage here. In saying that, it would be nice to have a sixth gear to remove some engine noise and let the car relax a bit more. Wind noise is almost non-existent with the cloth top, which is another welcome surprise. Not to endorse speeding, but this would be a great car to test on the track. 

And the MacPherson-designed suspension is engineered for just that. The front and rear system is 33 per cent stiffer and 15 mm lower for improved handling and steering, which means less wheel play and increased response time. The Abarth-designed cast-iron lower control arms may not be the utmost in lightweight design, but they amply do the trick and serious enthusiasts can easily swap anything out with a wide array of MOPAR upgrades. Twin-tube KONI struts help deliver responsive steering inputs and help dampen the usual road vibrations sport suspension packages are known for. 

The interior layout is built around form equally as much as function, so there’s little time getting acquainted with each of the driving and entertainment systems. The gauges are placed directly in front of the driver and dual indicator/wiper controls are nothing out of the ordinary. To help maximize space, the door controls were moved to the centre console, which helps keep things central and organized. 

For entertainment, Fiat’s version of Bluetooth (called BLUE&ME) provides wireless, hands-free calling and music listening from a supported smartphone. The Beats Audio sound system sounds great with the top up or down, especially good if you want to take it out for some fun in the sun. 

From start to finish, the 500C Abarth continued to surprise me from every angle. Despite its size, it handles everything I can throw at it and more. Best of all it feels really cool to drive. It’s a surprisingly well-rounded package that will please anyone wanting a compact car that looks great, excels in the city, drives well on the highway and could even be a neat little lapping car - with some upgrades, of course. Weekend warriors take note. 

2013 Fiat 500C Abarth

BASE PRICE: $27,995
ENGINE: 1.4L turbocharged inline four-cylinder
HORSEPOWER / TORQUE: 160 hp / 170 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY RATINGS (L/100 km): 7.1 / 5.7 (city / hwy.)
OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY: 7.6 / 6.3 (city / hwy.)
BASIC WARRANTY: 5-year / 100,000 km powertrain