Let's get one thing clear straight away – there is very little to dislike about the Fiat 500. It's relentlessly cute: from its innocent “Who? Me?” face to its pert rump to its cuddly side-view. Heck, even looking in the rear-view mirror, the two round rear headrests make it feel like you're chauffeuring Mickey Mouse.
OK, Mickey would have to have sit cross-legged to fit back there, but you don't buy a car like this if you think you're regularly going to carry more than one passenger. Normally, if you can reach back and touch the rear window of your car while sitting in the driver's seat, you're either in a Smart car or you're in a normal car and have just had a huge accident. But in the Fiat's case, size really doesn't matter.
Up front there's plenty of leg room. Taller drivers will want to delete the $850 power sunroof from the option list, because you can feel your hair brushing the ceiling, even with the front seat on its lowest setting, but the longer you drive, the more you settle and sink into the seat. That's not to give the impression that they're anything other than firm and supportive; but for general road travel, the important thing is that despite their grip in high-speed cornering, the seats never feel too hard, even on long journeys. They're also a little reminder that sitting fairly upright rather than sprawling is no less relaxing.
Oddly enough, it's some of the visual upgrades from the lower-powered 500s that might not appeal. The deep front airdam transforms the “Who? Me?” innocence into “Yeah, it was me. What cha gonna do about it?” aggression, and that's fine. But the brazen white wheels and side graphics may not be to everyone's tastes, the exhaust tone at low revs make the car sound like it's been pimped at Pep Boys by a deaf mechanic and the Abarth badges on its flanks are a little over the top.
While we're on that topic, to have nine references to Abarth on the car's externals (including wheel centers) and not a single Fiat badge seems misguided. Fiat needs to re-establish its identity in America, just as Chrysler has been doing in Europe. Suggesting the car is anything other than Fiat-built, or that the Abarth is anything other than just the fastest model of a Fiat range does not add luster to the car; it merely disconnects it unnecessarily from its siblings and the parent company. There is a good reason why AMG and M cars, for example, don't hide their Mercedes-Benz and BMW branding, respectively.
But misgivings over cosmetic details aren't going to stop anyone from enjoying the Fiat 500 Abarth because, like all the best Italian cars, it is defined by its engine and its handling – and this one lives up to the reputation of Fiat's traditional pocket rockets. The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine (a mere 83.5cu.in) and its turbocharger fit under that tiny little hood about as comfortably as your fist fits in your mouth, but it supplies you a 160hp punch and from 2,500rpm it revs happily beyond 6,500rpm with peak power delivered at 5,750. Its 170lbft of torque is also useful enough to squirt you past slower cars on the freeway; should the opportunity be a brief one, changing down is no hardship; the five-speed stick-shift is slick and precise.
Nonetheless, a sixth gear would be welcome, given that at 70mph you aren't far south of 3,000rpm in top gear. The engine has a nice tone and as ever with Fiats, it feels mechanically unburstable, but…yeah, it's busy. Throw in some tire roar, too, and suddenly a car that has easily enough interior space and just about supple enough suspension to be OK for a long haul becomes a little more tiresome than you'd want.
Show the Abarth a turn or two, though, and you'll forgive it everything. But first there are three buttons to hit on the dash, if you haven't already done so. 1) The air-con saps a little bit of power and feels like it hurts throttle response, so turn it off. 2) Make sure you've hit the Sport button which adds weight to the steering; and 3) The ESC button is overly protective, allowing almost no lateral wheel-slip on the exit of turns, so as it retards the power delivery to the front wheels, the car feels bogged down. It's horribly unnatural, so turn that off if you want to steer the car on the throttle and get on the power early. Yes, some torque steer will have the chunky steering-wheel squirming a little in your hands, but keep a reasonably firm grip and the car will go where it's pointed, and the Pirellis on the optional 17-inch wheels are nice and progressive in relinquishing their grip.
Sure, the height/track of the car should inform you that the center of gravity is higher than ideal and a Mini Cooper S could probably generate more G forces on a skidpan, but the little Fiat is simply great fun to throw through a sequence of bends. Even abruptly lifting off the gas pedal will just result in a tightening of the line and a little shimmy from the rear which, let's face it, is not so very far away. The steering, gearchange and fade-resistant and progressive brakes just come together in a reassuring and cohesive manner and within 10 miles of driving this car, you're utterly in tune with it.
A 0-60mph time of around 7.5sec and 0-100 in 20sec make you realize this is a car that needs to be worked fairly hard to get genuinely quick performance. But the concentration it demands of the driver is more than repaid; you get out of it what you put in and it's worth finding a great road to exploit the car's talents. A suitable road is easy to find with the $400 optional TomTom that plugs straight into a hardpoint on top of the dashboard, although it seems to dominate the driver's view out. Without the sat-nav, the dashboard is logically laid-out, visually appealing and feels as strong as that in the 500's brother from another mother, the Dodge Challenger.
Official fuel economy figures are 28mpg city, and 34 highway, which seems reasonable given the potential of the car (although again, you wonder what the highway figure might be if there was a sixth gear ratio). Trunk space isn't too bad, given the dimensions of the car, and it was smart move by Fiat to make more space there at the expense of rear legroom: you could fit a medium-sized suitcase in the back but you wouldn't use it to, say, transport the family dog around. Not if you liked the mutt, anyway. However, the split rear seat does fold down for those expensive trips to the furniture store.
For a base price of $22k ($27,050 as tested), the Fiat 500 Abarth is good value for money and still rare. There are plenty of the more “sensible” 500s around these parts of Orange County, but I saw just one other Abarth version in a week with our one.
Given that we live in an era when so-called city cars – with the exception of the Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2 – have all the appeal of an orthopedic roller-skate, the 500's cute looks won me over from its inception. Sure, I wish our devilish cherub had been a little more subtle at hiding his flame-throwing potential, but the basic product deserves to be an overwhelming success.
As Mini variants become increasingly maxi, and the “new” Beetle is merely an expensive fashion accessory that pays lip-service homage to its populist forebear, the current Fiat 500 sticks to the 1957 model's original principles of being cheap, attractive, fun transport. What's more, in Abarth form particularly, it presents an ideal opportunity for those who never carry more than two people to purchase something that's relatively cheap to run, genuinely rewarding to drive and more than quick enough for all circumstances.