Here is a recipe for fun: mix a little Italian sauciness with a spirited 160-horsepower turbo four-banger and spice things up with a track-ready, sport-tuned suspension. What you have is the 2013 Fiat 500c Abarth Cabrio.
Of course, this is a tasty bit of automotive engineering. But it’s certainly not for everyone. At a base price of $27,995, this Fiat is not inexpensive and it’s barely bigger than a business traveller’s roll-aboard. A roll-aboard might have more cargo space, in fact. If nothing else, the cargo boot at the rear has barely enough storage space for a road-warrior’s carry-on.
But then, Fiat put pedestrian concerns at the bottom of its list of must-have features. Two big fellows cannot sit in the front buckets without rubbing shoulders. The back seat is perfect for storing bags with three days’ worth of groceries. Tight, tight, tight.
And Fiat would say, “Who cares?”
I certainly care enough to pick the everyday nits right up front. Then we can get to the other parts of the story – the lowered ride height compared to the regular 500, the beefier suspension, the big brakes, wide tires (relatively) and a design that stands out.
Yes, the look is special and interesting, but not universally loved – especially in North America, where sensibilities run to a “bigger is better” mentality. There is nothing big about the 500 and its Abarth derivatives. To some, it looks like an oversized salt shaker.
To jazz up the design and improve aerodynamics – not to mention make room for the 1.4-litre MultiAir Turbo engine – the Abarth has a slightly more pronounced front fascia and more extensive air intakes to give air to that turbo. In particular, take note of the twin “nostrils” in the front fascia. Look closely and you can see the two engine intercoolers that chill the air that gets packed into the combustion chamber, amping up engine output.
And then there are the special Abarth-designed side skirts and the forged aluminum wheels tucked inside flared wheel arches. The Abarth Cabrio at the rear has a cloth-top-mounted spoiler to create downforce. The double-tip rear exhaust finish things off. I like all of it, though nothing here is scary. This is not a muscle car, but – well, I think if this car were a person, it would be a strong-looking ballroom dancer.
Inside, you get some Abarth-specific odds and ends – performance seats with large side bolsters and accent stitching. I like the Abarth-specific steering wheel with its thick rim covered in perforated leather. The flat bottom is a sharp extra, too.
The instrument cluster is big and in it you’ll find a speedometer, tachometer and trip computer sitting right behind the steering wheel. A turbo-boost gauge sits to the left. Special aluminum pedal covers have racy rubber trim. A leather shift knob with accent stitching sits nicely in your hand and connects you to tight shifts, gear to gear.
My Cabrio tester came with the standard power-operated cloth top that retracts to the rear spoiler even at highway speeds. Just press the button and the sky opens to a midway point. Press it again and the roof folds all the way back and behind the rear headrests. Fiat likes to tout the multi-position soft top and it certainly is interesting. In an age of hardtop convertibles, here we have a car with a traditional fabric roof. Like it.
I enjoyed driving a car inspired by the ideas of the late Karl Abarth. In the late 1950s, he thought that lightweight, everyday runabouts could be turned into performance rides with track-ready abilities. Above all, weight was, and remains, central to the whole thing – as little weight as possible. My Cabrio tipped the scales at a svelte 1,154 kilograms. Heck, you could darn near take the measure of this car on a kitchen cooking scale.
Yet it goes. The turbo engine spools up fast, with torque coming on early and with a rush. The result: 0-100 km/h in 7.2 seconds or so. This is what happens in a turbo engine designed to take warm exhaust gases, cool and compress them in the intercoolers and use the denser air to drive up power. The turbo here has barely any lag, to speak of.
True, while the manual gearbox is shifty in a good way, a transmission with only five forward ratios seems short at least one gear. Smacks of cost-cutting. To make up for that, the 3.35 final-drive ratio helps to quicken off-the-line jump and acceleration to highway speeds. Fuel economy (using premium fuel) is rated at 7.1 litres/100 km in the city, 5.7 on the highway.
This Abarth, however, is not engineered for straight-line flying, but instead for carving tight corners. The car has quick steering and precise responses. Big, ventilated brake rotors are central to stopping power that is neither grabby or finicky – just good. Look closely and you’ll see front and rear brake calipers lacquered in red paint.
So everything here is amusing. That means roll-aboards just aren’t a consideration.
2013 Fiat 500c Abarth Cabrio
Type: Subcompact convertible
Base price: $27,995 (destination charge $1,520)
Engine: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/170 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.7 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mini Cooper Roadster, Smart fortwo Brabus cabriolet
Globe rating for the 2013 Fiat 500 CabrioOur ratings guide
Here’s the surprise: the 500c Abarth is a capable road-eater, yet the car is as user-friendly as any run-of-the-mill mom-mobile. Nice balance of comfort and cornering appeal.
Some might suggest the basic design is the look of an oversized salt shaker on four wheels. Others will say the styling is distinctive and eye-catching.
If size matters, the 500’s interior feels sorely in need of the automotive equivalent of Human Growth Hormone. But the Abarth add-ons are fun and add to an already funky cabin.
Small, but it does well in crash tests, and comes with a load of safety features.
Fast and nimble? Yes. A gas guzzler?
(out of 10 / Not an average)
The numerical ratings are assigned by The Globe and Mail’s car reviewers on a scale out of ten. Each car is assigned a separate rating in five key categories - plus an overall satisfaction rating that is calculated separately, and is not an average of the five category ratings.
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