by Roger Biermann
The 500 Abarth is the performance-focused variant of the subcompact Fiat 500 hatchback range and offers enthusiasts a sportier look and feel with re-tuned mechanicals for an overall jauntier experience. The compact nature of the two-door hatchback does, however, present congruous limitations in practicality, providing little interior space for occupants as well as for storage and cargo items. The 500 Abarth may be a fun-to-drive and nimble little machine with iconic retro-Italian design flair, but along with the advantages it holds come notable limitations. With an MSRP of $20,495 the 2018 model is slightly more affordable than most of its minicar rivals, like the Mini Cooper S, but many might argue it isn’t as capable as rivals might be. Where the track day enthusiast may see merit in the small dimensions paired with the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, the everyday driver may see drawbacks in efficiency and practicality.
With only a $500 increase in the 500 Abarth’s MSRP from last year, not much more can be expected for this year’s model. For 2018 the 500 Abarth receives a performance braking system and performance-tuned suspension, a "Turbo” badge on the upper rear fascia and a now mandatory ParkView back-up camera. The 1.4-liter turbocharged engine has received some performance tune-ups along with the suspension and exhaust system to deliver track ready durability and an overall sportier driving experience.
The 500 Abarth homogenizes its iconic retro-Italian styling with more aggressive cues and sportier accents. The exterior features standard 16-inch Hyper-black aluminum wheels, body-color front and rear fascias, side sill ground effects, a sport spoiler, fog lamps, and a "Turbo” badge on the upper rear fascia. The calipers in the braking system are painted red and the dual exhaust tips are accented in chrome for a sportier Abarth-centric appearance.
The 500 range is familiar for its tiny dimensions and compact city-centric design. The microcar totals a curb-weight of 2,512 pounds making it lighter than the Ford Fiesta and the Volkswagen Beetle. At just 144.4 inches in length and 64.1 in. in overall body width, along with its running ground clearance of 4.1 in. and height of 58.7 in., the 500 Abarth is one of the smallest hatchbacks on the road and on the track. Its scant wheelbase of 90.6 in. makes for a tight turning diameter and nimble handling, leaving a smaller footprint on the road for improved maneuverability suited to city driving.
The 500 Abarth has a basic palette consisting of eight colors including Vesuvio Black, Granito Gray, Colosseo Gray, Pompei Silver, Laser Blue, Oliva Green Pearl, Brilliante Red all in clear-coat, and for an additional $500 Perla White in Tri-coat. In typical Italian fashion, the red hues look particularly striking, but white and silver also accentuate the more aggressive styling of the Abarth-badged 500.
The 500 Abarth has been designed with performance in mind, consequently receiving a reworked version of the 1.4-liter inline-four turbocharged engine found in the standard 500 range. This engine produces 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque for the front-wheel-drive powertrain with the five-speed automatic transmission equipped. With the optional six-speed automatic transmission in play, power drops slightly to 157 hp while torque increases to 183 lb-ft. With the manual transmission, the 500 Abarth has a top speed of 113 mph and achieves a 0-60 mph time of 7.5 seconds, making it slower than the majority of its rivals, despite the impressive power-to-weight ratio.
There are no all-wheel-drive variations of the 500 Abarth, and no direct competitors offer AWD alternatives either, though the Mini Cooper S and Ford Fiesta ST outperform the 500 Abarth in both power and speed.
The 500 Abarth receives a 1.4-liter inline-four turbocharged engine that generates 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque when equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission. Opted with the six-speed automatic transmission the engine produces slightly less power at 157 hp but greater torque at 183 lb-ft.
The manual transmission is recommended for use in the 500 Abarth as it contributes to the sport-centric guise, and gives a greater sense of theater and involvement, but the ratios are awkward and may not be suited to your favorite twisty road as you hunt for an engine speed when the turbo kicks in. In the city streets and in traffic is where the 500 Abarth performs best, feeling nippy despite substantial turbo-lag, while at higher speeds it tends to get noisy and overly reliant on boost.
Drivers not looking to maximize the performance capabilities of the Abarth, but rather on the comfort and convenience would still benefit from the automatic transmission as its responses are still reasonably quick.
Handling, steering, and braking are the 500 Abarth’s strong points, accredited to its compact dimensions and performance-tuned hardware. It does, however, feel top-heavy and unstable at higher speeds and on curvy roads, eroding confidence in the driver on a track, although a large amount of this can be attributed to the unsupportive standard seats. Steering is light but doesn't communicate much feedback from the front tires, while becoming artificially heavy in Sport mode and still lacking feedback. As such, it’s easy to run beyond the limits of grip, at which point the 500 Abarth understeers tremendously easily. However, ease of the throttle and the short wheelbase has a tendency to snap oversteer, which makes for loads of excitement, but not much consistency in its handling ability.
Unfortunately fitting the short wheelbase hatchback with a sport-tuned suspension has disadvantaged the drive of the 500 Abarth from a comfort perspective, making for a jostling experience on the highway and a bouncy cabin over bumps. There’s lots of feedback and tire roar through the cabin as well, which is fun when you’re on a twisty road as you feel like you’ve hauling along at great pace, but it becomes tiresome after a while.
Fuel efficiency is about average for the 500 Abarth, which is disappointing considering is standing in the mini-subcompact class as one of the lightest and slowest options. Equipped with the five-speed manual transmission the 500 Abarth earns EPA-rated estimates of 28/33/30 mpg on the city/highway/combined driving cycles respectively, which is similar to the 26/33/29 mpg earned by the Ford Fiesta ST, but with far less performance on offer. For optimal performance of the turbocharged engine, premium unleaded fuel is recommended for use in its 10.5-gallon gas tank. With a full tank of gas and mixed driving conditions, the 500 Abarth should yield a maximum driving range of around 315 miles.
Though the performance-focused aesthetic has been carried through to the interior of the 500 Abarth with the high-back sport bucket seats, turbo boost gauge and aluminum coated pedals, materials, in general, are low quality. It has a subpar interior compared to its competition, featuring plenty of hard-touch plastics and maintaining a simple layout, giving it a cheap look and feel. Interior space is expectedly minimal but is reasonably comfortable, although the seats are mounted high leading to a perched driving position. Rear seat space is incredibly limited, however, a decent amount of headroom is provided throughout the cabin by the height of the 500’s body, with limiting proportions only presented by its short wheelbase and narrow width.
The two-door hatchback seats four occupants, two comfortably upfront and two occupants a lot less so in the rear. The short wheelbase limits seating adjustability, and legroom in the rear of the cabin is wholly dependent on the positioning of the front seats. One useful element of the cramped rear seats is their ability to fold for extended trunk storage space, but as functional seating, they’re only suitable for small teenagers. The driver is seated high for good overall visibility, but the perched nature of the driver’s seat isn’t an ideal driving position and the seats lack proper lateral support when cornering, while the limited steering adjustment is awkward for drivers on the overly tall or short ends of the height spectrum. That said, the high-back sport bucket seats are well cushioned offering a good level of comfort for day-to-day use.
The high-back sport bucket seats come standard in high-grip performance Nero (Black) cloth with red accented stitching and incorporate a motorsports-inspired racing harness pass-through and side bolsters. For an additional $1,195, Nero/Rosso (Black/Red) premium leather-trimmed bucket seats can be opted for, which also adds front seatback map pockets. The steering wheel is perforated leather-wrapped and features a sport-like flat bottom and an Abarth badge in the center. The classic Fiat dashboard panel is gray in color as standard and along with the door panels and some other materials are designed with hard-touch plastics.
Functionality and practicality are the 500 Abarth’s weak points, offering only a mere 9.5 cubic feet of trunk space, suitable enough for a week's worth of grocery shopping for two people. Folding down the 50/50-split rear seats expands the trunk space to 30.1 cubic feet, providing enough room suitable for two large travel bags. No spare tire is offered with 500 Abarth due to its limited trunk space.
Cabin storage is just as limited, with shallow door pockets and four tiny cupholders between the front seats offering only minimum utility. The glove box compartment is reasonably spacious, however, and with the premium leather-trimmed front seats, two seatback map pockets are included, which unfortunately are disadvantaged when the rear seats are occupied considering the already limited legroom.
Features in the 500 Abarth are sport-focused in appeal but prove very rudimentary, consisting of a turbo boost gauge, aluminum-coated sport-like pedals, a leather-wrapped instrument panel, and a perforated leather-wrapped shift knob and flat-bottom Abarth steering wheel. Other features include a now federally mandated rearview camera, as well as air conditioning, power door locks, power windows with the front one-touch-down feature, and a rear cargo shelf panel for an added storage dimension to the trunk. For an extra $795 a power sunroof can be equipped on the hatchback.
Standard in the 500 Abarth is the Uconnect three system tethered to a five-inch touchscreen display featured with control knobs. The infotainment system allows for AM/FM radio, Bluetooth audio streaming and voice command, hands-free calling and voice text replay, but isn’t compatible with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Two USB ports and an auxiliary port can be found in the media hub for device connectivity and charging, and an additional USB port exists inside of the glove box. Audio control buttons are featured on the steering wheel for ergonomic use, and the standard six-speaker Alpine sound system can be upgraded to a Beats premium sound system for improved quality at an additional cost.
J.D. Power granted the 2018 Fiat 500 a predicted reliability rating of three out of five, which is average among all new cars, but below standard in its class. Both the Mini Cooper and Honda Fit have earned above-average predicted reliability ratings of 3.5. The 500 Abarth is inclusive of four-year/50,000-mile basic and powertrain warranties as well as four year's complimentary roadside assistance. No complaints or recalls have been issued for the 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth so far.
The NHTSA awarded the 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth with relatively good scores with an average of four out of five stars earned overall. Independent analysis by the IIHS has resulted in good scores for the 500 Abarth in all tests except in the small overlap front test which was not evaluated.
Subcompact hatchbacks don’t usually feature many advanced safety features, even less so when they’re performance orientated. Base safety features comprise of three-mode electronic stability and torque transfer control systems which improve traction and handling at the limit, while a tire specific pressure monitor, high beam daytime running headlamps, hill-start assist, rear park assist, and a rearview backup camera all come as standard. Notably, the 500 Abarth boasts seven airbags, including side curtain airbags and a driver’s knee airbag.
The Fiat 500 Abarth’s compact makeup is well suited to city driving, but the performance-tuned suspension and uprated engine seem at odds with what the 500 is fundamentally meant to be. With a city-focused platform, merely adding more power and stiffening the suspension doesn’t turn the Abarth into a true hot hatch, and it suffers from erratic handling, lackluster performance, and a fundamental lack of comfort, largely owing to a poor, perched driving position. Even though it may not match the performance and dynamic capabilities of rivals, the 500 Abarth is a raucous machine that feels far quicker than anything else out there. It’s a theatrical experience that leaves you smiling, even if you get to your destination slower than any other hot hatch around.
The Abarth-badged 500 derivative inherits a few basic flaws from the 500 range, though, which pose a practical nightmare. The lack of usable rear seats and the poor amounts of cargo volume are big potential problems, while the cheap feeling interior doesn’t live up to the standards set by others in this segment. If you can live with these glaring flaws, then the 500 Abarth will give you an abundance of happiness, and an equal dosage of frustration.
The standard 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth comes with a starting MSRP of $20,495, excluding tax, registration, licensing, and Fiat’s $1,495 destination charge. Fully loaded the 500 Abarth can reach a price up of $28,000 which includes comfort and quality improvements and cosmetic enhancements. The base cost and everything it includes is appreciable, however, placing the 500 Abarth in a similar pricing range as its rivals and still offering a whole lot of fun and eye-catching style.
Technically, the Fiat 500 Abarth forms the top tier of the 500 trim line-up but acts as a standalone trim/model on its own with enough done to set it apart from standard 500 derivatives. It features reworked mechanicals including an enhanced 1.4-liter inline-four turbocharged engine to deliver greater power, a performance-tuned suspension, exhaust system, and upgraded brakes for better handling dynamics and control at the limit. It also receives Abarth-centric styling inside and out which gives it a unique, more aggressive demeanor over the standard 500 range. Standard features include a rearview camera, air conditioning, and a Uconnect 3.0 infotainment system.
The 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth can be optioned with an $895 Popular Equipment Package focused toward comfort and convenience, which adds heated front seats, automatic climate control and SiriusXM radio with a one-year subscription. The $385 Scorpion Package with roof graphic adds Abarth exclusive cues including an Abarth fuel-filler door, Abarth license plate frame, driver dead pedal, and wheel locks by Mopar. For an additional $435 the Adventure Package can be opted in, which includes an accessory receiver hitch and roof rack by Mopar. The standard six-speaker Alpine sound system can be upgraded to a premium Beats Audio sound system for $695, which delivers high-definition sound through two mid-woofer speakers and tweeters in the front doors, two full-range speakers in the rear doors, a subwoofer in the cargo area and an eight-channel amplifier with digital signal processing.
The 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth is Fiat’s standalone performance vehicle and is featured with no variable trim availability. This model is suited to either the track day enthusiast or the daily driver, although likely to turn more heads on the roads than on the track. Its sporty appearance and performance-tuned underpinnings are appealing, but the 500 Abarth is no race-car while offering no practical utility. We’d recommend opting for the Popular Equipment package for greater comfort and convenience, while the Beats Audio sound system upgrade is well worth a look as well.
The Ford Fiesta ST is marginally bigger and heavier than the 500 Abarth, offering a bit more cabin and trunk space for storage and slightly improved legroom. The Fiesta is also more powerful with a 1.6-liter inline-four turbocharged engine that produces 27 more horsepower and 32 lb-ft more torque than the 500 Abarth but is heavier at 2,720 pounds. The ST still offers better performance and is quicker to 60 mph and more eager to respond on the fly. It also handles more predictably, rides more comfortably, and around a track will shave seconds of whatever time the Abarth sets. Both vehicles offer similar city-oriented advantages and are somewhat equal in fuel economy. However, the ST will offer more on track days or even twisty roads than the 500 Abarth, hence making a decision based on outright performance will lead to the ST every time.
While both vehicles exhibit attractive retro-styling and undeniably iconic looks, the VW Beetle adds a profusion of modernity to its interior which gives it a lead over the 500 Abarth’s low-quality and simplistic layout. The Beetle is also vastly more spacious, based on the larger MQB platform, giving it greater passenger space and a larger trunk. It boasts a higher level of features, with the infotainment system in the upper-level trims offering the appreciated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, which the 500 Abarth does not. The Beetle’s larger 2.0-liter turbocharged engine delivers slightly more power and torque but isn't as fuel efficient as the 500 Abarth. The Beetle rides more comfortably with its raised suspension, never feeling overwrought, making it better for road trips than the Abarth. For inner-city driving, the 500 Abarth would be a suitable choice, but when it comes to comfort with extended drives, the Beetle will be the better option. Two boutique designer hatches, the 500 Abarth is the more theatrical and the Beetle the better commuter - the choice depends on what you want out of your car.