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2013 FIAT Abarth Cabrio: First Drive Review

Having a scorpion snip Catrinel Menghia’s bikini strap in a 2013 FIAT Abarth Cabrio commercial isn’t necessary to draw attention to this spunky little sportster. Fire up its turbocharged, 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, and the rorty exhaust note attracts all the attention the 500c Abarth’s driver may seek. And with the top stacked on the back behind the rear seat headrests, the Abarth Cabrio’s distinctive soundtrack provides greater aural enjoyment than it does in a standard 500.

In stripping back the 500 Abarth’s roof to create the new 2013 FIAT Abarth Cabrio, the automaker replaces the center roof panel and rear window with a power-retractable cloth roof, allowing the car to retain key structural elements for greater rigidity. The roof offers multiple positions, and fully retracts at speeds up to 50 mph. Because the standard 500 Abarth’s rear hatchback is removed, a parallelogram-design trunk lid provides access to the 9.5 cu-ft cargo area.

What Makes the FIAT 500 Abarth Cabrio Different?

Compared to the standard 500 Abarth, the new 500c Abarth is equipped with a standard rear park assist system and modified suspension tuning to increase compliance and soften the ride. Considered from a different perspective, the 500 Abarth Cabrio receives significant modifications compared to a standard 500c.

In addition to the turbocharged engine and raspy low-restriction dual exhaust system, the 500c Abarth Cabrio gains a lowered sport suspension, performance brakes with red-painted calipers, more aggressive tires, quicker electric steering with heftier feel, and a 5-speed manual gearbox with a revised final drive ratio to hasten acceleration. FIAT says the 500c Abarth accelerates to 60 mph in less than 7.5 seconds, and it includes a free day of professional driving school instruction to help owners learn how to make the most of the car’s hardware.

If the 500c Abarth’s acceleration time doesn’t sound impressive, consider this: that’s in the same neighborhood as a Mazda Miata, it’s a huge improvement over a standard 500c, and thanks to this FIAT’s skimpy 2,512-pound curb weight, the car feels more lively than numbers on a spreadsheet might suggest.

Abarth Speaks to an Enthusiast

To determine whether this topless scorpion delivers a sting, we headed to sunny Southern California to spend a couple of hours slinging the new FIAT 500 Abarth Cabrio across the tops of the Santa Monica Mountains. Starting off in Venice, we headed north on Pacific Coast Highway, and it didn’t take long for someone to notice our Bianco-colored 500c Abarth, its 17-inch white wheels and its Michigan manufacturer license plate.

The guy was from Italy, living in L.A. and rolling north in heavy traffic behind the wheel of a BMW 328i Sports Wagon with a manual transmission. He was clearly smitten with the 500 Abarth Cabrio. After heaping praise upon the car and asking if we worked for FIAT, he wanted confirmation that the car had a manual gearbox. After an affirmative reply, he laughed heartily, shook his head in approval, said “Ciao!” and sped off into Pacific Palisades. We didn’t have the heart to share a rumor that FIAT might soon offer the Abarth with an automatic.

Interior Design and Comfort

While threading Friday afternoon traffic on northbound PCH, we had a chance to appreciate the Abarth Cabrio’s cabin, bathed in springtime sunshine. All black with a white dashboard insert and a thick-rimmed flat-bottomed steering wheel, our test vehicle came equipped with the optional red-faced leather upholstery. It’s wrapped around one-piece performance seats with racing harness pass-throughs, clear evidence supporting FIAT’s claim that the 500c Abarth is “track ready” right off the assembly line.

The driver faces a large 160-mph speedometer, and our sample included both the Beats by Dr. Dre premium audio system and the Tom Tom navigation system, the latter plugging into the dashboard and sticking up like a freeway billboard. You don’t see it in our photos, because we removed it for better forward visibility while carving canyon roads. We didn’t spend much time listening to the stereo, which is loud enough and clear enough to subdue the braaaaaap from the exhaust.

Not surprisingly, the bigger a person you are, the less comfortable you will be inside of a FIAT 500c Abarth. The front seats are not the issue, offering just right amounts of comfort and support for daily driving. Rather, it is the classic Italian driving position that contributes to discomfort, arms outstretched to the distant steering wheel, legs all folded up under the dashboard to operate the close pedals. As a result of continually holding a foot off the accelerator to avoid full-throttle motoring, the driver’s right leg rapidly fatigues, turning this fun car into something entirely different.

FIAT also characterizes the 500 Abarth Cabrio as a 4-passenger vehicle. That might be true, if everyone is short. Put a couple of taller people aboard, and the rear seats are instantly converted into leather-upholstered parcel shelves.

Sporting Credentials

Piuma Road is a spectacular stretch of pavement, and not just within the pantheon of great American driving roads. This ribbon of blacktop deserves a slot among the world’s greatest enthusiast drives, and on the day we drove the 500 Abarth Cabrio down it, there wasn’t a cloud, a fog bank or an ounce of mist to ruin the experience.

Going from sea level to nearly 2,000 feet in elevation to begin our descent, the Abarth Cabrio’s turbo engine pulled decently, its 170 lb-ft of torque on tap between 2,500 and 4,000 rpm. It would be nice if the engine’s torque spread was wider, along the lines of a Mini Cooper S or a Volkswagen GTI, but the car nevertheless proved zippy. Thanks to equal-length half-shafts, torque steer wasn’t a problem while powering out of the numerous hairpin corners leading to the mountain range’s crest.

Coming down Piuma Road, a spectacular ocean and mountain vista laid out before us, the Abarth proved entertaining thanks to its quick and accurate steering, robust brakes and significant levels of grip from the Pirelli summer performance tires. From the driver’s perch, the 500 Abarth feels a little tall and tippy, making the pilot hesitant to explore the limits of grip. It doesn’t help that much of the 500 Abarth’s weight sits over its stubby little nose. Nevertheless, this is a fun car to pitch down a favorite road.

Following our frolicking in Malibu, we headed back into the city in late Friday afternoon traffic, roof buttoned up, Alt Nation playing through Dr. Dre audio components, right leg fatigued due to the 500 Abarth’s awkward driving position. All it took was a single Los Angeles rush-hour experience in this car to make that rumored automatic transmission sound like a smart choice.

Issues of Passion, and Price

Passion often characterizes the people and the products of Italy. Clearly, our encounter with an enthusiastic motorist and FIAT fan of Italian descent only reinforced such stereotypes, but if you’ve traveled to Italy, or you know people from that beautiful country, you understand why such a perception persists.

As such, and because of its inherent impracticality, the new FIAT 500c Abarth represents an emotional choice in a vehicle. Prices start at $26,700 including the $700 destination charge, which is more than $2,000 higher than a base Mazda MX-5 Miata and more than $2,000 less than a Mini Cooper S convertible. Add every option to the Abarth drop-top, and you’re looking at a sticker price of $31,180.

With the 500 Abarth Cabrio, FIAT has found a sweet spot in a small segment of the market in which car buyers choose with their hearts as much as they do with their heads. Just don’t forget to bring the sunblock. Or a hat.


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