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The Fiat 500 Abarth Is Finally Starting to Make Sense to Me

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author photo by William Byrd November 2017

I've never been a fan of very small cars. I understand the potential need: You live in a congested city, blah, blah, and so forth. However, they're not typically very exciting -- or even that interesting. Some, like the average Smart Fortwo, aren't even that economical, despite their diminutive size.

But what if I told you that you could have your small car along with some real passion and excitement? You have to be willing to buy an Italian car, though -- the Fiat 500 Abarth, specifically. The yellow convertible version I drove came from the Washington Auto Press Association Rally, and it sounded better than most "performance" cars I've driven. Plus, it lets you go al fresco in spectacular topless Italian fashion. Maybe small cars aren't so bad?

The Fiat 500 started life as a city car, and the original was produced from 1957 to 1975 -- and while there were lots of variants and derivatives, the basic car remained the same until production ended. But like a good movie idea from the '70s, someone decided to bring it back in an updated, more modern form. Hey, it worked for Mini, right? So, a decade ago, Fiat brought the 500 back to life. Reception was pretty warm, just like the Mini Cooper: The 500 was cute, fun, and relatively practical -- and it marked the return of Fiat to the United States.

Plus, at the time, it was the only attainable Italian car for those of us who can't quite afford the average supercar: You can buy a new Fiat 500 starting around $15,000 for the "Pop" model, or spend $20,000 for a 160-horsepower base-level Abarth. Build your own Abarth and you can pony up $995 for a 6-speed automatic (but don't) and personalize your little Italian with lots of interesting things like a $595 "Scorpion Package with Roof Graphic," which is just like it sounds. From a performance standpoint, there is no "sport" package or anything similar -- but the 17x7-inch forged bronze wheels like the ones on our tester will set you back around $1,400. If you want the blazing yellow "Giallo Moderna Perla" paint that we had, it's $500 -- but it continues over into the interior! All in on a 500 Abarth and you've still got a pretty inexpensive car: Although our convertible rang in around $26,000; check out the video to see what else we thought you could buy for that much MSRP.

Sales have been up and down since the 500 debuted. In 2011, Fiat moved 43,773 of them, with a slow decline ever since (2016 saw 15,437 sold in the States). Although, compare that to another little car -- the Smart ForTwo -- and it's pretty stellar. Sales of those have barely cracked 10,000 since 2010.

While we're on the ForTwo, I think it may have actually been the car that soured me on tiny cars to begin with. At least year's press rally, Ike (iconic host of the Untitled Car Show) and I drove the 2016 Smart ForTwo Passion. Ugh, just typing the name annoys me. I didn't like it, mostly because it didn't make any sense to me. It's not particularly economical, as 34 miles per gallon city and 39 mpg highway is not all that impressive these days. It's expensive, at least when judged by the pound or when compared to most other small cars -- and it wasn't especially fun to drive or nice to look at.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I climbed into this new Fiat 500 Abarth convertible along with Ike and Josh from RFD to see what we thought. Long story short, I really liked it! This car is long on personality, if short on wheelbase. Having three grown -- yet not mature -- adult males in the car was tight, but manageable. Note, we only had camera gear along with us; I imagine it would be a challenge to squeeze any real luggage into the back for a road trip. But the Italian flair is there in spades, the exhaust note alone embarrasses supposedly superior cars. It cracks, it pops, it burbles, it's a scene. And it's wonderful.

Out on the road, the ride is pliant, if a little stiff, and the 5-speed wasn't up to typical notchy Japanese standards. It didn't matter, as the Abarth is like an angry little dog. It makes you smile but elicits a twinge of fear, or perhaps respect. It's not all that fast -- but it's not slow, either, making quick work of on-ramps and zipping through slow moving traffic.

Amazingly, this is a small car that I would consider owning. Reliability on any Italian car is always questionable, but it's so much fun that I would roll the dice -- and I think it would make the perfect daily driver for someone heading into the big city to look for parking every day. Ideally, there's a tunnel along your route.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Fiat 500 Abarth Is Finally Starting to Make Sense to Me - Autotrader