After buying the cheapest Fiat 500 Abarth I could find, sight unseen, with a giant red skull for a shift knob, I assumed I was doing another Italian mafia-style hit job to my wallet. This time, though, I avoided getting whacked, as other than a few expensive parts, the cost to fix this Fiat was pretty reasonable. Unfortunately, the car still looks (and smells) pretty bad — but once I get the animal smell out, it should be a dream winter beater.
It’s safe to say this smelly $4,000 Abarth was one of the worst examples available, in addition to being the cheapest available. After being repossessed by a dealership that offers in-house financing, it was probably deemed too damaged to sell again to a retail customer, so they wholesaled it off to the idiot writing this article for a very low price. Other than the photos, which didn’t paint a pretty picture, I had no idea what I was getting into. Turns out that the brief second owner tried just about everything possible to kill the car, including turning an animal loose inside to trash the interior. An encounter with a curb destroyed a wheel and damaged an axle. And, for some reason, the air conditioning didn’t work.
The good news was that everything else seemed to be in good shape and the engine ran well — despite arriving with only one quart of oil inside. Abarth engines are known to use some oil, but this one was allowed to run three quarts low, and miraculously, it didn’t seem to mind running at only 25 percent of its oil capacity. An oil change was the easy part, but other parts were more difficult to come by. I had to spend $200 on a used matching white wheel and another $200 for a factory shifter to replace the red skull. But the big-ticket item was the damaged axle half shaft. This was a part I couldn’t find used or aftermarket anywhere, so I reluctantly had to spend $600 at the local Fiat Chrysler dealer to solve the wobble on acceleration.
My mechanic, the Car Wizard, discovered that my AC condenser was clogged, and replacing that with a recharge of the system cost another $400. Installing the CV shaft was another $120, and the other little odds and ends, including tires, brought his repair bill to $1,480. Combined with the parts I sourced myself, I spent $2,500 — and with fees and transportation, I am now $7,000 into my smelly Fiat 500 Abarth. For another few thousand dollars, I could have bought a nicer car that didn’t smell like a wet dog’s favorite chew toy and was in nicer cosmetic condition. But, honestly, I’m happy to have a fun beater that I don’t have to worry about.
Tomorrow, we’re supposed to get our first snow in Kansas, which means the city will coat the roads with an inch of sand. That melts the ice, but it also destroys cars. I wouldn’t dare take any of my nice cars out on the roads, which are ruined for weeks after a winter storm, as I don’t want to ruin them. Sometimes, I’ve gotten desperate enough to drive them anyway, and I always end up regretting it. Now, I don’t have to worry, as I will never be bored driving my Abarth — but I also won’t get upset if a plow truck were to accidentally saw it in half.
Maybe I would be a little sad if that happened, because I do feel bad for my unloved Fiat. Poor sales and rapid depreciation have made used Abarths cheap enough to arrive at low-end used car lots, and because the Fiat 500 will be discontinued after 2019, I expect that these cars will start disappearing quickly. I can see a lack of affordable parts support being an issue as well, but unlike other small cars that have shared similar fates — such as the Yugo or the Geo Metro — the Fiat 500 didn’t deserve to die like this.
2019 has been a genocide for interesting cars, such as the Volkswagen Beetle, the Alfa Romeo 4C, the Audi TT, the Ford Flex and the Chevrolet Volt. Each of these cars was built to appeal to car enthusiasts in some way — the same enthusiasts who constantly complain about how boring new cars are — yet we allow the Fiat 500 and other cool cars to die with little concern. At this rate, it won’t be long until our selection of new, affordable cars will be a vast, endless span of boring crossovers — and it will be entirely our fault.
Honestly, if a car as fun, as great-looking, as affordable and as practical as the Fiat 500 Abarth failed, I completely understand why no car company would ever bring a small car to the United States ever again. Every time I drive this car, it makes me happy. The noises the exhaust makes under various circumstances are hilarious, and, as the Abarth has only 160 horsepower, I can bang this car around at its limit without doing anything illegal. The steering feedback is perfect, the gearbox is crisp, and, unlike on a lot of low-slung sports cars, the seating position is much higher and more comfortable. And I have a usable back seat to cart my daughter around — and the back seat also folds down into a pretty decent cargo area.
Of course, the naysayers will point to the lower quality of the Fiat when compared to a Toyota Yaris or a Honda Fit, the latter of which is more fun — but once again, it’s rumored that car will be discontinued soon as well. As I noted earlier, the price of the parts and their availability are a concern — but in my opinion, this generation is spoiled when it comes to new cars. It wasn’t that long ago that cars would begin rusting apart after a few years and were lucky to last 100,000 miles without needing a major overhaul.
The difference between then and now is the cost of parts, the complication of mechanical components and the diagnostics — and our willingness to tackle DIY repairs. Owners of old air-cooled VW Beetles didn’t get upset about their motors blowing every year because they could source another one from the junkyard for $50 and change it themselves in a few hours. Obviously, those days are long gone, and even I don’t like tinkering with my own car very much. Still, we are spoiled as a generation by the expectations that cars should last 200,000 miles and that the most effort we spend on maintenance is deciding which complimentary latte to sip on while we wait in the dealership lounge.
To get a car that has this much personality and is this much fun is going to require some sacrifice, and it’s obvious that most Americans would prefer a car that simply gets them to their destination as effortlessly as possible — or a big, giant truck. The Ford Flex didn’t sell because it’s too weird despite having all the properties of an SUV and tons of personality. I sort of understand how the Volkswagen Golf is the more practical choice over the Beetle, and the Alfa Romeo 4C and the Audi TT are too expensive. But it still hurts to see them go.
My hoopty fleet is filled with discontinued models, such as my Jeep Grand Wagoneer, my Hummer H2, my GMC Typhoon and my DeLorean — all of which were unappreciated at one point but have become classics, and I think my Fiat will fit into this category very well. I just hope a thorough detail gets the smell out of the carpets. Find a Fiat 500 for sale