Earlier this month, it was announced that Fiat will no longer offer the 500, their tiny hot hatch, after the 2019 model year. I guess you could call me a 500 enthusiast, since I owned two Fiat 500 Abarths in the past, and I was pretty distraught when I heard the news. So distraught, in fact, that I spent $4,000 buying the cheapest Fiat 500 Abarth I could find. Turns out it was cheap because it was attacked by a dog — among other things.
When Fiat returned to the United States with the new 500 back in 2011, it was the brand’s first offering stateside since 1984. Despite nightmare reliability stories, and jokes like Fix It Again Tony enduring through the decades, the return of Fiat was warmly received. Existing hot hatches in the U.S. had been supersized over the years, while the 500, at 15 inches shorter than a Volkswagen Golf, and 6 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper, stayed true to its roots. Pricing of the original Pop and Sport models started at $16,000, so it was a great value as well.
I remember being sorely tempted to buy one new. The marketing was great, the car looked fantastic, and it was the first time in my life that a car with Italian zest was offered at an affordable price. Even Jay Leno bought the second new Fiat 500 offered in the United States, but quickly dumped his once the Abarth became available in mid-2012. Despite the higher, albeit reasonable starting price at $22,000, I was more tempted to buy a Fiat 500 than ever. Thank goodness I waited.
The current generation Fiat 500 Abarth is a very strange combination. While the body is certainly Italian, the Abarth badging comes originally from an Austrian, who had an independent tuning company dedicated to hot-rodding small Italian cars — much like AMG was originally to Mercedes. Abarth’s company was acquired by Fiat in 1971, and the namesake continued as the racing wing of Fiat until it was discontinued in the 1980s. Fiat eventually decided to revive the Abarth name only recently for performance variants of their cars — but for the U.S.-bound 500 Abarth, the engine was designed and built by Americans.
When Fiat acquired a majority share in the Chrysler corporation after its bankruptcy, it utilized Chrysler engineers to create a new multi-air injection turbocharged engine for use in the Abarth, as well as the new Dodge Dart, and eventually for the new Jeep Renegade. In Europe, the 500 Abarth only had 130 horsepower, and while it looked the part of a hot hatch, it didn’t have the extra oomph found with this new 160 hp turbocharged engine. Almost magically, the 1.4-liter 4-cylinder operates without a throttle body, as the airflow is electronically controlled by the intake valves. While the engineering and performance is impressive, it’s the exhaust note that people love the most.
The crackles and pops that come from the back of the 500 Abarth are hilarious, and sound very exotic. Strangely, the seating position feels more like a raised seat in an SUV, or sort of like a bar stool, since the floor is so low. While many reviewers have complained about this, the seats feel more comfortable to me than a Golf or Mini Cooper — probably because it better accommodates my giraffe-like proportions. Despite being the smallest of the hot hatches, it doesn’t feel that small, and does have a somewhat usable back seat as well.
I’m not sure what stopped me from buying one new, but in retrospect, I’m happy that I waited a few years. It appears Fiat made a huge error in their sales forecast, and massively oversupplied the United States with 500 models — especially for the 2013 model year. With the supply greatly exceeding demand, many 2013 models sat unsold well into the following year, and many were eventually sold at huge discounts. This tanked the values of used Fiat 500 models, and despite adjusting the supply in the following years, it seems the market never recovered.
The first Abarth I purchased was a well-equipped 2012 model, which had a $25,000 window sticker, and only 10,000 miles. I bought it in 2014 for only $14,000, and sold it 6 months later for $12,000. A year after that, I bought a fully optioned, 6,000 mile 2013 500 Cabrio Abarth for $14,000 and sold about a year later for the same price. Percentage wise, that’s huge depreciation from new — and it only got worse. Currently, an Abarth can be had for ridiculously cheap, or in my case, only $4,000.
Admittedly, my Abarth isn’t the best example. Like many 2013 models, Carfax reports it wasn’t sold until mid-2014, and stayed with its original owner until last year. The second owner only had it a few months before it was repossessed, and it appears they smacked a curb, which is why it’s missing one of its white 17-in wheels. The worst part is the interior, though, which has a red skull shifter, as well as LED mood lighting fitted around the sunroof. It appears the shifter knob replacement was born out of necessity, as the emergency brake handle was chewed to pieces by what I hope was a dog. I would guess the shifter received a similar treatment, as the scratched leather seats and dashboard indicate whatever animal it was really didn’t like the 500’s interior.
Still, for $4,000, I bought a running, driving and mostly functional car. Other than the dead air conditioning and a light vibration under heavy acceleration, there doesn’t appear to be any other serious problems — which, compared to my previous cheap Italian car purchases, I’m pleasantly surprised with. If Fiat decides this truly is the end of the 500 in the U.S., and doesn’t bring over the next generation, I imagine I’ll be sitting on an appreciating classic as well.
It’s really easy to find nonchewed versions of Abarth’s on Autotrader for under $10,000, and I cannot think of a better value for car enthusiasts. For now, there’s an ample supply — but as more of these fall into the hands of owners who neglect them, or let animals attack, I imagine this great opportunity won’t last forever. Find a Fiat 500 for sale