Character Counts: A Quick Drive of the Fiat 500 Abarth

Source: Fiat
Source: Fiat

One of the great things about the Internet is that car facts are now never more than a few seconds out of reach. Everything from horsepower numbers to acceleration figures, cargo volume, and rear seat legroom can be looked up on a laptop or smart phone. If you want to know whether the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport or the BMW X1 has more cargo volume, a quick Google search will show you that it’s the BMW. If you want to know whether the Porsche Cayman S can lap the Nürburgring faster than the Ferrari 355 GTB, finding out that it can will take less than a minute.

What these facts and figures can’t do, however, is give you an understanding of the intangible qualities of a car. Sure, the Cayman S is a few seconds faster around a track than a 355 GTB, but does that necessarily make the Porsche better? To some people, yes, a faster lap time automatically makes one car better than another, but for the most part, hard numbers can’t account for how it feels to drive a particular car.

Take the Fiat 500 Abarth, for example. It’s a front-wheel-drive economy car with two doors and a tiny, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine. It only makes 160 horsepower and takes seven seconds to hit 60 miles per hour. Plenty of cars make more power, accelerate more quickly, offer greater interior room, or get better gas mileage. Judging based on numbers alone, those other cars that would all be better choices.

Then again, as I found out yesterday, you’ll be hard pressed to find a car that’s more of a hoot to drive.

I’ve been anxious to get to some seat time in a Fiat 500 Abarth since it came out, but despite it being my job to write about cars, the Abarth managed to elude me until last night. I’m still hoping to drive one long enough to write a real review, but even in my short time behind the wheel, it was an absolute blast.

First things first. You can’t talk about the angriest of Fiats without mentioning its exhaust note, partly because it’s so amazing and partly because it’s all you hear while you’re on the road. Some people may wish the Abarth came with a quiet mode, but those people are wrong. How many sub-$25,000 cars make you think, “Rolling down the windows and listening to the exhaust is the only radio I need”?

The Abarth isn’t just a Fiat 500 with a raucous exhaust, though. The entire package is perfectly-distilled, pint-sized fun on four wheels. The turbocharged engine pulls harder than you’d expect from only 160 horsepower, and it’s torquey enough to shove you back in the seat when you really step on the gas. Between that and its chainsaw of an tailpipe, you can’t possibly not let your inner hooligan out to play.

Source: Fiat
Source: Fiat

As for the handling, it’s certainly not a track toy, but it’s a car that manages to be both fun to toss into a corner and yet still fairly comfortable on imperfect roads. No matter how much of a car guy I like to think I am, there’s no way I would daily drive a Lotus Elise on Boston’s roads. I value my kidneys too much for that. The Abarth, on the other hand, would be perfectly acceptable, and it would probably turn pothole dodging into quite an enjoyable game.

Owning the Fiat 500 Abarth would come with compromises, though. Despite all the praise I’m giving it, it’s not a good car in the same way a Toyota Corolla is a good car. The Corolla is spacious, fuel efficient, comfortable, and practical. It might not be exciting, but it gets the job done well. No matter how many options Fiat adds to the 500, it’s still a tiny city car built to sticker for less than $17,000. Trunk space and back seat legroom are sacrificed in favor of a more compact footprint and easier parking, while many of the interior materials aren’t exactly high end.

When you drive the Abarth, though, you don’t care about any of that, or even the bizarre locations of some of the controls. Instead of trying to be good enough at everything, it’s focused on being great at one thing, and that’s what makes it so excellent. It doesn’t try to make everyone happy. In fact, there are probably a lot of people out there who would be very unhappy owning one. That said, for someone who wants to squeeze as much fun as they can out of even the most mundane of errands, it’s going to be incredibly hard to beat the Fiat 500 Abarth.

That’s because, above all else, it’s a car that has character. It doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. What you see is what you get. You’ll either like it, or you won’t. With so many cars today trying to be all things to all people, it’s getting harder and harder to find cars that truly have character. For your money, I highly doubt you’re going to find a new car with more character than the Fiat.

If you buy one, you’ll have to make compromises, and it certainly won’t be as practical as some other options, but practical cars are hard to have fun in. The Abarth, on the other hand, is the kind of car you know will put a grin on your face every time you turn the key. It’s the kind of thing you can’t measure with numbers, but luckily, there’s more to life than just what you can measure.

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