The 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio may have the market cornered when it comes to Italian charm, but its promises of performance, comfort and convenience go unfulfilled. Among sporty compacts, it brings up the rear, both figuratively and literally.
What Is It?
The Abarth represents the hot rod variant in the Fiat 500 lineup. Our test vehicle in Cabrio body style sports a cloth roof that retracts for a quasi-convertible experience, as well as a six-speed automatic transmission, which is new for 2015.
The base Fiat 500 hatchback starts at a very reasonable $17,495, but its 101-horsepower four-cylinder engine is utterly unfulfilling. For an additional $2,955, the 500 Turbo increases output to 135 hp. The Abarth tops the lineup with 160 hp and a starting price of $23,245, though with the automatic transmission, power is reduced slightly to 157 hp.
Opting for the Cabrio adds $4,000 to the Abarth's base price, while the automatic transmission increases the cost by another $1,350. Further embellishing our tester with premium audio, navigation, upgraded wheels, exterior graphics and the Comfort/Convenience package (automatic climate control, heated seats and satellite radio) brings the as-tested price to $31,795.
How Does It Drive?
If there's one thing that stands out with the Fiat 500 Abarth, it's the noise. For the most part, we enjoy sporty cars that deliver a certain amount of theatre in the form of engine and exhaust notes, as long as there's a corresponding payoff in terms of performance. The Abarth, however, lacks sufficient performance to justify the noise.
Attempts to launch the Abarth quickly are futile. Power doesn't arrive until the turbo builds boost at about 3,000 rpm. Combined with the lethargic transmission, there's considerable delay between input and response. Upshifts and rev-matched downshifts from the six-speed automatic are reasonably quick, but not particularly smooth. Our tester reached 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, which is 0.4 second slower than the last manual-transmission-equipped 500 Coupe we tested. The Fiat is about 1.0 second slower to that milestone than its principal rival, the Mini Cooper S.
Braking from 60 mph required 125 feet, which is about what we'd expect since our Abarth was delivered with all-season low-rolling-resistance tires. In these full panic stops, however, a noticeable and confidence-sapping side-to-side wiggle was noted. In less aggressive braking, this issue never materialized.
Despite the Fiat's small footprint, its 37.6-foot turning circle is larger than some SUVs, which negates one of the primary benefits of driving a small car. On the highway, our test vehicle was heavily influenced by seams and rain grooves, causing it to constantly wander within its lane.
Is It Fun To Drive?
One of the Fiat 500 Abarth's strengths is its lively performance relative to its supporting models, and the benefits are indeed noticeable. Compared to its rivals, however, the Abarth misses the mark. When unleashed on a twisting road, the tiny Fiat feels top-heavy, with far more body roll than we'd expect. Steering is accurate, but there's minimal feedback.
Keeping the Abarth's engine speed in the narrow window between the end of turbo lag and the rev limiter is difficult. With Sport mode engaged, there is a bit more responsiveness from the engine, as well as some entertaining backfires and crackles from the exhaust between gears. Unfortunately, this bark is fiercer than the Abarth's bite.
Is It Comfortable?
It's surprising how ill-suited the Fiat 500 Abarth is for an average-size male adult. The lack of rearward travel from the telescoping steering wheel will force these drivers uncomfortably close to the dash, which also forces them into a more upright and taller seating position. There's unfortunately no fix for the contour along the top of the seatback that presses into the driver's shoulder blades, or the unpadded armrests that create hard pressure points on the elbows.
The rear seats are acceptable only for small children, and accessing them requires a tight squeeze between the front seats and the door frame. To the Abarth's credit, its ride quality isn't as harsh as some other sporty subcompacts, but its handling isn't as confident either.
How Is the Interior?
In keeping with its primary competitors, the Fiat 500 Abarth's interior comes with a healthy serving of retro-chic style. Its simple layout with a bold body-colored dash fascia, few buttons and large singular gauges pay homage to the original Fiat Cinquecento. The flair of red stitching and a prominent Abarth logo on the sporty steering wheel further the Italian personality.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these surfaces are made up of lower-quality plastics than are found in many competitors. The simplicity of the audio controls benefits the 500's nostalgic styling but offers limited functionality. Basic media controls, like searching for a song, are so complicated that even tech-savvy users may struggle.
The optional navigation system is no better. Rather than utilize a typical built-in touchscreen, the Fiat 500 instead opts for a removable TomTom system that pops into a receptacle on top of the dashboard. In terms of basic navigation it does the job, but any current smartphone app is superior when it comes to function and usability.
The 500 Cabrio also isn't a convertible in the most pure sense. The fabric top only covers the center roof section, so when it's retracted the roof rails and pillars remain above the occupants. Several preset stops make fully retracting the roof a time-consuming affair. And once retracted, it nearly completely obscures rear visibility. The top also blocks the trunk, but at least the trunk release button triggers the top to raise just enough to regain access.
The trunk itself is a dinky 5.4-cubic-foot space hampered by sloping sides and a narrow slotlike opening. The rear seats fold but don't yield a flat cargo floor, and releasing them requires you to crawl into the backseat. A small glovebox, cupholders and door pockets provide only minimal interior storage.
What Kind of Fuel Economy Does It Get?
The EPA estimates fuel economy at 27 mpg combined (24 city/32 highway). During 470 miles of mixed driving the Abarth produced only 21.1 mpg, with a best tank of 28.9 mpg in a stretch that was mostly highways.
What Safety Features Are Available?
The 2015 Fiat 500 offers few safety features beyond those found in all modern vehicles. A driver's knee airbag and hill-start assist are standard. On higher-trimmed models like our Abarth, rear parking sensors are also included, but a rearview camera is not offered.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
Ford Fiesta ST: While the Fiesta is a hatchback, not a convertible, it can be argued that the Fiat 500 Cabrio isn't really a convertible either. The Fiesta ST delivers an incredible amount of performance for the money. It represents one of the greatest bang-for-the-buck propositions, even if it does lack the retro charm of the rest of this group.
Mini Cooper S Convertible: Comparably equipped, this Mini will cost about $1,200 more than our Abarth test vehicle, but the Mini's advantages in performance, quality, comfort and convenience are easily worth the difference. If you're looking for retro styling and playful driving dynamics, the Mini is still the best you can get.
Volkswagen Beetle Convertible R-Line: With similar feature content, a VW Beetle runs about $3,000 more than the Fiat. The Beetle delivers far more refinement and performance than the Abarth, but it's also quite a bit bigger.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
If the charm of Fiat 500's retro Italian design is irresistible, there is simply no other alternative. The Abarth Cabrio version adds power, performance and open-top motoring, all of which enhance the uniquely Italian experience.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
Among personality-rich retro-styled hatchbacks and convertibles, the Fiat 500 Abarth falls short of its competition in nearly every category. There are plenty of rivals that offer better value, quality and performance.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.