Octane
By Bradley Hasemeyer
on 7.15.13
Photo by Bradley Hasemeyer

To Gen-X Americans, Fiat is “that car from the sexy ad with the really hot girl and the dorky guy”. Yes. Also they own Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Lancia; in 2011 they became the majority stakeholder in Chrysler (and they’re trying to buy them out completely). Oh, you missed that? Kids these days.

Branding aside, it’s nearly impossible to miss the iconic Fiat silhouette made more aggressive and distinctive in the 2013 Abarth 500 Cabrio ($26,000). Fiat’s answer to the 500′s supposed lack of soul carries the fervor — in its looks, its performance, and its aural delight — of an operatic crescendo.

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Billed as a convertible, the 500C actually possesses more of a massive cloth sunroof that slides down the edges of the roof in mere seconds; it can be opened even at freeway speeds of up to 60 MPH, a feat impossible for traditional convertibles. By using this type of roof Fiat’s engineers didn’t have to mess with the structure or use heavy support beams to compensate for a loss in rigidity. And finally, getting one’s ears and heart closer to the best-sounding four cylinder on the planet is always a plus.

The 1.4-liter multi-air turbo gives 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque (in sport mode) to the front wheels, and the short, wide wheel base make even a boring neighborhood “no wake zone” enjoyable. The 500C starts at $26,000, but we had a loaded Rosso-colored one that jumped to about $30,000 thanks to its Beats Audio system, 17-inch aluminum forged wheels and leather-trimmed bucket seats. The Abarth will run you about $3K more than a similarly equipped 500 — but you do get 59 more horses, lighter wheels, stiffer springs on the suspension, a rear stabilizer bar, vented rotors, a “Heavy Duty” transmission, Torque Transfer Control that splits power to the front wheels when you don’t want to slide, the ability to turn off the traction when you do, dual exhaust and scorpion badges all over. A worthy upgrade, for sure.

Moving the shifter to the center stack keeps it handy for jumping through the gears — which you will find yourself doing far more often than is necessary.

The free track day with a performance driver that comes with buying an Abarth (and the fact that the car is only available as a manual) enforces just how Fiat wants this car used. The sound of the engine and smooth long revs mean you can exploit every tick on the tach and push this thing hard — which, of course, we recommend. The original 500 feels a little tall, somewhere between a Smart and Mini, and it seems as if taking a corner too hard might leave you crawling out the passenger window. The wider stance and tight steering of the Abarth provide a bit more confidence. Ergonomically, this car’s design is exceptional: the driving position and front glass are great for visibility, the seats are very comfortable and the surprisingly large interior space makes getting into and out of the car a breeze. Moving the shifter from its common position between the seats to the center stack keeps it handy for jumping through the gears — which you will find yourself doing far more often than is necessary. It just goes with the mood of the car, like humming the James Bond theme while trying on a tailored suit.

After spending time throwing this car around 15 MPH turns, driving down a sidewalk to avoid a left turn (just because I could) and parking where trash cans normally fit, I had to step back and admire the Abarth’s gusto. Sure, above 80 MPH my confidence in the stability of this little guy lessened, but everything else about this car — the drive, the cargo, the sunroof dropping at 60 — was surprising and exciting. I must admit, I’m someone who sees a convertible as a gimmicky offering for overly arrogant people (“Hey, look at me!”) or suburban Beverly Hills soccer moms, often at the expense of performance. This actually seemed like the better way to enjoy the car. The numbers stay the same; the structure stays rigid; you get a huge sunroof. I’m sold.

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