Velocità Ridicola: My Weekend with the Fiat 500 Abarth
“This car is ridiculous,” remarked my son along a rare straight section of Skyline.
“In a very, very good way,” he clarified with a grin.
He had only been driving the little hatchback for about ten minutes, but my son had already been stung by the Abarth Scorpio.
And no wonder; it’s impossible not to encounter scorpios (which represent the astrological sign of Abarth & C. S.p.A.’s founder) all over this tiny vehicle. They’re found in menacing mid-crawl on the wheel-hubs, the fenders, the steering wheel, the short-shifter knob, the dashboard, over the engine block--and that’s not an exhaustive list. It’s a veritable infestation of those infernal creatures on and in that Fiat. And I’m here for it.
I’m also here for the Ferrari Red, the ubiquitous “ABARTH” decals and embroidery, the Tricolore on the dash, the racing stripes, the unapologetically brash sounds of that turbocharged engine.
That Saturday morning, we were driving a 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth belonging to my friend, colleague, and fellow car-enthusiast Josh, with whom I swapped my Miata for the weekend (each of us had a fantastic experience). Josh--who has owned some great driver’s cars, including a Focus RS and Subaru WRX--purchased the Fiat last Fall for $12K from someone who took excellent care of the car. The previous owner also made some meaningful improvements to the 500 such as an updated head-unit with Apple CarPlay, a lightweight flywheel, a short-shifter, and improved cooling. The result: a well-maintained, well-sorted, and faster-than-stock hatchback that’s surprisingly suitable as a daily commuter and a hoot to drive anywhere.
Over four days, I navigated the Cinquecento through San Francisco traffic while running errands; I commuted to work; and my son and I carved nearby canyons. Practical (if diminutive) when I needed to haul stuff, ergonomically accommodating to my 88 year-old mom, comfortable on the highway, capable through corners at speed, and cackle-inducingly powerful, the 500 Abarth shone (bright red) in every scenario.
As someone who has never encountered a hot-hatch I didn’t like, I’ve been aware of the 500 Abarth since before it went on sale in the US. I read the coverage and watched Paul and Todd’s 2014 review of the car. Before choosing the FR-S I currently drive, I even test-drove a 2015 Abarth. I was impressed with it then, but the example I drove was not well taken care of and smelled like an ashtray, so I turned my attention to other makes and models (I was also concerned about reliability). In short, I’ve always had a soft spot for the 500 Abarth but never took it seriously enough to claim one for myself.
After having driven Josh’s car over the weekend, I now realize I’ve been missing the point all along. Yes, the 500 Abarth is more practical and capable than I’d initially surmised, but it’s also not a car we’re supposed to take too seriously. It is ridiculous, and that’s the point. Tesla might have already co-opted it from Spaceballs, but Ludicrous Speed is a term much better suited to the Fiat 500 Abarth than a Tesla Model Anything.
In describing what he enjoys most about the Abarth, Josh puts it best: “I love that it so perfectly captures the epitome of what a small, FWD hot hatch should be, with some Italian theatrics to show. It feels like a Go Kart, sounds like nothing else out there, and just sits different on the road. It's something you really have to drive to understand.” Josh, I now understand, and I’m grateful for the experience.
So would I buy one of these Cinquecenti for myself? Yes, I now would seriously consider owning this less-than-serious hot-hatch. There remain other contenders in this space that I’d also want to test, of course (the Fiesta ST, Mazda 3 Turbo, and Veloster N among them), but the 500 Abarth is a top contender. It would also be the perfect first car for my son, who “would absolutely” get one.
Is it perfect for me? Of course not. I’m not fond of the 500’s relatively lofty ride height, which gives me the impression I’m driving a food truck and saps my confidence around corners. And for a subcompact, the turning radius is, frankly, terrible. But those are minor gripes, not dealbreakers.
After having experienced the 500 Abarth’s turbocharged goodness, I’m also now keen to drive the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth powered by the same 1.4 liter engine as the 500. Despite having fond memories of my late brother’s 1969 Fiat 124 Spider, the newer “Fiata” version had struck me as essentially a lesser Miata festooned with a Fiat bodykit, a gimmicky rebadge and little else. Perhaps, though, I’ve misunderstood this car like I did the 500 Abarth. I’m now quite curious about how this little, angry engine fits with the 124’s rear-wheel-drive dynamics. In the end, I’d probably go with the ND2 Miata for reliability and its linear, high-revving power, but I’m now convinced I should test drive the 124 Abarth as well.
I, too, have been stung by the Abarth Scorpio.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.