AltSaab: Fiat 500 Abarth

A few weeks ago, I asked Saab owners what they were driving now. Bernard, a long-term Saab fan and reader/commenter on SU and here at Swadeology, recently bought a Fiat 500 Abarth. I drove a Fiat 500 in non-Abarth form around Mallorca back in 2011. That car was short on power but high on fun. I could definitely see the potential for extreme fun with a more potent engine, which is exactly what’s in the Abarth’s (along with a few other things).

Bernard’s kindly provided a few pictures and thoughts about his new car (thanks!). Maybe it’ll inspire a few Saab owners who might be looking to kick off the next chapter of their automotive adventure.

If you’ve got any questions for Bernard, leave them in comments. If you’ve bought something to replace your Saab and you love it, then let me know. I’d love to share it around.

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Let’s get this out of the way: the Fiat 500 Abarth is a small car. It’s amazing how many people kindly point this out to you. What can I say, that it looks bigger in the brochure? I’m over six feet tall, so the Abarth is effectively a three seater. That’s not a problem for me, but I thought I would mention it.

Also, on the way home from the dealership, my girlfriend asked me “why am I sitting in the middle of the lane?” I had to make a mental adjustment, but it’s all good now.

BC Fiat 500 Abarth interiorThe Abarth is substantially more expensive than a regular 500, although it’s also cheaper than its sporty competition: BRZ, Cooper S, GTI, MX-5. What do you get for your money? First, you get great seats, with lots of support all around (especially at the knees, which is where most cars don’t deliver). You also get a very sporty steering wheel that could have come out of a Lamborghini, lowered suspension and 160 horsepower. The regular North-American 500 has 100 horses, and there’s a Turbo model with 130, so the 160 in the Abarth is a substantial bump.

You also get all the modern conveniences: bluetooth, air con, power windows and doors, USB/aux-in.
What you don’t get is a silencer in the exhaust. It’s a straight pipe front to back, with a flex in the middle, and a Y behind the rear axle.

Which brings us to the sound. The first time we started the car, we both giggled like little kids. It’s loud, it bubbles like a muscle car, it pops on the over-run, it growls when you put the power down, and somehow it’s not obnoxious. It’s uncanny; not only because it’s incongruous to have such BC Fiat 500 Abartha big sound come out of such a small car, but also because it doesn’t sound like Cherry Bombs on a Chevelle SS (or fart cans on a Civic, for the younger crowd). It sounds happy, like a two-stroke that’s perfectly jetted and coming on-pipe. It’s really not that far from the Group B rally cars that were posted a few days back.

I haven’t had the car long, so all of my driving has been in winter. We’ve had quite a lot of snow this year. Under dry conditions, the car is much as one would expect. It has a substantial kick on acceleration (100 to 150 km/h is near-instantaneous), great grip, and a firm but not too harsh ride. The Abarth comes with FSD shocks (that’s frequency-selective damping, folks) and they work just as advertised: they are softer over bumps (high frequency), and firm when the car changes direction (low frequency). The steering is tight when the car is in “sport” mode, the clutch is light, and the gearshift is precise.

The first thing you should know about driving an Abarth in fresh snow is that you absolutely must cancel the stability control (ESC). It fights you tooth and nail, tries to spin you if you steer with the throttle, kills the power when you need thrust, and generally makes life miserable. Turn ESC off and the car is transformed. There’s tons of traction (probably because there’s nothing of substance behind the firewall), tilting the car on the throttle is ridiculously easy, the steering is perfect and there’s almost no inertia to dampen inputs. It really feels like you’re going through the Turini Pass on the last night of the Monte Carlo Rally. It’s very intense, in a good way.

I could make a list of pros and cons, but I won’t. The Abarth is an emotional purchase and, as such, there’s no point rationalizing it. It feels special when you sit in it, and it’s an absolute joy to drive.

BC Fiat 500 Abarth

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22 Comments

  1. I took one for a test drive (in Brussels, Belgium) a few years ago, and it was definitely a very fun car. I tried the Esseesse, and found the suspension too harsh. Later they started offering the FSD option, which propaply made things much better.
    My question to Bernard would be if he has considered the Esseesse upgrade? If it’s available in the US, that is.

    1. Ken,

      The North American Abarth is already the equivalent to the European Essesse in terms of power and specifications. If anything, ours is better because the chassis is considerably stiffer to meet US crash standards. The stiffer chassis means that the suspension can be a little softer. It also means that there’s no space for the dual-clutch automatic gearbox that is optional on the European Abarth (we only get the 5 speed manual gearbox).

      The US and Canada typically don’t get the “hot” versions of European and Japanese cars. Our M3 was a watered-down version of a real M3; our STI was slower than a JDM STI, and so on. It feels nice to finally get a “good one.”

    1. This post is all about a Saab owner who’s happily bought an Abarth, so….. way. Diff’rent strokes for Diff’rent folks. There’s no wrong answer to the question (there are answers we may not like – e.g. Camry – but there are no wrong ones).

      1. Funny you should mention that. Earlier this week, I was talking to an aquaintance who kept mentioning that “for just a little more money, you can get an Accord.”
        I can’t fault that logic. I know that an Accord would work very well for him, and it’s a very good car.

  2. Looked at these close up for the first time yesterday. Bigger than one would imagine in the flesh and look like fun. Ultimately my eye was drawn across the showroom to the Guillietta, which is almost certainly where my money will go in the next few weeks.

    1. Definitely bigger than people think. I fit into the one I drove with no problems at all. Not much room for stuff in the back, but plenty of room up front. They’ve done a great job with packaging that small car.

      Make sure you let me know how things go with the Giulietta. Very curious.

      1. The test drive was great, very impressive car. The rest is under negotiation at the moment, but I hope to have made a decision by the middle of the coming week. Will certainly let you know and/or submit a similar review if that would be of interest and I go ahead with it.

  3. The Fiat 500 is one of those cars that I see as nice for someone else. Completely impractical and not for me, but I like to see them on the road. If my work and family situation were much, much different, could imagine considering (briefly) the 500L with the Abarth or better engine, though.

    1. I’m much the same way, William – very pleased to see them and to see people appreciating them. I just don’t have room/budget for that type of car, much as I think I’d enjoy it.

      That leads me to a question for Bernard, I guess:

      Why the Abarth?

      1. Why the Abarth?

        First of all, it was time for a second car. Our 9-3 is 12 years old, and it’s been paid-off for most of that time. We probably would have purchased a new (Phoenix) 9-3, had things turned-out differently. In a perfect world, we would have swung factory delivery and a European vacation out of the deal.

        So that leaves us with a 9-3 budget, a common love of cars, and an older Saab that work well but can’t be relied-upon because of the parts situation.

        We looked at a very wide range of cars. The LR2 (Freelander) and C Class were also on the short list. VWs have depressing interiors, Japanese cars have terrible seats. Even the best American cars feels like they’re trying to be something they are not. In the end, the Abarth was the only car that really spoke to us. It’s a fun car, it has a sense of style, and it makes us laugh. It’s also one of the few cars that doesn’t feel like it’s been compromised in order to make you upgrade to a “better” car; and it’s willing to be driven without too much electronic interference.

        Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that it was less expensive than what we had budgeted.

        As I mentioned above, I totally understand how somebody else can come to a totally different conclusion. That’s part of what makes the automotive business so fascinating. Cars are emotional purchases that we feel the need to rationalize after the fact.

  4. Nice write-up! This is a car I’d like to check out, although one of the things I loved about my 900 was its hauling capacity when needed. Seems like a lot of fun, though, and I’m usually driving solo (plus we have my wife’s Combi) and I can attach a rack for the bike…

    Thanks for the great info and photos! Have fun!

  5. Well done! Enjoyed the insight.

    Before I had SAABs I had several Fiats. Started with a 1972 128 Coupe, then went to an 1973 850 Spyder, that I added numerous Abarth pices to, and finally a 1975 X1/9 which was a fantastic car. Only issues I had were rust on the X1/9…and it was bad in the end. Absolutely fun cars to drive, and got fantastic fuel mileage. 40+ on them all. And with the gas crisis of 1973, having a car that got 40 mpg was a big help.

  6. People who have not spent any time with a car that handles like a dream, makes glorious sounds, and generally puts one great big smile on your face EVERY time you get behind the wheel, just will never understand. And if auto racing is NOT in your blood…forget it. 😉

    An Accord, or Camry, is a good car for basic transportation, but if one is looking for more than basic transportation, you have to look elsewhere…and you have.

  7. I have a ’67 Saab 96 and a good friend with a ’69. We drove a 2012 Fiat 500 Sport a few days ago and decided it was very much like a modern 96. I’ll be buying an Abarth or Turbo later this year. Great fun.

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