Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 17, 2013

Aggressive Fiat 500 Abarth is a joy

By Derek Price CNHI News Service
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — People define joy in different ways.

Major parts of philosophy, religion and social science are all centered around probing what makes people truly happy.

For me, I think I’ve figured out the epitome of joy. It involves a Fiat 500 driving through the countryside with the windows rolled down and Italian opera blasting from the sound system.

It’s hard to find cars that generate smiles as easily as the little 500. I own one of them, a Mazda Miata, but it’s wildly impractical. At least the Fiat has a back seat.

In fact, its closest competitor here in America is the MINI Cooper, a car that’s just as good at bringing grins to your face. But the MINI is mainly designed by Germans, and — no matter how illogical it seems — driving a German car is just not as cool as driving an Italian car like the Fiat.

Italian cars always carry the coolness trump card. It’s written in the

Car Owner Bible or something.

To make it even cooler, Fiat didn’t send me an ordinary 500 to try out. They sent the Abarth version, a ridiculous but incredibly lovable car that’s tuned to go faster, be louder and ride rougher than the regular ol’ 500.

Granted, you’ve got to be the right kind of person to enjoy a car like this. It’s a small car with a powerful, turbocharged engine and very firm suspension setup that makes it ideal for flinging around corners.

But the most controversial part is its exhaust note: a blistering, roaring, throaty burble, something almost funny to hear because you don’t expect such a loud noise to come from such a cute little car.

Driving the Abarth is predictably fun, given its 160-horsepower engine in an extremely lightweight body. It feels very much like driving a go-kart.

At the same time, it’s livable as an everyday car. One of the best things about the Abarth’s roaring exhaust is that, while it sounds like a beast under hard acceleration, it calms down dramatically at highway speeds.

It’s also interesting that when you opt for the Abarth version, virtually nothing on your car will say Fiat. Instead, it’s covered inside and out with the scorpion-crest logo of Abarth, the tuning and racing outfit started by Karl Abarth in the 1960s.

Abarth’s cars were always known as being “small but wicked,” and that certainly rings true with this modern-day version. The 2013 Abarth is not just a mildly tweaked commuter car, but a thoroughly aggressive — some would say overly aggressive — overhaul of the look and driving feel of the 500.

To me, that’s refreshing. Virtually every car today tries to pass itself off as being “sporty,” from seven-passenger crossover vehicles to ordinary Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys. I even once drove a minivan called the Caravan Sport, with a little spoiler on the back and everything.

If you want a car that’s really designed to be sporty, and doesn’t just call itself so, this is one of a very select group that pulls it off correctly. It’s even quite affordable, starting at $22,000.

It’s definitely not for everyone, but for drivers like me, this noisy, raucous, insane little Italian car is the very definition of joy. It’s like alchemists at Fiat bottled up pure happiness and transformed it into a pile of metal, plastic, oil and gasoline that we call the 500 Abarth.

And I love it.

Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at carcolumn@gmail.com.