FIAT designers, to make the Abarth Cabrio, took their retro-inspired 500 and added scorpion badges and some special stickers on the side. Then they cut the roof and fitted a soft-top. Delightfully, however, they didn't stop there. They added 17-inch wheels, big brakes with red calipers, and fiddled with the engine a bit.
These mad Italian men took the fuel-efficient 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder gasoline engine and fitted to it a massive 18-PSI turbocharger -- capable of spinning up to 230,000 RPM -- along with two intercoolers on both the driver and passenger side air inlet, feeding thick, cool air to the turbo. This gigantic turbo slams air down the gullet of the 1.4 so that it can create 170 pound-feet of torque and 160 horsepower, which equates to 117 horsepower per liter.
Fitting a turbo to an eco-engine like the MultiAir is like buying a nice housecat because it's small, cute, and cleanly and strapping a coonhound to it so you can take it hunting. It seems like a good idea at the outset but will be very loud and a bit scary.
That's exactly what happened to the 1.4 MultiAir, too. FIAT designers, after adding the turbo, added a very loud exhaust. In fact, they bolted up 10 different exhaust systems before they found the exact sound they wanted. This one sounds like a lion being pushed through a jet engine.
Bolted to the boisterous four-cylinder is a "track-proven" and apparently very robust five-speed manual gearbox, which feeds all that turbocharged power to the front wheels. Keeping the 17-inch wheels pressed firmly to the road is an upgraded and stiffened suspension system. The new front springs are 33 percent stiffer and 15mm lower. The ones in the back, though, are even tougher. They're 300 percent more rigid than the European FIAT 500.
So the FIAT 500 Abarth Cabrio, then, is fast, sleek, and loud. But does it work? Yes, nearly.
With the top down, the traction control partially disengaged and a straight road ahead of you, the Abarth Cabrio is an absolute wonder. It truly gives the sensation that you're just belted into an engine. It'll rip your head back, and feel your ears with a very, very marvelous sound indeed. It's so exhilarating, in fact, you might feel inclined to mount an afternoon invasion of North Africa -- the Italian spirit is that strong in the Abarth.
It's the corners, however, that give the Abarth some trouble. Its front and rear wheels are so close together that any change in throttle input or steering angle can send the Abarth off quickly in another direction. This can be very exciting but also very frightening, as you'll find yourself white-knuckling the oversized sport steering wheel just to stay on course and not go flinging off into the brambles.
I wish the engineers had spent as much time figuring out torque delivery to the front wheels as they had tuning the exhaust. There's no denying the Abarth's Italian lineage, though. While the Germans would have agonized into the wee hours over torque steer affecting drivability, the Italians simply worked long enough to make the Abarth loud and stylish and then went on break.
Speaking of style, though, let's look at the interior. The Cabrio is the most comfortable version of the 500 I've ever driven. The hardtop, for whatever reason, makes you feel like you're sitting on the car rather than in it. You can look around and feel like you're in a spacious subcompact but your head, neck, and back are telling you a very different story. The interior of the Cabrio, however, is spacious and comfortable -- at least up front. FIAT says the 500 can seat four but the rear seat is best suited as a shelf for your Louis Vuitton luggage set.
Ignoring passenger space, which is never the reason anyone buys a subcompact anyhow, the Abarth has a cute little cabin. It has a big centralized instrument cluster with tach and speedo cleverly integrated together and it even has a place in the dash to affix the Garmin navigation that comes with the car -- for a price.
What does the FIAT 500 Abarth Cabrio cost? It starts at $26,000, which is $9,000 more than the base 500. The one I drove, however, ran just shy of $30,000. I'll admit this is a considerable price to pay for a subcompact with a bit more gusto. But if you think about it, it's more than that.
- Nick Jaynes