2019 Fiat 500 Abarth

GOLDSBORO, N.C. — There was an outcry from some driving enthusiasts when Fiat decided to outfit the performance-oriented 500 Abarth with a six-speed automatic transmission for the 2015 model year. The Abarth, according to these enthusiasts, properly started life in 2012 with a five-speed manual transmission. The problem for Fiat — most people favor automatics these days and Fiat needed to listen to the masses for increased sales.

So by 2015 Fiat had readied a six-speed automatic as an option for the five-speed manual. Jason Stoicevich, head of the Fiat Brand North America back in 2015, explained, "accessible performance has always been a hallmark of the Abarth name.

“Now, with the addition of an optional automatic transmission, an entirely new group of customers will be able to experience the thrill of driving the Fiat 500 Abarth lineup. Fiat 500 Abarth sales increased more than 16 percent during this year (2014), and we expect this sales success to continue with the launch of this new automatic transmission.”

Fiat explained, to ensure the 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth remains true to its high-performance and track-ready heritage, the six-speed automatic transmission — with a manual shifting mode — has been reinforced with more clutch plates and a more robust heat treatment to allow for higher torque capability. The Sport mode calibration allows for an even more engaged driving experience with special features such as fuel-cut upshifts, rev-matching downshifts, brake-assist downshifts, corner gear hold and fast-off gear hold, as well as a more aggressive pedal map.

FYI: Since 2015, Fiat sales — including all versions of the diminutive 500 — have suffered. For example, just-released 2018 sales figures showed that only 5,370 Fiat 500s were sold in '18 and of those only a small percentage were the Abarth. By comparison, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sold on average 1,471 Ram 1500 pickup trucks EVERY DAY in 2018. Total Fiat sales for all models amounted to just 15,521 in 2018.

We can't speak to the future of the Fiat brand in North America except to say it is probably precarious at best. But that doesn't mean a true niche car can't be a good car, an enjoyable car, an exciting car. And the 500 Abarth is all those things.

We finally got our hands on a 500 Abarth automatic all these many years later, and we discovered it retains all the driving excitement of the row-your-own model. A track-tuned suspension gives the Abarth handling as feisty as its styling. And the exhaust note of the little 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine is addictive.

If you like a little two-person (the 500 has a rear seat, but it should be reserved for very small children or cargo) vehicle stretching out just 12 feet that can be run hard and fast and tossed around corners all accomplished with a raucous engine note, than we recommend a test drive in a 500 Abarth — with either transmission. For even more thrills the 500 Abarth can be purchased with a sliding-canvas softtop.

What you get is a MultiAir engine producing 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque with the manual transmission. The numbers change slightly with the automatic — 157 horsepower and 183 pound-feet of torque. Performance is nearly identical for the two setups measured at just under 7 seconds from 0-to-60.

Those numbers certainly aren't going to set the tiny car world on fire, but once behind the wheel with the engine note blaring in your ears together with the car's slot-car-like handling it feels stronger tha
n they suggest. This car possesses an arrogant attitude, an in-your-face confidence.

To put it another way — we enjoyed a week of driving fun that even one of our all-time little-car favorites — the Ford Fiesta ST — couldn't duplicate.

The 500 Abarth is not cheap, but the fun begins at an affordable $22,785 including a $1,295 destination charge for the base model with a manual transmission. The open air model starts at $24,280. The Abarth comes with remote keyless entry (but you will need a key to start the car), halogen projected headlamps, rearview camera, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, red brake calipers, dual bright exhaust tips, tilt steering wheel and hill start assist.

In addition to the automatic transmission ($995), our test car also included power sunroof, the Beats audio system with satellite radio, power sunroof and navigation. That brought the bottom line to $26,505.

That's 26 grand worth of wake-up-the-neighbors driving fun.

— Jim Meachen