Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistfull of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike most, if not all, of your targets. It’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, for the 99 percent, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them.
Check your wallet, America. Is there $33,666 in there? Hey, congrats! That’ll net you 11,260 Quesalupas, a nine-percent share of a Popemobile, some lovely acreage above the Marcellus Shale gas deposit, or a new car at the nationwide average price. Let your id off its leash, and you can power-slide ‘round the cul-de-sacs of your misbegotten youth in a 2016 Fiat 500 Abarth. That’s right, the hot 500. The one that supermodel Catrinel Menghia memorably introduced to America. Enough cash will be left to pay a private Italian tutor, lessons from whom you’ll deploy when Menghia accosts you and hisses, Che cosa guardi, eh?
This is Prolechariot. We’ll spare you the expense. Simply respond: Niente, signorina. Niente e tutto.
As much as single-seat confections like the BAC Mono, the 500 Abarth is among the most driver-centric cars on Earth. There may be four seats, but the rear pair is suited to little more than hauling panettone, while any prospective front passenger should sign a release before boarding this terrestrial vomit comet. The 500 Abarth exists for little reason other than to flood its driver’s pleasure centers with unfiltered, uncut dopamine. Practicality is a notion as removed from the 500 Abarth’s gas pedal as the prospect of a supermodel slapping you sharply across the face.
So why would the 2016 Fiat 500 Abarth be considered a Prolechariot? Aren’t we pursuing that elusive slice of Venn diagram where price, performance, economy and durability overlap? Paradoxically, the 500 Abarth is a species of dream car, something we can’t say about many machines priced beneath the Prolechariot cutoff—let alone $5,000 below it, at $28,595 as tested. Our question is not whether the 500 Abarth can squeeze seven Valu-Paks of Charmin behind its hatch, out-accelerate a Miata, out-park a Fortwo or out-hypermile a Prius. Rather, our question is the same one that faces any Prolechariot: Does it fall short of, fulfill or exceed a buyer's expectations?
Here are the five things a consumer needs to know about the 2016 Fiat 500 Abarth.
1. It’s Secretly a Ferrari
A turbocharged jellybean assembled in Mexico should share as much with Maranello as enchiladas suizas do with papardelle. The prancing horse, however, is in the details. Stay with us.
Abarths get respect. For the better part of three years, a black example has called the most prominent space of an outdoor parking lot in Manhattan’s tony Noho neighborhood home. It disappears from time to time, but the surrounding Range Rovers and 911s never poach its turf. The parking space just sits there, empty. This doesn’t happen much in the most expensive borough of the most populous city in America. Trust us.
Abarths are unicorns. Though they’ve been on sale in the U.S. for four years, they represent a mere slice of total Fiat 500 sales—and Cinquecenti don’t exactly fly off the lots. To spot one is to be lucky. To spot one also is to not know half the story.
Despite starting life as a Plain Jane Cinquecento, an Abarth acquires gobs of cachet in transition. This isn’t the difference between a Cooper and a Cooper S, or even a Boxster and Boxster S. A lower, widened stance, scorpion badges, 16-inch titanium-painted alloys, redrawn fascias, reinforced gearbox housing, beefier shocks and dual chrome-tipped pipes bear some credit. The majority of the Abarth’s X-factor, however, is expressed through the waste gates…
2. A 500 Abarth Does. Not. Shut. Up.
The Drive once drew a not-so-tenuous parallel between the Jaguar F-Type R’s crackling V8 and fireworks. The 500 Abarth is a firework. BRRAPPAPAPAPAPAH goes the exhaust on engine startup, and that’s without the Sport button pressed, which sends bratty belches on overrun through the pipes. “U mad, bro?” a driver might be compelled to ask the 1.4-liter MultiAir lump. Such fury belongs to mid-century Maseratis blowing past the grandstands at Laguna Seca, not to 1.4-liter Fiats from 2016. The 500 Abarth is on some depraved, throwback shit, and the little guy lets anyone within two blocks know its temperament.
A prospective owner has to be on board with this. There’s no quiet mode in the Abarth, which may seem obvious for a car whose exhaust plumbing stretches the length of your arm. But if you plan to ferry the occasional passenger—one like my wife, who asked why the car always sounded so “farty”—it may be a long ride.
3. You Can Spec an Automatic. Don’t.
The spirit of some cars is irretrievably banished when an automatic transmission is fitted. This isn’t some kneejerk Luddite talk; The Drive finds the DSG in the Volkswagen Golf R sublime and the CVT in the Subaru Outback uncommonly refined. We stopped shedding tears over the manual transmission’s imminent demise somewhere mid-corner at Spain’s Motorland Aragón in a paddle-shifted F-Type R Coupe.
For its first two years on the U.S. market, the 500 Abarth was available only with a five-speed manual transmission. Packaging headaches solved, Fiat offered an Aisin six-speed automatic starting in 2014, a $1,350 option. We’re here to tell you it doesn’t work.
Sure, the Aisin unit shifts just fine. Sport button depressed, it will even hold third through a quick bend. But an automatic transmission, any automatic transmission, robs the 500 Abarth not just of tactility but of soul. You might’ve noticed that 500s are small. They’re of a scale that encourages driver and machine to bond uncommonly well. A stick-shifted Abarth heightens the bond to the point the car feels less a machine and more a piece of your wardrobe. The stick-shifted Abarth is a Brioni suit. The automatic Abarth is a velour number reeking of garlic and Bijan.
4. But in Other Ways, It’s Just a 500
The chintzy housing for the automatic transmission’s gear selector would flatter a Mitsubishi Mirage. Glossy plastic dash panels are reflected in the side-view mirrors on both sunny and overcast days, compromising visibility. And where a Mini Cooper S’s doors shut with a hushed, BMW Group whomp, the Abarth’s latch home with the crunch of an arthritic ankle. These aren’t Fix It Again Tony-caliber quality lapses, but they don't suit a car with ultra-niche appeal that's priced just shy of $30,000.
5. Speed Isn’t the Point
Abarths will get from a stop to 60 mph in seven seconds. You’ll get there quicker in a Mini Cooper S or Ford Fiesta ST. Sure, Blue Oval partisans grant you a nod for getting the hot Fiesta, and few cars capture the pugilistic playfulness of the 189-horsepower Mini. These cars will not, however, prompt a passerby to ask, unbidden, “Is that as fun as it looks?”
Therein lies the pleasure and pain of a Fiat 500 Abarth. The car has personality for days. Whether it complements yours is something only you can answer. Either way, the 500 Abarth isn't changing its stormy astrological sign, Scorpio, for anybody.
2016 Fiat 500 Abarth
PRICE (as tested): $28,595
POWERTRAIN: 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine, 160 hp, 170 lb-ft torque; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
MPG: 24 city / 32 highway
HOW TO SAY 'FART' IN ITALIAN: Scureggia