Cars these days are sensible.
For the most part, they've all got improved fuel economy and cleaner emissions. Safety ratings are up across the board. Comfort is a focus for many manufacturers. Performance benchmark standards are higher.
Despite traffic that's heavier than ever, it's still a great time to be a driver. There are dozens of smart, clean, efficient choices, most of them impeccably reliable, all of them good looking, many of them inexpensive.
And yet, what if you crave something a little more. What if you want something a little, oh, shall we say, deranged?
Fantastic news then, as Fiat has the car for you. They've cut the roof off their fizzy little turbocharged 500 Abarth, and the result is an Italian Tenor with a bad case of rabies. Andiamo!
The Fiat 500's happy little retro face first showed itself several years ago, and in terms of the Canadian market at least, it's been an unqualified success. It's one of the most literal interpretations of the phrase "cheap and cheerful," and has won many folks over with scrappy dynamism despite a woeful lack of power.
The Abarth on the other hand - and it's pronounced "Ah-bart," by the way - is not so much with the cutesy. It's a very angry little car, all scowling, growling front end and gawping lower air intakes.
On a bigger car, the 17-inch alloys would look appropriate, perhaps even a tad on the small side. Here, with low profile tires smeared around their rims, they make the car look like a pug wearing combat boots.
Red brake calipers peek out from behind the dark, multi-spoke alloys. A broad Abarth stripe runs down the 500c's flanks. There's a chunky spoiler out back, a pair of sewerpipe exhausts, an aerostyle rear diffuser. The whole thing's as covered in scorpions as a 1980s German hair-metal band.
And yet, despite all this aggression, it's still sort of adorable. It's a bit like a toddler scowling.
On the inside, the 500c continues its takeme-seriously sporting intent with oodles of red-stitching. A chunky, flat-bottomed, scorpionbadged steering wheel dominates the dash, and there's a broad swath of body-coloured plastic brightening up the interior a little.
Fit and finish is actually pretty good, for a small, inexpensive car. Unlike the Mini Cooper, the 500 doesn't overdo it on the cartoonish stuff, so while you get fairly prosaiclooking radio and air-con controls, it's not really twee.
Mind you, the way the controls actually function is not so ergonomic. With buttons for everything, it's not quite as user friendly as it could be, and the navigation integration is frankly laughable. My tester didn't actually have navi, but the way it works is to plug this big, easily stolen, view-obscuring screen into the dashboard on a giant peg.
The back seats are super tight, although they will work in a pinch. Emphasis on "pinch." Rear cargo room, which is not bad in the normal 500, is pretty tight thanks to the folding roof.
There's a sport button situated proudly to the right of the steering wheel, and I'm going to go ahead and recommend that you press it. Every. Single. Time.
If you don't, the Abarth drives like a morepowerful 500c, and is sort of tractable and not very interesting. If you press it? Mamma mia! That's a spicy meatball! The tiny 1.4-litre turbocharged engine makes 160 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque, and in a car this small, especially with the traction control disengaged, it's a total handful. And the noise it makes!
This is, without question, the angriest, noisiest, bellow-iest car you can buy for less than a Mustang Boss 302. How is an engine this small so damn loud? It's like bending down to pet a chihuahua and having it snarl at you like a 200 pound mastiff.
Clip a leash on this power and take it for a walk and - oh dear Lord. With the traction control off (if it's dry, I highly advise you hit this button every time as well), the 500c surges through the corners, questing along down a winding back country road, while the open top lets in that glorious turbocharged four-pot aria.
What a wonderful little car. What a desperately horrible manual transmission. It's like a turkey baster stuck in a vat of porridge.
The handling's pretty tippy too, the 500 has a very high seating position, so compared to the low-tothe-ground Cooper, it's not really a go-kart feel.
Happily, none of this matters. The car is simply so eager and grippy that overlooking its foibles takes no effort. In fact, they become part of the whole driving experience. The 500c transcends its packaging considerations and its economy car roots to become a simply enthralling driving experience.
It's just a little frontwheel drive four-cylinder convertible. But it thinks it's a Lamborghini.
Standard Abarth models come fully equipped with everything from Bluetooth to bucket seats, alloy wheels and foglights. This convertible version starts at $26,995, with the coupe costing $3,500 less.
16-inch alloy wheels are standard, but you can upgrade to 17- inch for $995, and there's a whole host of exterior customization to be fiddled with, from coloured mirror caps to striping and decals.
Leather seats cost $800, and having them heated up front will set you back $400 (not bad), and a premium audio system will cost $495 (also not bad). This last is punchy, but not exactly designed for faithfully reproducing the nuances of Vivaldi.
But who cares? You'll just be listening to the engine rumble anyway.
Official fuel ratings are at 7.1 litres/100 kilometres in the city and 5.7 l/100 km on the highway. The Abarth demands to be driven harder than that,
but it does fairly well even so. In mixed-use driving, I saw somewhere in the range of 7.5-8 l/100 km, which is fairly respectable given the con brio nature with which I drove the little car.
Green light Power; scrappy handling; wonderful engine note; open-air charm; puggish looks.
Stop sign Vague shifter; poor rear visibility; cheap-feeling audio controls; tight cargo area.
The checkered flag Just as much fun as it looks and sounds, a thoroughly disreputable little mafia thug that you can't help loving.
Competitors Mini Cooper S Convertible ($34,150) In almost every single measurable way, the Mini Cooper S is a better car than the Abarth 500c. It's better handling, it's more refined, it's less cartoonish (well, on the outside anyway), it's more powerful.
It's also quite good fun to drive, and with a full folding roof, provides more of an open-air experience than the targa-style 500c. It also costs almost a third more - nearly $8,000! - and that's before you start adding options. I recently peeked in the showroom at a JCW version of one of these things and it stickered well over 50,000 bucks. Good heavens!
In addition, it's not like the 500c is any less fun because it might post slower lap times. Indeed, the reverse could be said to be true.
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