It’s been a long time since you could buy an affordable Italian car in the United States. The dashing Alfa Romeo disappeared in the 1990s when its stylish appeal was overcome by miserable mechanics.
Now we are getting a second chance to lay our hands on something reasonably priced: the modern Fiat 500, known as the Cinquecento in Italy.
Just the right side of cute with a good dose of practicality, this two-door hatchback makes for a great city car. The cheapest 500 starts at $15,500.
Still, you wouldn’t call it sporty. To get your adrenaline into the act, opt for the 500 Abarth model, for about $22,000.
You’ll be forgiven if you are unfamiliar with the Abarth name. It’s Fiat’s in-house tuning division that has had a hand in a number of rally cars and racier road cars over the years.
Abarth’s distinctive logo, a large-pincered scorpion on a yellow and red badge affixed to the Fiat 500 Abarth pretty much says it all. A small package best handled with care.
My test car, costing $26,050, turns heads and elicits comment, like a piece of movable pop art. Painted the color of red jawbreaker candy, it’s just as hot.
A white stripe runs down the side (a $350 option), making the red look even redder. It’s like a fashion accessory, especially with the aluminum wheels painted white.
“That’s a very stylish little car,” says a woman at a grocery store. “What country makes it?”
When told it’s Italian, she nods her head. “It had to be,” she says softly, covetously.
I turn the key (and I’m very happy to have an actual key and not a “stop/start” button) and the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine burbles into extremely animated life. The noise from the tailpipe is tuned to a motorcycle-esque buzz.
The regular 500 has just 101 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque. The Abarth is supplemented by a turbo charger, boosting power significantly to 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque.
I put the five-speed manual into first gear and rip away. No automatic transmission is available either, another old- school detail I love.
Even during hard starts, there’s no torque steer, the bothersome effect of the front wheels wrenching to the side common with powerful front-wheel-drive cars. It’s a sign that Fiat engineers were paying attention to this car’s sporty suspension.
Though the Abarth’s suspension is firm, it doesn’t beat you up, and feels comfortable even on big bumps or choppy pavement. Especially nice when you compare it to the overly rigid ride of the Mini Cooper John Cooper Works, another small-city car that gets the peppier treatment and is an obvious competitor.
The Mini has more than 200 hp and handles better. Too bad I’m utterly bored with it.
The 500 Abarth is just the right size for jamming between other vehicles in busy traffic. You’ll surge ahead of other cars as traffic lights change to green.
Parking is a cinch as the big front windows make it easy to see just how much space you have on either fender.
I like the action of the clutch and the manual transmission, which is almost effortless even in stalled traffic. The Fiat handles corners ably, is stable and sure at highway speeds and very confident at making lane changes.
It’s not cramped either, with a tall roof that gives a sense of airiness. As for storage, the two rear seats fold down, though they do not sit flush with the floor.
I had two issues with the Abarth. My car had optional, $1,000 high-back sports seats, which were manually operated and almost unbearably uncomfortable. I’m not sure who has a back shaped to those contours, but I bet he or she has a chiropractor.
The other issue was subtler, but irritating: In the driver’s side floorboard, the three foot pedals are significantly offset to the right. There’s plenty of excess room to rest your left foot on the dead pedal, but to operate the gas I had to twist slightly in my seat. Odd.
I recently got the chance to drive a vintage Fiat 500 from the early 1970s. The 500 L had a 499 cc engine with 17 hp — many riding lawn mowers have more power. It didn’t have a sequential transmission, which meant having to double clutch to get it into first gear, and I floored the accelerator almost constantly.
Still, the car was so simple, so cute and so much fun that I was utterly won over.
It felt more like piloting an enclosed motorcycle than a real car. I flitted through traffic with impunity, a smile glued to my face.
The Abarth retains a healthy dose of that old-time purity, without too many driver aids or fussy electronics. It’s the sports car for those with modest means, but with Italian ride ambitions.