Slick scorpion lets the fun shine in, blogs Dan Scanlan.
To fully appreciate the Abarth-edition Fiat 500, you have to drive it. Between its snarling exhaust note, turbo whistle and go-kart acceleration and handling, this pug-nosed compact has magnetic appeal. Its fold-back cloth top and integrated roof spoiler make it even more appealing. At a touch of a button, al fresco motoring can brighten up any day!

Fiat’s scorpion gets its sting from a l.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled 16-valve SOHC Four rated at 160 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and generating 170 pound-feet of torque starting at 2,500 rpm.  A deeper lower air intake, flanked by brake inlets and mesh grilles, adds some menace to the Fiat 500’s smiley face. There’s a black lower lip air dam that flows around both edges, with more ducts ahead of the thin-spoke white Abarth wheels wearing sticky P205/40R17-inch Pirelli P-Zero Nero rubber. The performance rubber gives the convertible a wide stance and lower ride height; the white wheels show off red painted brake calipers.  

More changes include wider Abarth-designed side skirts with white staccato side stripes, neatly contrasting our tester’s black diamond paint. Big Abarth scorpion badges adorn the rear fenders. The minimal rear overhang emphasizes the aero under-bumper diffuser and its big stainless steel exhaust tips. A small trunk lid replaces the standard large hatchback.

The Abarth’s metallic black exterior extends inside to the dash, with a chrome 500C badge above the OK glove box with USB and MP3 audio inputs inside. The high-mounted five-speed shifter has a big leather-clad knob with Abarth badge, flanked by power window switches.

The three-spoke steering wheel gets a fat leather-clad rim with contrasting double red stitching and a flattened bottom. Under black leather hooded binnacle with red stitching is a big 160-mph speedometer circling an 8,000-rpm tach with an orange LCD trip computer display in the center with clock, outside temperature and engine temperature and gas gauges. Hard black plastic tops the rest of the dash, with a 4.3-inch TomTom navigation unit that unclips for storage, but was too far to easily reach and had problems understanding voice commands. The gauge package has an Abarth-specific turbo boost gauge with an upshift reminder dead center.

Black high-back leather buckets up front have dual red stitching down the middle and a racing harness pass-through under the head restraint. Aggressive-looking side bolsters worked OK, but were more comfortable than sports car supportive. Due to the folding top and sub-woofer, trunk space is boxy but small, although the split folding rear seat backs expand storage space.

The top can be manually slid back to the spoiler at speeds up to 60-mph, acting like a huge sunroof. Tap the button and it accordions further, folding down just shy of the rear head restraints. Closed, it’s taut and blends right in with our test car’s gloss black painted roof sides. Slid all the way back and it blocks rear vision. Since the roof sides are intact, wind buffeting is less than in most other full drop-tops, while there’s more structural rigidity.

Fire up the Abarth’s boosted Four and it literally barks to life. I loved it, especially when pushing it. The 500C Abarth is only 33 pounds heavier than the tin-top coupe, so I expected comparable times and I wasn’t disappointed. The Cab hit 60 mph in 6.5 seconds at the top end of Second gear. The open-air soundtrack also included a nice bit of turbo whistle and an even better popping snap/crackle on high-rpm shifts.

Passing power was only a downshift away and boost was available in Fifth gear when a leisurely pass was needed on the highway. The slightly rubbery five-speed manual did occasionally hang up going for Second. We recorded an average 24-mpg (premium). It could use a six-speed.

The Abarth gets 23 percent larger equal-length half shafts to mitigate torque steer, which I still felt when pushing hard in First on some pavement. The inside wheel will also spin with power in a turn as well, just before traction control butts in hard. Our Abarth’s McPherson strut front suspension had a 40 percent stiffer spring rate than the base model, with cast-iron front lower control arms for more lateral stiffness. There’s also an increase in negative camber for better grip. In back, a 40 percent more torsionally rigid axle with strengthened coil-spring supports and a solid stabilizer bar, with KONI shocks.

The suspension upgrades result in a very firm ride with some bounce over bumps, and a bit of front-rear bounce over tar strips and small speed bumps due to its short wheelbase. It stays nicely balanced in turns and the tighter 15.1:1 steering-gear ratio and the firmer steering feel on “Sport” result in a lot of fun and road feel. The brakes have a precise feel and good stopping power thanks to 1-inch-larger (11.1-inch) ventilated rotors up front and 9.4-inchers in back. They were resistant to fade after repeated hard use.

A base Fiat 500 starts at $15,500, the 500 Abarth coupe starts at $22,000 and our 500C Abarth began at $26,000. With destination fee, our loaded Abarth had a heady $31,100 MSRP.

With the top closed, the 500C Abarth is a civilized little hooligan of an Italian sports coupe with a perky engine and great handling. Top down, it is a true dose of dolce vita with a side of euphoric engine snarl. And that’s why I love it.

For more information about the Fiat 500 and its variants, please visit http://www.fiatusa.com/en/lineup/