City cars used to be darling European tourist decorations. “Oh honey, look at that little car parked in that doorway, how cute. I don’t know how they get around in those things.” Funny how tripled gas prices will change our perspective. They can’t handle a Costco run for Kate plus 8, but for many, city cars offer easy parking, fuel frugality, and a chic talking point. Mini and now Fiat are the “new Beetle” to the New Beetle.
Today we’re looking at Fiat’s most interesting imports: the Fiat 500 Abarth, a cherry bomb with Coach purse cache that made Charlie Sheen lovable (a trick that makes Copperfield jealous) versus the new Fiat 500e; a 500 with the heart of a Roomba. A turbo-charged Scorpion (Abarth’s logo) against leafy-green? Why? Well, because both refuse to be a “normal” 500. The normal 500 is a slow ball of adorable. People buy it because it’s the new Mini, even though the Mini is a superior automobile. It’s a toy poodle.
But the Abarth and the 500e have personalities, they’re never boring, but they do require some concessions.
2013 Fiat 500 Abarth
I have driven the Fiat 500 Abarth on several occasions and arenas, including city streets, back roads, and Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. I have this angry 2,500lb barstool and wrung its 160hp/170tq. Turbo-charged 4-banger well past legal speeds. Conclusion: It is just as fun as it looks, with a few problems that some (not I) chalk up to “being Italian”. The combo of a powerful engine, loud exhaust, fast steering and short overhang make you want to forget traffic manners. The other cars become trees to slalom. But it can also cruise for 34MPG highway, and hold as much as a Mini Cooper.
Complaints: The driving position is a bit bus-like; you press onto the pedals more than push into them. The short wheelbase and 64/36-weight distribution make it feel unstable above 70MPH, or braking hard from high speed. It’s not Fiat’s fault, I blame Isaac Newton, but it is a fact. I also found the gauges’ hard to read at a glance; orange lighting needs to go the way of dinosaurs.
Think of a 5’4” Irishman, boisterous and energetic. He stands lower than everyone, yet has everyone’s attention. Park it in a broom closet, tear through a city, and it can carry speed through corners too, though you never feel really planted. It’s a $25,000 pint-sized loudmouth.
2013 Fiat 500e
The first thing Fiat wants you to know about this car: it’s a car. No leaf emblems, it doesn’t advertise its drivetrain, it doesn’t look like whatever it is a Prius looks like, you don’t have to worry about feeding it after midnight. It’s a normal car.
And you know what? It is, basically.
Inside there is a key to turn and a push-button automatic with the alphanumeric letters one expects. It has the same interior as the other Fiat, the same wheel, windows, and stereo. Luggage space is almost equal (the charger takes up 2 feet) the only real giveaway is the 7” color screen behind the wheel that provides the usual EV information (charge, regenerative braking, etc). Detectives might notice smaller wheels and tires and a slightly more aerodynamic body. Want to sell EVs? Follow this model, which I’ll refer to as “Stealth green”.
It also drives like a car. Key on, push ‘D’, pull away. The tires don’t grip like the Abarth and the steering is slower, but the electric engine makes 111hp (83kW) and 147ft-lbs of torque, so it feels quick. In town, torque is what you want, and all of it is available at zero RPM.
It weighs about 500lbs more than the Abarth, and it’s not nearly as reactive, but it’s still a lot of fun, and the extra weight makes it feel more stable at speed.
“Oh yeah??? What if I want to drive to Alaska?!” No problem. Dodge/Fiat are giving you 12 days of free Enterprise rental cars each year. And, after the government’s $7,500 credit, the 500e’s price is even with the Abarth. Throw in more credits from states like CA (even more, depending on your city), and this can be a $20,000 electric car, and a good-looking one to boot.
As I road this near-silent roller coaster I felt all my distaste for the Abarth washing away. This Fiat isn’t trying to be a Mini Cooper S (a contest the Abarth loses), it’s on its own, a true individual. That’s why it succeeds. Small, cool, torquey, no fuel costs, win. For a city dweller, this car makes perfect sense.
A Prius is…a Prius. Snooze. But a Fiat 500 has style, panache, and cred. Whether you tell people it’s electric is up to you.
(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by Fiat.)