Driving at the ragged edge

In a world where sports car makers strive to implement control, making it so every input meets a precise response, the 2016 Fiat 500 Abarth feels refreshing in its madness. Its little engine snorts with a downright unruly sound and occasionally backfires for good measure. Taking the this little car through the twisties, its point of grip remains an ever-changing target.

The 500 Abarth delivers a thrill ride that, over a week's drivetime, whitened my knuckles and made me clench repeatedly through its willingness to ride the edge.

The Abarth's base model, the Fiat 500, seems an unlikely candidate for such a madcap little car. The 500 hews to its historic roots, with an extremely compact size making it perfect for cities, a small engine delivering good economy but not much power, and Italian flair in its styling to make it stand out in an often bland segment.

2016 Fiat 500 Abarth

Bump the Fiat 500's horsepower by more than a third, tune the suspension a bit, and you've got an Abarth.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

A modified version of the same car, the 500 Abarth retains the flair and compactness, but it gains a turbocharger, bringing its 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine up from 101 horsepower to 160, while torque peaks at 183 pound-feet. At least, the 500 Abarth with a five-speed manual sports those numbers. FCA, Fiat's parent company, delivered a six-speed automatic version that rates 157 horsepower and only 170 pound-feet of torque.

To round out the 500 Abarth, Fiat tunes the suspension for improved handling, lowering the car, improves the brakes and fits it with wider tires than the stock 500.

Despite the small size, I didn't find the 500 Abarth too cramped when I got in the driver's seat. However, the rear seat was no treat, so I'm glad I had the keys. A body-color panel, in my car's Celeste Blu paint job, ran across the dashboard, giving a retro look. Plastic buttons and panels looked cheap, but I wouldn't expect much better in a $22,000 car. Automatic climate control, part of the $975 Popular Equipment package, was a nice touch. Call me spoiled, but I was disappointed at the lack of automatic headlights.

Up on the dashboard, a 5-inch touchscreen shows FCA's bottom-tier Uconnect system, combining stereo and Bluetooth hands-free phone system. Finding my way around the menus proved easy enough, and the touchscreen responded quickly. That was as good as it gets in the 500 Abarth, though, as Fiat doesn't make navigation available. The system also doesn't support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, so I used the old-fashioned method of navigation, leaving my phone visible on the passenger seat.

The Beats audio system, a $700 option, included in this car proved worthy of the Abarth theme. This 368-watt system, with six speakers and an 8-inch subwoofer, retained its fidelity even with the volume up high, the deep and satisfying bass vying with the engine's ragged growl for audio dominance.

2016 Fiat 500 Abarth

Images of the Abarth scorpion abound in the car.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

When I cruised on the freeway, that engine occasionally sounded tame. But the second I stepped into the throttle, it roared as the turbo pressure gauge on the dashboard shot upwards. Even with the automatic, the 500 Abarth delivers its acceleration without hesitation, the 2,512-pound curb weight doing little to discourage it.

Taking off from a stop, the 500 Abarth's untamed engine sound and shriek from the front tires likely made people think I was some sort of hooligan.

Fiat's suspension tuning doesn't make the ride quality uncomfortable, at least not more so than a stock 500. Over a variety of roads I always felt some welcome cushioning between my rear and the road. However, grippy Pirelli P-Zero Nero tires, wrapped around optional 17-inch rims, really wanted to follow grooved road surfaces, pulling the steering wheel right and left.

The madness really took hold on the back roads, when I tapped the Sport button and shifted the six-speed automatic myself. The gear changes felt reasonably quick, although I still would have preferred the manual transmission. Electric power steering allowed for direct input, but the height of the 500 Abarth led to my own uncertain feelings about how it would take the turns.

Pushing it, the geometry of the 500 Abarth made it feel ungainly. Instead of the way many of today's sports cars follow a line through the turns with surety, the 500 Abarth felt on the edge of control. That might be the kind of adrenaline-injecting feeling some drivers want, and not something most cars offer. It gives the 500 Abarth a sense of danger, complementing the ragged engine note.

2016 Fiat 500 Abarth

The 500 Abarth may not be the best car for cranking it through the turns, but it can be very entertaining.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

Back to conventions, the EPA rates the 500 Abarth at 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway for the six-speed automatic version, gaining up to 4 mpg for the manual version.

As to price, the base Fiat 500 runs a mere $14,995, but the 500 Abarth starts at $22,575. With options, including $1,350 for the automatic transmission and $1,400 for 17-inch wheels, the total for the car I drove came to $28,945.

Hotted-up compact cars going up against the 500 Abarth include hot hatches like the Ford Fiesta ST and John Cooper Works version of the Mini Cooper. Going a little larger, there is the Volkswagen Golf GTI and, sometime soon, a new generation for the Honda Civic Si. Although the Mini matches the 500 Abarth for style, none of these cars colors outside of the lines as much as the Fiat.

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