2017 Fiat 500C Abarth: The most fun you can have for less than $22,000

Fiat's little pocket-rocket with the killer exhaust note reminds us that excitement doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
4 min read

There are some cars in this world that just bring me joy. My daily-driver Mazda Miata is one, the Jeep Wrangler and Chevrolet ZR2 are others, and last week I got acquainted with another joyful little runabout, the 2017 Fiat 500C Abarth.

The Abarth was first introduced to the current Fiat lineup in 2012, playing on the heritage of the Italian Abarth racing team of yore. It sits above the naturally aspirated 500 and below the larger 500L in terms of price, and goes miles above them both in terms of fun.

2017 Fiat 500 Abarth

The Fiat has been around for a few years, but it hasn't lost any of its back-road zest.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The 500 Abarth sports a 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine, good for 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque when mated to a five-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is available, resulting in a bit less horsepower and a bit more torque, but this is a car that deserves the manual. Having said that, the gearbox could be a bit tighter, but its position high on the center stack, close to the steering wheel, makes for quick gear changes. I continually wound the thing up during my drive, reveling in the raucous exhaust note and poppy backfires when shifting. This thing might look adorable, but it sounds angry.

Don't let the cutsey looks of the 500 fool you, the Abarth is a certifiable sports car. Compared with the standard 500, the Abarth has stiffer suspension thanks to modified spring rates, unique control arms and a beefy 22-millimeter rear stabilizer bar.  I flung this baby around the twisties at speeds that would give my mother a heart attack, and the Abarth never wavered. The steering is quick, weighted on the heavy side, and offers as much feedback as expected from an electronically boosted setup. Bigger brakes inspired me to keep accelerating a bit longer before slowing for a turn.

And excitement? Even with the slightly sloppy transmission, the Abarth reminded me that an inexpensive car doesn't have to be a boring appliance. Every stoplight turned into a dragstrip countdown, every turn became the famed Corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Even just cruising along on the highway, a simple downshift to fourth and a mash on the throttle made the wee little Abarth zip around the cumbersome trucks that always seem to take up the fast lane.

Check out the cheap thrills of the 2017 Fiat 500C Abarth

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I drove continually in sport mode, not only because the cluster changed to a racy tachometer and a wide-open throttle gauge, showing how much my foot was buried on the gas, but also because it's only in sport mode that all 170 pound-feet of torque are available in every gear. In normal mode, torque is limited in first and second gear for better efficiency. EPA fuel ratings are 30 miles per gallon combined, about the same as the Mini Cooper convertible and the Mazda Miata.

My tester came with the optional Pirelli P-Zero tires mounted on 17-inch wheels. The stickier tires are worth the $1,395 upcharge and they definitely help limit understeer, despite the Abarth's 64/36 weight distribution.

While the 500C is technically a convertible, I'd call it more of a glorified sunroof. The cloth top can fully retract at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, but it's not a full droptop like on the Fiat 124. Instead the b- and c-pillars are left intact as well as the full outside frame of the roof. As such, those with sensitive ears might have a problem. I had to roll down at least one window to get the air pressure to equalize and relieve the discomfort in my ears.

2017 Fiat 500 Abarth

The Abarth gets a fun and funky interior, just don't expect any technology. Our tester didn't even have automatic headlights. 

Emme Hall/Roadshow

Like other cars at this price point, the Abarth is pretty light on driver aids and technology. It has a backup camera, a very basic version of the excellent Uconnect infotainment system and a USB port, but that's about it. Cruise control is standard, but don't even think about it working in stop-and-go traffic. Heck, there aren't even automatic headlights. I had to turn them on and off myself like it was 2004.

I would have welcomed blind-spot monitoring, even in a car this small. The b-pillar is right in the driver's side blind spot, making it tough to see motorcycles or smaller vehicles. An additional small side mirror helps somewhat, but be prepared to look, then look again before changing lanes.

The 2017 Fiat 500C Abarth starts at $21,490, while the hard top is just $19,995. That is a smokin' deal for all this fun. Included in the price is one day of instruction at Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, so you can wring the most out of your little pint-sized thrill-mobile.

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