2016 fiat 500 abarth auto
Patrick Rall's picture

A Review of the Fiat 500 Abarth Automatic: Great Fun with Just Two Pedals

Since the Fiat 500 Abarth was introduced, it has been my favorite car in the subcompact class without any real competition, but with the introduction of the automatic transmission for the Abarth, could the turbocharged 500 be as much fun? Not quite – but it is very close.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. A great many people will insist that a compact performance car like the Fiat 500 Abarth should only be offered with a manual transmission, as that puts the most power to the ground and creates a more engaging driving experience. The 500 Abarth is my favorite subcompact sold in the US because it is just so much fun to drive and there is no question that some of that fun to drive factor comes from the manual transmission. Swapping the manual transmission out in favor of the heavy duty automatic does make the car a little less fun for someone who can handle the third pedal, but when compared to pretty much any other sporty subcompact sold in the US with an automatic transmission – the 500 Abarth is still superior.

The Most Fun, Not the Cheapest
While the Fiat 500 Abarth is the most entertaining subcompact sold in the US market, all of that fun comes with a cost. My Abarth test car had a base price of $22,575, but when you add in the automatic transmission ($1,350), the stunning Giallo Moderno Perla paint ($500), the Beats audio system ($700), the comfort and convenience package ($995), the black headlight bezels ($250), the white body stripe/mirror cap package ($450), the 16 inch performance wheels ($550), the rear park assist system ($250) and the $995 destination fee, the price as tested was $28,595.

16 500 abarth fr

However, if you are focusing on fun on a budget when shopping for a new Fiat 500 Abarth, you can get likely skip the comfort package, the yellow paint, the Beats audio system, the black headlights, the stripe/mirror package and the rear park system and save yourself $3,145 for an MSRP of $25,450.

It should be noted that while this is a 2016 Fiat 500 Abarth, FCA announced a big price cut for the 2017 500, including the Abarth model. Rather than the starting price of $22,575, the 2017 Abarth 500 with the manual transmission starts at just $19,995. This price cut comes without any removal of content, so if you waited for the 2017 Fiat 500 Abarth – you are going to save almost $3,000.

Pricing aside, the 2016 Fiat 500 Abarth is relatively unchanged for the 2017 model year, so let’s continue with my review of the automatic transmission model.

Same Great Abarth Styling
The Fiat 500 Abarth with the automatic transmission is physically identical to the manual models inside and out, with the basic changes required between a manual and automatic shifter. Other than that, the self-shifting 500 Abarth has the same design on the outside and the same comfortable interior as the high performance hatch with the 3rd pedal.

16 500 abarth rear sq

On the outside, the Fiat 500 Abarth has a unique front and rear fascia, with enlarged air ducts up front and room for the dual exhaust out back. Oh that sweet, sweet dual exhaust. Abarth logos all around combined with the lightweight Abarth-branded wheels remove any doubt that this isn’t a run of the mill Fiat 500, and when you put the whole package together – there is nothing in this class that is anywhere near as sporty looking as the Abarth 500.

While the aggressive exterior design is a great feature of the Fiat 500 Abarth, the interior is even more impressive.(More on Page 2)

16 500 abarth seats

The front seats are surprisingly roomy, with enough room to comfortably seat someone over 6 feet tall. I know that by speaking with several 500 Abarth owners who are over 6 feet tall, all of whom love their Fiat. At 5’10”, I find the 500 interior to be plenty roomy in either of the front seats and with some careful positioning of the front seats, this car can seat four people. Granted, all four need to be shorter than I am, but in the case of a young couple with two kids, the Abarth 500 should accommodate your family until the kids get bigger. The sporty front seats are contoured deeply enough to keep you soundly in your seat during stints of spirited driving, but they are wide enough to accommodate drivers of all sizes and – most importantly – they are comfortable enough for every day driving.

The Drive
The exterior design and the surprisingly spacious interior are a few reasons why I like the Fiat 500 Abarth so much, but at the end of the day, nothing is as important as how much fun this little car is to drive. Although the Fiat 500 Abarth with the manual and automatic transmission share a turbocharged 1.4L engine, the two transmissions have their own unique engine tunes which result in different power levels. The manual transmission models offer 160 horsepower and 170lb-ft of torque while the automatic transmission is paired to an engine with 157 horsepower and 183lb-ft of torque, and that resulting extra torque helps to even out the drivetrain loss of the automatic transmission.

16 500 abarht engine

The 6-speed automatic transmission doesn’t include paddle shifters, but you can manually shift the Fiat 500 Abarth with the console shifter and this method offers a solid amount of control. Mind you, it isn’t as acute as the manual transmission (obviously), but thanks to the addition of rev matching downshifts, the automatic transmission offers the most engaging experience that it can. That sounds like a slight, but it really isn’t meant to be. The issue is that the manual transmission in the Abarth offers that special something that you don’t get with the automatic, but when comparing similar sports cars with the two transmission types – the Fiat 500 Abarth doesn’t suffer like some cars. The key differences are on launch and the stiffness of shifts, but again, as automatics go, Fiat did a nice job equipping one that doesn’t kill the fun of this subcompact sports car.(More on Page 3)

16 500 abarth low fr

Aside from the transmission, the Fiat 500 Abarth with the automatic drives and handles every bit as well as the manual models. The turbocharged 1.4L engine is still the best sounding 4-cylider from the factory sold in the US, with a pleasant crackle when you take advantage of the rev matching feature. The manual model does offer a little more auditory goodness since you can spend more time with the clutch in, revving the engine, but in terms of hard acceleration and deceleration, the exhaust sounds just as sweet.

500 abarth dash auto

Most importantly, the Fiat 500 Abarth with the automatic transmission maintains the same braking and handling capabilities of the manual models, making this the most entertaining car of its type to toss into the turns. The high performance braking system with 11.1 inch front rotors and 9.4 inch rear rotors allow the 500 Abarth to stop on a dime and the Koni performance tuned suspension system affords the little 2-door Fiat remarkable cornering grip. I have tested the 500 Abarth on a few different road courses and autocross tracks, and I don’t believe that there is a car of this size sold in America that will take a hard turn like this fun little Fiat. The steering system is sharp and responsive, so whether you are tackling long, sweeping turns or a series of short, tight turns – the Fiat 500 Abarth with the automatic transmission is a remarkable driver’s car.

16 500 abarth klow rear

Also, it should be noted that the Fiat 500 Abarth suspension system is far stiffer than your average subcompact and that leads to a rougher ride than most tiny cars, but the ride quality of the Abarth 500 is smooth enough for daily driving – especially for someone who really enjoys the drive.

The Final Word
The Fiat 500 Abarth is my favorite subcompact sold in America and while swapping to the automatic transmission removes some of the fun, the self-shifting 500 Abarth is still the most engaging car of its type in the US market. It pulls hard for a small car and it handles like a dream, all while offering a surprisingly spacious interior for passengers and a smooth ride during daily drive.

16 500 abarth broad side

If you can drive a manual transmission and you are considering a Fiat 500 Abarth, you want to buy one with a manual transmission. However, if you cannot drive a manual transmission, the 500 Abarth without a clutch pedal is still one of the most engaging small cars sold in America and – even with the automatic transmission – this is my favorite subcompact in the US market.

As it turns out, the Fiat 500 Abarth is a great little performance car regardless of the transmission, especially for those who like to carve through life’s curves.


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