Why am I quoting Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s tale in the review of a small Fiat? Well, much like oddly colored eggs and ham, for the 500C Abarth, Fiat has taken something formerly palatable and added a rather bizarre quality – a six-speed automatic transmission.
“I do not like an auto trans,” I said. “I’d only drive it in a van.” What would happen to the 500 Abarth’s hilariously charming and flawed character? Isn’t an automatic gearbox diametrically opposed to the cheap and cheerful driving pleasure inherent in the scorpion-badged Cinquecento? After a week behind the wheel, I was shocked to find that the auto Abarth is nearly as entertaining as its clutch-equipped counterpart.
- The Aisin six-speed automatic is beefed up for the higher torque of the hot 500 Abarth, and the final drive ratio is shorter. Despite the Abarth’s spicier character, the shifter retains the same PRNDL pattern and piano-black surround as the standard 500. While I laud Fiat for offering a correct shifter layout to the manual-shifting scheme – pull to upshift and push to downshift – that smart move is overshadowed by the lack of wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
- There’s not much else to complain about with the new automatic, because on the road it delivers similar performance to the five-speed manual. Upshifts are smooth and quick in the standard setting, and only get sharper if you push the Sport button on the dash. On top of that, wide-open-throttle upshifts show off the sonorous voice of the Abarth-tuned exhaust. It pops and cracks and belches in a horribly, hilariously anti-social way. I love it.
- The twin pipes are just as vocal on the rev-matched downshifts. The gearbox isn’t as quick to drop ratios as some of its two-pedal competitors, like the dual-clutch-equipped Volkswagen GTI or even the traditional automatic offered in the Mini Cooper S (coincidentally also an Aisin unit). That said, the difference isn’t significant enough to count as a major demerit.
- One minor change with the transmission is the power output. While the manual model has 160 horsepower, the auto drops to 157. Torque, though, is up from 170 pound-feet to 183 lb-ft. The added twist might make something of a difference on a stopwatch, but I didn’t notice much via the seat of my pants.
- In terms of refinement, the automatic Abarth still doesn’t hold a candle to the hot hatches mentioned previously, but it’s much more civilized than the stick-shift car. With the prominent exhaust note and one less ratio the manual is, to be polite, utterly obnoxious at highway speeds. At 70 miles per hour, the engine in the automatic spins at a reasonable 2,300 rpm instead of about 3,000 in the manual.
- Highway fuel economy drops by four miles per gallon, while the city economy falls 2 mpg. That means 24 mpg city, 32 highway for those keeping score. My average was a bit lower than the city number, although we weren’t surprised considering how much we revved the Abarth to hear that exhaust.
- The single most impressive thing about the automatic-equipped 500 Abarth is not its driving dynamics or improved refinement. It’s the fact that even sans clutch, this Italian’s wonderful personality is wholly unaffected. I spent a full week at the helm, and with spring in bloom, the canvas roof peeled back, Sport mode engaged and the console-mounted shifter slotted into manual mode, I simply couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. Until I looked at the price tag.
- As we explained in our original Quick Spin on the 500C Abarth, it’s kind of expensive. With a starting price of $26,395 (the hardtop is $4,000 less), an extra $1,350 for the six-speed auto and an $900 destination charge, you’re looking at dropping at least $28,645 just to get rolling. This tester added a $700 Beats Audio Package (which isn’t loud enough with the top down at highway speeds), the $900 Comfort and Convenience Package (automatic temperature control, single-stage heated front seats and SiriusXM satellite radio), $250 black headlight housings, $450 black mirror caps and body stripes, a $600 TomTom navigation system and $550 for those handsome 16-inch wheels. Total price out the door is $32,095.
I’ll admit, I found the mere thought of an automatic Fiat 500 Abarth to be distasteful. An automatic gearbox has the potential to compromise the charm of a sporty car, even in today’s world of super-quick automatics and dual-clutch units. But that’s not the case with the 500 Abarth. The six-speed auto hardly sacrifices performance or character. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “I do so like this auto trans. Thank you. Thank you, Sergio M.”