Italian cars have a bit of a reputation, and it’s both good and bad. The good part of their reputation is that they’re usually pretty, and fun to drive. There’s something that the Italians and their automotive engineers just get about the act of driving, and about how a car should look. The bad part of their reputation is that they don’t get everything else about cars, like, say, reliability. The bad part of that reputation has lingered in the US, because Fiat and Lancia bid goodbye to these shores in the early 1980s after a series of disastrously unreliable cars, followed by Alfa Romeo in the early 1990s.

Fiat’s Lancia brand fared the worst, as it was essentially killed by rust. If you bought a new Lancia Beta and left it parked in the rain overnight, the next morning there was just a reddish-brown pile of rubble, with a pristine tire at each corner, and some sad little electrical cables poking out of the front.

Yet, this was the same company that brought us the Lancia Stratos, a nearly perfect 70s supercar. It dominated the rally circuit for half of the 70s–indeed, it started a new era in rallying. It was, by all accounts, insanely fun to drive, despite its lovably forgivable little attempts to murder you if you got the teeniest bit careless in the corners.

Nowadays, of course, pretty much everyone makes acceptably reliable cars, and that includes Fiat, thanks to the miracle of modern industrial production. Also, nowadays, Fiat is back in the US with the reborn Fiat 500. It’s a cute subcompact hatchback that looks very much like the original 500 of the 1950s. Sadly, with it’s little 100 HP motor, and roly-poly chassis, it’s about as fast as a 1950s Fiat 500, too.

But Fiat has its own in-house racing and performance team, Abarth, and they’ve produced a Fiat 500 that is…different.

How it looks

Oh. My. God. It’s adorable!

From the outside the Abarth looks very much like a regular 500. There’s no aggressively swoopy bodywork. Abarth has kept it simple. The Fiat badges have been replaced by Abarth ones. And Abarth scorpion badges are on the side. And in back. And inside. There’s a racing stripe with “Abarth” written on the side. So, really, quite a lot of scorpions visible from any angle. Alright, so maybe it’s not all that simple, or subtle.There’s also a noticeably larger, but, one suspects, quite non-functional spoiler above the rear hatch.

Overall, it’s a very retro-inspired design, and it follows what American manufacturers are doing by giving new cars updated versions of classic designs. But, whereas the modern Ford Mustang looks like it doesn’t belong in this century, the 500 does. This is because Italian auto designers in Turin know what they’re doing, and American ones in Dearborn do not.

On the other hand, when you sit inside a Mustang, everything makes sense. In a 500 Abarth, it does not. Because, while the Italians design the outside of cars beautifully, Italian ergonomics are as quirky as they’ve ever been. The seats seem to sit you a bit high, as if you were on the car, rather than in it. The gearshift sticks out of the center console at a slightly odd angle. The handbrake is inaccessible when the driver’s side armrest is down. The glove box cannot be opened without removing the passenger’s legs. It’s like everything you expect to be there is there, but wrong.

Then there’s the driver’s instrument console. It’s a large circular instrument panel, with the gauges arrayed in concentric rings. The outer ring is all warning lights. The next ring in is the speedometer. Inboard of that is the tachometer. Then, in the center, there’s a round digital display showing the fuel state, oil temperature, trip computer, and other functions. Mounted at the lower left of the main instrument cluster is a round turbo boost pressure gauge. It’s all pretty enough, I suppose, and it certainly uses the small space well, but it is, let’s face it, a bit too cute and odd.

It’s circles, all the way down.

It is comfortable inside the Abarth, though. The leather seats are very nice—luxurious even—and beautifully designed, with attractive stitched piping, and good bolstering. The leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel feels nice as well, and has all the usual function controls. There’s plenty of room up front, too, so the driver and passenger never feel cramped, despite the car’s small size.

Actually, the plastic dash looks much better in red.

One thing Fiat has gotten right is their use of hard plastic in the interior. They didn’t do any tomfoolery with a fake carbon fiber or brushed aluminum looks. They simply color-matched it to the exterior of the car, and given it a high gloss. The result is bright, fun, and attractive. Unless you buy a black one, of course. In which case there’s a lot of shiny black hard plastic everywhere. It looks nice in the other colors, though.

In the back, the leather bench seats are reasonably comfortable, with good leg room as well. Sadly, headroom is a bit of a problem, as there isn’t any. Happily, the headliner is cloth covered and so well padded that it’s almost a pleasure to bump your head against it. Constantly. There are circular headrests on the rear seat backs, though I have no idea why, since your head will come to a stop against the sloping roof long before it ever touches them.

With the rear seats up, the trunk space is laughable. With them, down, it’s actually quite good, and makes the Abarth practical for cargo, if not passengers.

There’s also a sat-nav package available. By this, I mean that Fiat will give you a TomTom and a mounting bracket for the dash. They’ll expect you to pay them $600 for that. So, here’s a piece of advice: If you want a TomTom, go to Best Buy. They’ll sell you one with a 6-inch screen for $176.

How it drives

The 500 Abarth is powered by a 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged inline-4 that outputs 160 HP and 170 torques. (Yes, this is the same American-built Fiat/Alfa Romeo engine that’s in the Dodge Dart.) With a light curb weight of 2,600 lbs, that means the speedometer will read 60 MPH in 6.8 seconds, and you’ll cross the quarter-mile marker in 15 seconds.

That doesn’t sound all that fast, but from the inside of the Abarth, it certainly seems fast. Probably, this is because the 170 lb-ft of torque come on early, at 2,500 RPM, and stay there until 4,000 rpm. So, while this may not be so good for the track, lacking a screaming top end, all that down-low grunt is perfect for city driving, and embarrassing smug Miata pilots from stoplight to stoplight.

The suspension is radically beefed up and lowered from the standard 500, so the body roll has been tamed. Fortunately, they haven’t completely sacrificed day-to-day ride comfort. You might not want to take the Abarth on a cross country trip, because the extra stiffness would eventually get to you, but around town, and for commuting, it’s fine.

It does make the perceived speed a bit deceptive, though. You go tearing along the road, engine screaming, at what seems to be a dangerously excessive speed. Then you look at the speedometer, and notice you’re doing 43 MPH.

At actual higher speeds, the Abarth handles very…interestingly. What Abarth has done is boosted the steering ratio, so you can go from lock to lock in 2.3 turns of the wheel. In addition, they’ve added a lot more negative camber to the front wheels, to make turn-in quicker. On top of all that, the Abarth has a wheelbase of 90.6 inches. Compare and contrast to the Ford Focus ST and Mazdaspeed3, with their 104 inches, or 101.5 inches for the VW Golf R.

Frankly, while this makes the Abarth a hoot to drive around town, it makes driving the 500 Abarth at higher speeds a little frightening. The short wheelbase and high steering ratio means that you’ll want to forget about any sort of grandiose driver inputs at the wheel. On the other hand, despite having 64% of it’s weight over the front wheel and having front-wheel drive, understeer isn’t a big problem. It’s going to go haring off in a different direction not from just wheel inputs, but from torque changes, too, especially with the traction control off. Let’s just say that the Abarth can get twitchy at higher speeds.

Also, hard braking with that short wheelbase can offer directional challenges as well. Which is not to say that braking is actually dangerous, but the Abarth will tend to want to wander off in a different direction. It’s best to treat driving the 500 Abarth as if it was a fun little game called, “which way will we go if there is any change to braking, torque or road surface?”

The ABS brakes aren’t really good, as the stopping distance is a disappointing 123 feet at 60 MPH. A Mini can do it in 115 feet. A Subaru WRX STI—which weighs almost 1,000 pounds more—can do it in 104. The brakes will not get you out of trouble faster than you can get into it. They also have a tendency to fade under hard use.

Fiat says the 500 Abarth is a track-ready machine. I don’t think it is. At normal speeds, on a twisty mountain road, it’s a hoot to drive moderately quickly. It’s hugely fun, agile, and convenient to drive around town. It really has a lot of charm and character—and a great exhaust note, by the way. All-out, on the track…I dunno. It wouldn’t be my choice. The Abarth’s forte is public roads, where it provokes huge grins, not a track, where it just seems like it would be too tall, with a higher center of gravity, and the brakes too weak and prone to fade, to really enjoy. Frankly, for the $25,000 a decently-specced Abarth costs, you could get something that would be way more fun on a track day.

Finally, we come to the 5-speed manual transmission, which is the only one available. The shifter feels good, despite the odd angle at which it sticks out from the center console. The throws are reasonably short and positive, without a lot of play. It’s not a great shifter, but it’s certainly above average. The friction point on the clutch is very high, and it takes a bit of getting used to. I like to feel the friction point a little deeper into the pedal, rather than having it engage when I almost fully let out the clutch.

What’s good about it

The 500 Abarth is quick and responsive for a subcompact car, with plenty of comfort for driver and one passenger. It has a practical amount of cargo space available in back. It’s beautiful little car. It’s insanely fun to drive around town, or on country roads. It gets 34 MPG on the highway, so it’s decently economical. As a quick and agile city car, it’s pretty good, and it has a wicked exhaust sound.

What’s bad about it

The short wheelbase makes it prone to a bit of directional instability, so at highway speeds, it’s not relaxing. For example, on the deeply rain-grooved southern California highways, it wants to wander. It squirms under hard braking, and the brakes are just average. The Italian ergonomics will irritate you, unless you can accept them as Italian charm. The rear passenger space lacks headroom. The expensive TomTom option for sat-nav is silly.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a quick and fun city car, then much about the Fiat 500 Abarth fits the bill. If you want a focused driver’s car, then it probably won’t. Unlike the Italian imports of the past, the Fiat 500's roots are as an affordable, small commuter car for city dwellers. That’s an inherently limiting design. Abarth has transformed the bog-standard commuter car into something approaching the best a city car can be, but it remains, at heart, a city car.

But now, I am curious about one thing. What could Abarth do to a Fiat Panda 4x4? I think I’d like to see that.