Fiat's plucky little 500 Abarth has gained a reputation among performance enthusiasts as a fun, snorty, raucous little hot hatch. With its 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder pumping 160 horsepower out of a specially tuned, snapping, popping, rasping exhaust system and its go-kart-like handling, it's a monster on the track — and something of a monster on the street as well.
It's mainly been an enthusiast's toy because it's only been available with a five-speed manual transmission. But stick shifts are falling out of favor with U.S. buyers, so in the interest of expanding the Abarth's appeal Fiat added a six-speed automatic transmission for 2015. I had an opportunity to drive the new automatic Abarth Cabrio at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan and it won't let enthusiasts down.
The new 500 Abarth got a couple of other upgrades beyond the newly optional transmission, including a completely digital gauge cluster behind the steering wheel. Switch into Sport mode and it even reconfigures to show more performance-oriented information against a checkered-flag background. Sport mode also changes the shift pattern, power delivery and exhaust note, holding gears longer and keeping the 500 Abarth in a lower gear for more immediate response.
The automatic is surprisingly good at knowing what gear the 500 Abarth needs to be in given its environment — I took the car on Chrysler's road course handling track, a twisty loop of fast curves, a couple of long straights and one or two long sweepers, and it felt as composed and eager as the manual-transmission version. On a longer high-speed highway loop, the automatic felt smooth and calm, kicking down quickly for passing when necessary. I was actually more comfortable in the automatic than in the stick-shift car due to the fact that I could sit farther away from the steering wheel. Since there was no need to get close enough to fully depress the clutch, I was able to get into a more natural seating posture and could comfortably drive the car for a longer period of time.
The 2015 500 Abarth coupe starts at $23,045 for a manual-transmission model — selecting the six-speed automatic will add $2,450 to that price as you must also select a leather interior. That brings the least-expensive 500 Abarth automatic to $25,495. That's not cheap, but it is pretty well equipped on features and technology. Manual cabrio models start at $27,045, with automatics coming in at $29,495; all prices include an $850 destination fee.
Both 2015 models with the new automatic go on sale later this year.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman