By Aaron Bragman on July 3, 2014
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
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman grew up in the Detroit area, comes from an automotive family and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Email Aaron