Motor Trend Picks the MINI Cooper S Coupe Over the Fiat 500 Abarth

There are a handful of inevitable comparisons when the MINI is mentioned. The Beetle. The Juke. The Smart. Since its announcement, the Fiat 500 has been compared with the MINI Cooper Hardtop ad nauseum. In our opinion, it’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, as the two cars really belong in different categories of performance — and that’s just the Cooper. Yet those who insist the two cars are comparable often point to the Abarth as the viable alternative to everything that’s “wrong” with the second generation MINI. So what happens when Motor Trend puts the Abarth head-to-head with the MINI Cooper S Coupe?

Truthfully, the Abarth is (on paper at least) a more comparable car performance-wise. Now I haven’t had a chance to get behind the wheel of one yet myself, so I’ll save my own evaluations for that time. It’s an interesting comparison, though, and as writer Nate Martinez points out for Motor Trend, it’s a seemingly fair fight.

Both the Abarth and S Coupe are relatively powerful, thanks to high-boost turbochargers; are similar in size; and ride atop suspensions designed specifically for playtime on squiggly roads. And each brand has a storied European heritage on and off the track.

The people buying them are from similar demographic groups, favoring compact cuteness over interior volume and backseat comfort (in the case of the Mini, no rear seats at all). They seek out occasional driving enjoyment, and value fuel efficiency and urban mobility.

Truthfully, the Fiat 500, and especially the Abarth version, is a car I want to like. I am not a winner-take-all kind of capitalist. Nor am I such a MINI fanboy that I can’t appreciate other cars. The market is big enough for everybody. Honestly, I’m especially interested in what Fiat have done in this racier Abarth version. Martinez recounts the performance touches:

Turn the ignition, and the 1.4-liter MultiAir growls, burbles, and pops, with its exhaust note making a scene just about everywhere we went. Peg the tachometer needle at an indicated 6500 rpm redline and the Abarth lets go of what sounds like 55 years of pent-up Italian anger.

But after just a few minutes behind its relatively big steering wheel, the novelty quickly wears off and a nasty drone penetrates the compact’s innards. Inside are a few garden-variety touches that differentiate the Abarth from base 500s. A turbo boost pressure gauge, thick three-spoke steering wheel, 160 mph speedometer, leather-wrapped sport seats, and an upper gauge cluster indicate its sportier pedigree.

Engine character is a good thing, and Martinez goes on to talk about the Abarth’s 6.7 second 0-60 time. So it would appear that the droning powerplant isn’t just sound and fury. But any MINI comparison really comes down to one thing: handling. How would he find the Fiat’s character in the bends?

Engineers put a lot of work into sharpening the top-heavy 500’s handling, too. They installed 40 percent stiffer front, 20 percent stiffer rear springs, and dual-valve Koni shocks. New cast-iron lower control arms shore up the front end, and 1.5 degrees of additional negative camber on all corners were dialed-in for better grip. Ride height was cut 0.6 inch.

The parts drastically improve the 500’s ability to attack corners, while minimally affecting ride quality. (Keep in mind, the regular 500 ride isn’t the cushiest to begin with.) It willingly dives into corners without much nervousness from either chassis or driver. Turn-in is sharp. Tug its weighty wheel, and it reciprocates with little to no body roll after the initial corner engagement.

But trace farther and push harder into the bend, and its surefootedness does an about-face. The Abarth’s limited thresholds immediately appear, and once surpassed, massive understeer ensues. In big, slow corners, the 1.4-liter needs constant riling to tap its pool of 170 lb-ft of torque, not to mention maintain any speed. Traction control lights flash and the nannies kick in. The rear end becomes skittish under hard braking, thanks in part to it short 90.6-inch wheelbase and diminutive stature.

This has me all the more interested to get behind the wheel of the Abarth myself. If the Coupe S has anything, it’s poise and dynamic excitement in the bends. Then again, that’s just my perception. What did Martinez think of the MINI Coupe once he left Italy for Britain? Like most discussion of the MINI Coupe, he starts with its polarizing exterior lines.

“It looks like a big toe – stubby in nearly every way,” Kong wrote in his logbook. “Some things about its exterior make you say ‘Hmm…’ like the blunt butt, for instance. While others traits, like the ‘helmet,’ are more pleasing to the eye.”

Sanchez noted: “In all honesty, the Coupe looks like a little putt-putt or bumper car. It also reminds me of those beetles that point their butt up when they walk. At first, its design took me aback. But after a few days, it really grew on me.”

Past looks, he does get around to actually driving the thing — posting a 6.3 second 0-60 time that beats the hot Fiat by nearly half a second. His power, poise and character parallels are interesting.

In S trim, the Coupe’s 1.6-liter four gains a twin-scroll turbocharger and keeps its Valvetronic (variable valve timing) and direct-injection setups. Its responsive, always ready powertrain thoroughly enjoys a good thrashing, but is also at home calmly cruising town. Unlike the Abarth, the Mini’s twin tailpipes spew a delectable burble with the occasional off-throttle backfire crackle. While engaging, it’s more refined than the Abarth and won’t be setting off car alarms in parking garages.

On curvy proving grounds with Sport Button engaged (less boosted steering, more responsive throttle), the Mini’s 205/45R-17 Continental ContiSportContact footwear holds on with an assured grip. Its stiffened, studier chassis precisely translates the weighty helm’s twitches into calm, collected, well-planted maneuvers.

You feel solidly attached to the tarmac in the low-slung Mini, thanks in part to its longer wheelbase (97.1 inches). As commander of this street-legal, two-person kart, your immediate instinct is to flatten the accelerator. Doing so requires drivers to quickly become masters of its mushy Getrag six-speed/self-adjusting clutch combo — a small price to pay for having such a great time.

I didn’t bury the lead on this one. We know the MINI wins this comparison, but his summary is pretty telling. Both cars are great for where they started, and the MINI simply has a huge head start in the performance department.

The Abarth is a special little car in many ways. Corner after corner, rev-matched shift after rev-matched shift, it never failed to put a smile on our faces. On backcountry roads where corners casually come and go, and on city streets where zooming in and out of traffic is the norm, the Fiat proved a blast. But with a blunt butt that loves to get squirrely when driven hard, and traction control programs that need to kick in to save the day, it doesn’t provide the most compelling evidence for being today’s best ultra-small performance car.

For just under $27,000 as tested, and given its storied badge, you simply expect more from the Abarth — more grip, more speed, more comfort.

Whereas the Fiat’s performance is limited by dimensions that don’t lend themselves to great handling agility, the Mini’s isn’t, and better yet, at the turn of its helm and a smash of its throttle, it feels like the better athlete.

Engineers began their “S” surgery on what was arguably the better chassis to adapt. Modifying a car like the Mini that was designed since inception to be athletic is one thing; modifying an ultra-subcompact commuter like the 500 is quite another. You get the picture.

That last sentence nails it, I think. Despite the admirable boost in performance, even the Abarth version of the 500 isn’t quite a match for the Cooper S, let alone any MINI in JCW trim. And thing is, that’s okay. It sounds like you can still have a hell of a lot of fun in the scorpion. But per usual in these kinds of comparisons, the MINI is counted as the better driver’s car. But unlike the comparisons between the regular Fiat 500 and the MINI Cooper, a stock Cooper S Coupe can actually be had for less money than the Abarth tested here. Better performance for less money? That’s winning twice.

Then again, you could spec a Coupe like the MINI in this test and pay $32,150, and the Abarth starting price is just $22,000. In a way, I wish they’d put the $22,000 Abarth up against the $25,300 Cooper S Coupe and let them fight it out on base spec. What are you really getting for your money between the two?

I’ve quoted a lot of it here, but there’s a lot more detail in this comparison, so be sure to click over to Motor Trend and check out the full article.

What do you think? Who’s driven both? Sound off in the comments.

[Source: Motor Trend]
  • JonPD

    Well written article, both are cool unique cars. Nuff said in my book.

  • Tim

    The Cooper S Coupe is cheaper??? Not in Canada it isn’t. I did a quick check online and the MSRP for the Abarth is $23,995, while the Coupe has an MSRP of $31,150. Again, this is just a quick check but it’s what most users will see when they go to the respective websites. 

    Maybe MINI needs to adjust their Canadian prices as the Abarth looks like quite the bargain. I’d be hard pressed to drop another 5 or 6 thousand on a MINI over an Abarth — especially because I’m not a huge fan of the coupe’s design. And I own an R53 Cooper S. 

  • Bryan

    I’ve driven both cars numerous times and like Jon said, “both are unique cars.” They can’t be evenly compared, they are both small cars and that’s where it should end. The Abarth is a blast to drive, relatively comfortable and has lots of character. The MINI S is the same, just way more refined and focused as a drivers car. Both cars will put a huge smile on your face, the Abarth just does it in a more childish manner…

  • ulrichd

    Is he saying you can’t turn the traction control off completely in the Abarth?

    • No. If you click through to the full article you can read what his experience was when he did turn it off. Although I don’t know if it turns off 100%. He also goes into how the DTC system on the MINI is much more friendly to aggressive driving and much more forgiving of a little bit of “dynamic grip” before it steps in to cool things off.

  • Vince

    The Abarth starts at $22,700 in the US.  The only performance-enhancing option is the 17″ wheel/tire package which is an additional $1k.  Even with that, it’s still cheaper than a base Cooper S hatch.  However, all the comparisons I’ve seen so far say that the difference is worth it.

    I did drive an Abarth over the weekend and liked it a lot.  It looks and sounds great.  It’s not as sharp or capable as an R56 (or even my R55) but I’d say it’s just as fun and probably less tiring in day-to-day driving.  It rides really well due to the FSD shocks (it feels a lot like a MINI on FSDs).  I didn’t like the driving position and there’s a huge blind spot caused by the b-pillar but I think both of those things are minor.  I hope the car does well in sales; it certainly deserves it.

    • The Cooper S Coupe base price is cheaper than the Abarth he tested. He didn’t give an as-tested price for the Coupe he drove, although I wish he had. Regardless, even with the Sport Suspension upgrade, an otherwise stock Coupe S would come in cheaper than the bells-and-whistles Abarth he must have had for this test.

      • Vince

         On page 3 of the article, the as-tested price of the MINI is listed as $32,150.

  • Ac1de

    Something is odd with those price tags. At least here in Germany the Abarth 500 with “Essesse Koni Pack” (that’s the one with 160HP and the mentioned Koni FSD dampers) is to be had at around 22.000€. If you try to get a Cooper S Coupe with nearly the same accessories (Xenons, voice recognition, Bluetooth etc.), you will pay around 28.000€, even with discounts. So for a 160HP Abarth, here you can just get a 122HP Cooper…

    I have driven some European Abarth 500’s with and without the Essesse Koni Kit and a couple of Cooper S and JCW Hatchbacks (but not the Coupe). No surprise, the Mini is more driver focussed. But actually only the Abarth won my heart… it is the top-of-the-line-500, while the Cooper S is just the Mini under the JCW. Also it’s the design – the current Mini looks a bit aged while the 500 (at least until now) does not. You might be 0.1sec slower around a bend in the A500, but you will annoy the big boys in such a tiny tiny box and this will make you a lot happier. Of course, all of my arguments are purely emotional – but to me, that’s what those types of cars are all about.

    • Of course, all of my arguments are purely emotional – but to me, that’s what those types of cars are all about.

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • JonPD

    Also interesting the online community Fiat USA has 506388 likes on FB versus MINI USA’s 271670. While nothing conclusive does say that the car does have a fanbase for sure. Plenty room in the market for both cars. To me the Abarth is more akin to the R53 for overall feel., its not a perfect car but its a very smile inducing thing.  

    • R Burns

      Hell no… the Abarth has no precise direction, absolutely no “knife-feeling”  It is like a lowcost R56 in EVERY domain So it is fun : little car, easy to accelerate  all the rest is so disappointing… van driving position, cheap interior, no xenon, no sunroof etc etc

      The rigor of a real Sport Car keeps in the Mini field, R53 and R56

      • JonPD

         Think the R56 has left the R53 feel go long ago. The R50/53 always gave be a huge smile every time I drove it. The R56 feels a lot more refined and has lost a lot of the R50/53 boyish charm. This is something the Abarth gives me, its not as refined as the R56 and feels like a freer spirit. Don’t think you can go wrong with either car.

        • R Burns

          I understand what you say about R53/R56 and I agree

          But I reckon that both R53 and R56 demonstrate such precision, such rigorous suspension, in comparison to the Abarth, which cannot seriously pretend to be a sport car Yes the Abarth is fun to drive but that’s all, Minis are fun to drive too but there is so much more, especially a real sport frame, suspensions…

          I don’t think the Abarth could ever be better, because of wheelbase length, and because of cheaper price

      • Aurel

        yeah the “van driving position” kills any potential that this car may have for me … i can’t get past that for some reason

      • R56sux

        No sun roof? what’s that big hole in the top of my new car??? Frank Stephenson has resurrected the R53 in the Abarth. It feels very different than a Mini yet closer to the R53 than the R56 ever drempt of.

        No “knife” feeling? “cheap” interior?? I feel both are superior to the R56 in every way. Perhaps actually driving one first might be a good plan.

        After owning 4 JCWs I feel well qualified to say I love this car.

        • John

          Nice name choice!  Troll much!  4 JCW’s?  Why so many?  I mean did you actually spend any time driving them or did you spend all that time selling and buying a new one?  I’ve driven the Abarth 4 times as well as the standard model.  Both felt as described by the poster you are replying to.  The R56 is far and away a better, sportier small car.  The abarth is a fun toy but the 53/56 is also a fun toy and a serious sports car.  No comparison.

  • Jason

    I really liked driving the Fiat, and was not impressed with the Coupe (for the price).  However, the driving position of the Fiat is almost a deal breaker because it just seems so high; actually, just like the MINI’s price.  I am a MINI fan.  I have not had a MINI in 7 years, but I still read this site multiple times a day, have a MINI model collection on display, and a MINI dealership sign in my shed.  I want to like MINI, but for the price it is hard.  I don’t want to like the Fiat, but, for the price, it is hard.  It just has so much character in Abarth form.  I hope the next gen MINI has enough attitude and performance to get me back to motoring.  Until then, although I like my current car (Mustang w/ performance/track pack), I am stuck just driving. 

  • Kurtster

    Both are fun cars. The Abarth is definitely the better deal and gives the most bang for the buck. That said, the weight distribution is funky on the Abarth and I’m certain the MINI would eat its lunch on curves or straightaways. Your’e paying for that performance though. I prefer the MINI but man, do I wish it was a cheap as the Fiat. The Fiat also has a beautiful interior.

  • Mtbscott

    I gave some thought to trading my 2011 JCW in on an Abarth…until I actually drove it. It’s a really fun car in many ways, I like the look and amenities and price, but after two R56 JCW’s it was just too slow. Car and Driver caught lots of flack for comparing the JCW to the Abarth with the MINI having an almost $9K higher price tag, now Motor Trend also compares apples to oranges. Who’s going to compare the Abarth the the S Hatchback, that would be the closest competitor? All that said, the Abarth is a good buy as a city car. Their enthusiast community is as rabid as ours, and the car deserves success.

  • Matt

    Traded my R53 on the Abarth a few days ago. Definitely happy with the decision. Was in the market for a new vehicle, and just was not happy with the R56 Hatchback from a pricing and style standpoint. Performance wise the Abarth is slower (though it is hardly noticable), but I find the styling more attractive and the exhaust note is oh so satisfying. If you don’t mind the ride position (I always jacked my R53’s seat up to the highest point anyway) the interior is great. Not too sold on the gauge layout, but then again I’m used to the MINI’s massive central speedo. The interior controls make more sense to me than the MINI’s, but it still holds that somewhat odd European layout and style. I’ve never been a fanboy of any brand, so I must say that both cars are fantastic. Drive both, buy whichever you like, and have fun motoring!