Ever since Fiat announced it was building an Abarth version of the 500, MINI owners have been raising their eyebrows. Sure, the basic 500 is a decent car but, as we found out last year, it simply doesn’t compare well to the MINI in either build quality or performance. Enter the Abarth — the car conceived to go head-to-head with the MINI Cooper S and (if you listen to Fiat) even the JCW. So instead of reviewing the 500 Abarth on its own, we took up Fiat’s JCW challenge. We threw it into the ring with the newly-release MINI JCW Coupe. Apples to oranges you say? There’s only one way to find out.
Righting the Wrongs of the 500
The Abarth addresses the 500’s lack of sporting credentials exactly as we’d hoped. First up, a revised engine revs quicker and higher. It’s built stronger too. Abarth also updated the transmission (an obvious issue with the standard 500) with a new five-speed that, with a 3.35 final drive ratio, makes for a quicker 0-60 time. Other driveline upgrades could have been made, but with only 170 ft lbs of twist, at least torque steer isn’t much of issue.
Then there’s the suspension. Revised Koni struts up front give the car a 40% stiffer spring rate and a 15mm drop. Both were desperately, desperately needed over the base 500. Larger constant velocity (CV) joints (53% stronger to be exact) also help deliver a better ride and control over the original car. Finally, the steering rack has bee quickened 10% to help solve some of the laziness we found in the 500 Sport we tested last year.
Sense a trend yet? The mad scientists at Abarth apparently shared some of our opinions when it came the stock 500. They’ve upgraded the Fiat to address the exact deficiencies we bemoaned last year. And we’ll be damned if they didn’t produced something very compelling.
Enter the JCW
The MINI Cooper Coupe is the most clearly single-purpose vehicle MINI currently makes. It’s engineered to feel like a hooligan, and set-up to be the be the fastest MINI ever on the track. That performance focus, especially in JCW spec, is sharper, more refined, and more compromising of other design factors than anything else in the MINI lineup. It is MINI’s most rarified performance variant, which more than anything makes it the correct car to test against Abarth’s hyper 500. After all, they picked this fight, not MINI.
Looking at power, the JCW Coupe produces 208 hp and 200 ft-lbs of torque. That’s an extra 48 hp over the Abarth, with just .2L more displacement. It manages these sizable horsepower gains while getting nearly equivalent fuel economy — just 3 mpg less in the city, and 1 mpg less on the highway than the Abarth 500. In fact, the Cooper S (which still generates 21 hp more) matches the Abarth’s fuel economy on the highway and is down only 1 mpg in the city comparatively.
The Coupe’s Suspension and Handling
A lot has been made of the JCW Coupe not being available (yet) with a factory JCW suspension. Luckily, the $500 Sports Suspension is already fantastic. No it’s not standard. Yes it should be. But it is still hands-down better damped and allows for more confidence at the edge as compared to the Abarth. Where the JCW falls down are the run flat tires, which destroy nearly all the hard work done in fine-tuning the suspension for ride quality. The Sport Suspension does just fine in the corners —with decidedly less body roll and much more composure than the Abarth — but the car is jittery over broken pavement. This is entirely the fault of the run-flat tires. Honestly, they make the car downright uncomfortable at times. Proper radials and it’d be problem solved.
MINI’s reliance on run flat tires takes points off the board in this comparison test, as usual, but the Coupe is clearly still on top in handling — with key advantages in how it behaves at the limit of grip. The Abarth just can’t come anywhere close to the Coupe’s composure in the bends. Despite being very neutral before succumbing to understeer, the Abarth is never as eager as the MINI, nor as easy to drive fast. It’s simply at the limit of what its meager, Panda-based chassis can deliver. Further suspension tuning and upgrades might help it along, but at the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to put better tires on the Coupe than to replace the entire suspension system on the 500.
Beyond the Abarth losing in handling, it also can’t match the JCW in braking, acceleration, high speed stability or overall control. In fact, the Abarth above 90 mph feels like the MINI over 140 — like an out of control rocket heading to the center of the sun. Fun as it is, it’s simply out-gunned.
Electronically the Abarth is less sophisticated than the MINI. Rather than the three-stage traction and stability control of the MINI, the Fiat features a simpler stability control system that’s either on or off. While relatively smooth-engaging, it’s not what I would call particularly dynamic. Traction and stability control systems are legally mandated on cars both here and in Europe. So if you’re going to have the electronic nanny, she might as well be good company. The MINI’s DTC system does this very well, but the Abarth’s system is as bone-basic as the rest of its underpinnings.
Like the MINI, the 500 also has a sport button that adds weight to the steering and a slightly more aggressive throttle mapping. The key word in that is “slight.” As in, you barely feel the difference. Not necessarily a bad thing as it does’t add too much weight or vagueness to the steering, like MINI’s system does, but I have to wonder what is the point of a sport button if it’s so subtle you almost can’t feel the difference? More aggressive throttle mapping would be a great place to start.
That feeling of being a generation behind MINI’s electro gadgetry carries on inside with the iPod connection. It relies on a system similar to MINI’s from the R50 or early R56 models. It includes a USB port in the glovebox and rudimentary controls within the radio interface. It’s right on the edge of “why bother?”
Even worse is the Navigation system, which is nothing more than a TomTom attached to the dash — in the driver’s direct line of sight, no less. There’s no integration with the car itself and little thought given to the consistency or continuity of digital experiences throughout the rest of car. As if the GPS-as-afterthought integration weren’t bad enough, there’s the little problem of the whole unit tending to bounce out of its holder and lose power. At one point it took me about 30 seconds of slamming the system into it’s holder before some tired mechanism finally gave up and clicked into place. No one wants to play whack-a-mole with their GPS unit while rolling down the highway. I sure didn’t.
But all of that pales in comparison to a much more obvious problem with the GPS: security. When you semi-install a hand-held GPS system on top of the dash in a car as flashy and visible as the Abarth, some knucklehead is going to break into the car and rip it off the dash. It’s only a matter of time. I came face-to-face with this on the last day of my review period. I walked out to the Abarth (after only leaving it about an hour, mind you) to find the driver’s side glass broken out. The GPS was gone, and with it, the Abarth’s dignity.
The Fiat 500 feels “decent” for a $16,000 car. It feels a little merely ok as a $20,000 car. At $26,000 (essentially a “loaded” Abarth) it feels a plainly cheap. Not only does it feel well out of the MINI’s league in terms of quality of components and manufacturing, it simply doesn’t have the options that the MINI does (save for the surprisingly nice Abarth seats). Our loaded Abarth felt a bit pedestrian spec as compared to the JCW Coupe. Granted the Coupe (as tested with Nav and other options) came in around $35,000, but the MINI felt like a luxury good compared to the Fiat. The Abarth couldn’t help but give away its original, low-end intent with every touch of its interior plastic. Even the exterior door handle had an obvious mold line running exactly where the tip of your finger would rest when grabbing it to open the door. It’s these details — the lack of attention to design and quality that became all too obvious when experienced back-to-back with the Coupe.
No, the MINI isn’t perfect, but the difference between the two was stark. Their aspiring equivalency on paper is shattered in real world comparison.
1 + 1 = 3
Yet surprisingly, all of this doesn’t necessarily make the MINI more fun than the Abarth. The 500 is a chuck-able car in the best sense. It’s also quite endearing in that it’s obviously less than perfect. It leans, it’s not fast and the clutch feels like the worst kind of sweaty, limp-wristed handshake. Yet you can’t help but throw it into a corner and enjoy managing the consequences. It’s unruly and vaguely unpredictable. After a week of matching the floppy clutch and quick-revving engine (a hint quicker in the low RMP range than the JCW), I was heel-toe shifting at every corner without even thinking about it. For all the car’s shortcomings in real handling capability, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.
Then there’s the cheerful “warble” of the exhaust. The first time I started the car I was shocked by the volume and quality of that sound. By the end of my time with the Abarth I was addicted to that noise. Even my BMW 1M sounded all too sanitized in comparison. Would you get tired of it eventually? Perhaps yes, but by God it’s some character in the age of soulless appliance cars aimlessly driving down the highways. The Abarth is worth driving for the noise alone. I have to hand it to Fiat for having the attachments to give the car such a distinctive note. A rev of the engine sounds like a vintage airplane flying low somewhere overhead.
The sum of it all?
The Fiat 500 Abarth is a car that charms and disappoints, all while it plasters a ridiculous smile across your face. And every day I had the Abarth that smile grew. How does it compare with a week in the JCW Coupe? Quite well, actually. The Abarth is a lesser car in every way. Yet its driving experience feels both irreverent (isn’t that MINI’s word?) and undeniably fun. It’s a car that is dripping with character, so you can’t help but forgive a few of its more glaring faults.
The JCW Coupe, on the other hand, can do smooth, fast and/or ragged on the edge in the blink of an eye. It runs rings around the Abarth without breaking a sweat. But sometimes breaking a sweat just to keep is just the experience we need. The Abarth is about throwing out any notions of being serious behind the wheel and just finding a corner to bend into or a straight to open up on — if only to hear that exhaust note again.
What would I have given my choice? With $9,000 price difference, the Abarth makes a good case for itself. However, the reality is that the standard Cooper S Hardtop could run (literal and figurative) rings around the Abarth. The JCW just widens the gap even further in performance, quality, and all while being just about as fuel-efficient.
The JCW Coupe will always be the better car, but it’s the smartly-optioned Cooper S that remains the sweet spot of the MINI range. It not only stacks up well against the Abarth, but almost trounces it all the same ways the JCW does. It also manages to do so while keeping the extra $10k in your pocket.
In the end, the Abarth is everything we hoped it would be and is certainly worth a look. It’s just not quite the car the MINI Cooper S, or JCW are.