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]