A tale of two Abarths

Fiat 500 Abarth

This is a short story about why car reviews tell you so little about whether or not you’ll actually like a vehicle.

A friend of mine (G’day Eggs!) posted a link to this review of the Fiat 500 Abarth on Auto123 on Facebook a week or so ago. The excerpt, taken from the first paragraph, hooked me in.

If looks could kill, then the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth’s kill ratio would be very low. Certainly, its arsenal of weapons tells a different story, but in the game of life, the Abarth leaves behind doubts and questions as to why it even exists.

The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is a fun car destined for those desiring thrills in a very compact format. Although the car’s heart is in the right place, the pint-size cabin poses far too great a compromise unless the owner is single or likely enjoys short partners.

Read through the interview and you’ll find out that the author is older (he’s been writing about cars for 15 years) and married (to a 5ft 6in wife with boofy hair).

While he does praise certain aspects of the car, he’s reasonably critical about the liveability of the 500 Abarth, as you can tell. By his own admission, he’s not the target market for the car and it doesn’t seem like he tries too hard to put himself in the target market’s shoes. After that rather negative introduction, he still gave the Abarth an average of 4 out of 5 stars.

And in the other corner…….

I saw a Fiat 500 Abarth article (not a review) online yesterday morning. I still have The Truth About Cars on my RSS feed, despite my issues with them about Saab matters in the past. This morning, one of their newer, younger writers posted this piece – Generation Why: My Gen Y COTY

A couple of excerpts that I liked:

[the Abarth] sounds like a tuner car, and tries to look like a serious performance machine but doesn’t have any of the “I work at McDonalds” vibe that a tuner car (factory or aftermarket hackjob) carries…..That wonderful exhaust note that everyone goes on about? It never drones or buzzes like an aftermarket unit does. But it sounds wonderful with the windows down, when you can hear the turbo spooling, the wastegate exhaling and the unburnt fuel crackling and popping.

…..The Abarth is definitely a niche product, and a lot of people will be more comfortable with something else, whether that’s a Mini, a Mazdaspeed 3 or even an FR-S. But if you are that mythical Millenial; downtown-living, employed in the creative field, the kind of person that GM and Ford are trying so hard to cultivate, then this is your car. I love it for more tangible reasons; it can fit in nearly any parking space, easy on gas and has just the right amount of performance. Do I love it enough to take on a car note? No. But of all the cars I’ve driven this year, this is the one that I’d buy.

He’s pretty impressed and enthusiastic, yes? And as it happens, he’s right in the target market demographic for the 500 Abarth. He’s in his early 20’s, establishing his career, single, etc etc.

Why don’t car magazines or web publications choose people to review cars according to the type of person/car? Does anyone think there’s any value in having someone review a car that they’re never likely to be interested in? Does it lend some weird sort of distance-induced objectivity?

It’s a funny old world.

Having written all that, maybe there IS no right formula to match between demographics and cars. I’m much closer in demographics to the Auto123 writer – older, married, etc. I haven’t driven an Abarth but I’m a sucker for smaller cars with punchy engines and I’m pretty sure I’d like it A LOT.


As I wrote on Eggs’ FB posting, the existence of the Fiat 500 Abarth is completely justified (as is this blog post), even if it’s only so that Fiat could make this ad:


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  1. I love the 500 on looks, and I love that ad, it turns my head every time. A gal at my office got a red one, stick shift, and the other day I lowered my window and yelled out “love your car!”. I smile every time I see one and the Abarth is just icing on the cake…

  2. People say the same thing to me when I’m driving my Saab 96. Or the Volvo 122.
    What is boofy hair? Is that a Tasmanianism?
    Cheers from CA

  3. I sat in one at the DC motor show. The stick has a nice action to it and it feels quite comfortable. Made me wish I’d taken them up on the offer of a test drive.

  4. And going to Swades point, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. For example Honda spent a fortune trying to argue that the Honda Element was a hip car designed for twenty somethings to go to beach and surf with, and that’s what the car reviewers tried to include in their reviews but it turned out the two groups most eager to buy it were 60 and over (because it was easy to get in and out, and cheap to run) and dog owners (plastic back you could wash out if the dog had an accident).

    As long as a review can tell you how good the car is, and come up with handy observations, then they are doing their job.

    1. Fair call. I guess most times they just have to stick to a principle and throw it out there.

      As mentioned, I’m nowhere near the TTAC guy’s demographic but having driven a 500 for a day once already (and loved it in the twisty stuff), I’m positive I’d like the Abarth with its extra poke on the straights as well.

    1. Hrmm, you know that the 500 Abarth is an A-segment hot hatch? Then you should also know that the 205 GTi and 306 GTi are B-segment and C-segment, respectively. You are a bit comparing apples to oranges to grapefruits. Arguably the 306 GTi was never as special as the 205 GTi or as the 500 Abarth is today; the 306 GTi was a bit of a slug to drive…

      Anyway, as you appear to be waiting, I wanted to point out that Peugeot has already released details of its (finally) proper 205 GTi replacement — the new 208 GTi.


  5. The Auto123 guy sounds a little irritable.
    One thing that I find amazing is that almost every American small-car review has to mention repeatedly that it’s a small car, as if people won’t figure it out.

    Given that the average US household owns more than two cars (think about that), there’s no reason for all cars to be huge. The standard mix in my (Canadian) neighbourhood is a crossover and a compact (Civic, Elantra, Cruze). In fact, I see more households that run two small cars than I see households that run two large cars/trucks.

    1. Note that the author is not American — he is Canadian, so you must take these issues up with your compadre. 🙂

      1. Good point. I should have said “North American.”
        I often suspect that Canadian auto reviewers don’t actually live here, since they often give glowing reviews to cars that are undriveable in this country of bad roads and appalling weather.

  6. The Auto123 excerpt is not going to persuade me of anything. I don’t actually understand the first paragraph. The second paragraph contains the phrase “… or likely enjoys short partners”. I’m not sure if that is even English.

    The Generation Why excerpt is very nicely written. It’s serious about its subject but still bright and witty. The guy seems to have done his homework and thought carefully about the car, with some interesting thought about who it is likely aimed at, before hitting the keyboard.

    With reviews I think it boils down to the quality of the writing, and its capacity to hook the reader while it conveys useful information and impressions. The class, age, gender, background of the reviewer is something to be aware of, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t tend to sway me either way.

    Permit me to explain. I am a left-leaning, teetotal vegeterian who would be happy to see cars banned from city centres. So if I only looked at cars recommended by left-leaning, teetotal vegetarians who wanted a ban on cars in cities then it would make for a very short reading list.

    A lot car reviewers seem to me to be right-wing, big-boozing carnivores who shoot cyclists in their spare time. I accept that. Hell, half of my friends are in that category. So what it comes down to is the quality of the writing.

  7. Sorry guys, just can’t get excited about FIAT cars in any shape or form, as these cars were nightmares -back in the days- after a few years exposed to cold and salty roads. (No one in their right mind bought them for the past 20 years).

    160 hp Abarth with the price of almost as much as a base turbo 9-3 (when they made them) is a toy in my book that will be fun for a week until you realized you actually bought one.
    The interior. Have you people seriously looked at it. It reminds me of Ford Ka -my unofficially worst car of the past decade.

    1. Really? I’ve owned both a 1978 and a 1986 Fiat and they were very good cars and a hoot to drive. The 1978 did have rust issues here and there, but which cars from the 70s didn’t? Many times the 1978 Fiat was more reliably than our newer German car, and much more reliable than our neighbors American cars.

      Anyway, I must say it is one of the more ignorant comments you’ll see (though you see these type all the time) to suggest neglecting any brand because of products that were produced nearly a quarter of a century ago. Oh wait, those old 70s BMWs would leak oil like crazy, I’ll have none of them! And those 80s SAABs and their CV boots, check all SAABs off the list!! *roll eyes*

      Regardless, if you don’t want a 500, please, by all means, do not buy one. Trying to convince others not to do so, when I personally know many owners of 500s that are extremely pleased with their purchase, is a bit childish…

      Please do list all the Fiats you’ve owned, it would be interesting to hear…

      1. Good for you. A very cheap Fiat might make sense if you live in the city in a warm country but were talking about the pricy Abarth version.

        No list of ownership, just enough friends and relatives that have owned ALL these different models at some point (Uno, Brava, Panda, Punto, you name them) which I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Darn the highway handling and overall feel was brutal in all of them. At least the small engines were frugal.
        BTW Wouldn’t I’ve been pretty darn dumb to buy one with all the know issues.
        Check reliability and MOT statistics from around Scandinavia if you don’t believe me how well they were built. These were simply affordable low quality cars that seldom lived to see a lot of years or milage unless the owner was really dedicated. Hopefully things have changed?

        I’m not saying the 131 Abarth wouldn’t have been a very good rally car at the time -and it even had a boot unlike the current 500.

        1. My impression from what I have read and heard, albeit I personally wasn’t around then, is that in the 1970s both Fiats and Alfas had this horrendous problem with rust, even by the standards of the time. I suppose Lancias might have been in the same camp. It seems it used to be a case of: great car, shame about the rust.

          But that was 30-40 years ago!

          I remember watching a Top Gear episode when I was a lad in the 90s, where it was stated that Fiats and Alfas had by then probably become the most rust-proofed cars in the world such was their desire to shake off the stigma.

          When I look at a Fiat from the 1990s I certainly don’t tend to see much rust on them, if any. The infamous 1990s Mercedes on the other hand are like Swiss cheese nowadays. But then Mercedes seemed to fix that problem later.

          1. Fiat’s reputation in the US got stuck in 1980, because that’s around the time that they stopped selling cars there.
            Not many people remember that Japanese cars of the era were just as bad. Of course, the reason that nobody remembers is that those 1970s and 1980s Japanese cars are long gone. Out of sight, out of mind.

          2. Allan and Bernard, the rust is mostly in the underpinning and it seems that many makes sold in Europe have rather taken a few steps back in corrosion protection (again) in the last decade for some reason.
            The French manufacturers, especially Renault, took so much heat from the rusting issues in the past that they changed their ways completely are now one of the best with the usual suspects Audi, Saab and Volvo.

            Fiat’s from the late 90’s unfortunately still look too often like this one: http://www.fiatforum.com/punto/263870-stevens-mk1-punto-progress-thread.html

  8. Ouch. At first I thought he must have scraped it on a concrete verge or central reservation, but then I read on…

  9. Well, I may not be their “target audience” now…being well north of 60…but I find the car fascinating, and would buy one in a heartbeat, if I was in the market for a small car.

    But then again…I was a Fiat owner for many years before getting into SAABs in 1978. I had several models. A 1972 128 Coupe, a 1973 850 Spyder, and the final one was a 1975 X1/9. Installed Abarth exhausts on all of them, upgraded the intake systems on the 850 & X1/9 with bigger Weber’s, added aftermarket wheels & other”goodies”, and generally had a blast with my little cars.

    This 500 Abarth brings back a lot of memories from those days when I was in my 20’s. Cars don’t have to have hundreds of horsepower to be fun to drive. Doesn’t necessarily hurt…but not a necessity. 🙂