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After about a 2-month string of swift sedans and powerful trucks and SUVs for road tests, my latest test subject made an abrupt departure. Accompanying the first serious cold snap of winter was a Rosso red Fiat 500 Abarth.
Fiat 500s are always fun to drive, being small, maneuverable, quick and quite sports-car-like for a compact little coupe. It was, however, a bit of a culture shock to get out of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, with its supercharged 707 horsepower and overpowering $90,000-worth of equipment, and into the Fiat 500, with its 1.4-liter 4-cylinder.
It was perfect timing, because the Rosso red Fiat resembled a Christmas tree ornament, so the weekend encompassing Christmas was just right.
The test-car’s Abarth status was earned by boosting the 1.4 and its MultiAir induction system with a turbocharger, which boosts its output from the standard 101-horsepower base engine to the turbocharged 160-horsepower Abarth power, with 183 foot-pounds of torque. The wonder of such a small, light car is that power output numbers that aren’t eye-popping can make the car truly come to life.
Besides, the sound forced out through the twin tailpipes is positively enchanting to a car zealot like me, drawing double-takes from pedestrians and nearby car occupants alike. The abrupt bark of the Abarth causes bystanders to take a quick glance, anticipating a road-racing sports car, and then doing a double-take when reality betrays the fact that it’s a cute but tiny little thing.
The somewhat subtle deep red exterior was adorned with the familiar Abarth emblems, front, rear and both flanks, emblazoned with the scorpion, which is Abarth’s trademark. For inexpensive and fun driving efficiency, the Fiat 500 starts at a mere $19,995, and the fully-equipped Abarth test car cost only $23,970.
On the first day of my week-long test I suggested to my wife, Joan, that we should take the Fiat 500 Abarth for a little drive up the North Shore from Duluth, through Two Harbors on Hwy. 61, and on up to Castle Danger — my all-time favorite community name — where there is a restaurant called The Rustic Inn. This place is just north of two tunnels dug through the rocky mountainside high above Lake Superior, and it is always worth the trip with a creative menu and the absolute best pies on the face of the earth.
So off we went in our quick little Fiat 500 Abarth, with its special engine, special 6-speed automatic transmission, and special interior. As we cruised nearer to Castle Danger, Hwy. 61 splits from 2-lane to 4-lane, with passing lanes for those in more of a hurry than the 55 limit allows. We were in no hurry, and I’d estimate we were cruising at 50. It was nearly 5 p.m., too, which means, in late December, it was already full-night dark. There were a few flakes of snow blowing around, but conditions were close to perfect.
Suddenly, Joan let out a yelp, and at the same instant I spotted several thin, fur-covered legs straddling the center line. I veered easily to the far right lane, because I was aware that there were at least three deer attached to those legs, and I had a clear path in the right lane to sneak past them with no difficulty. As I skirted them, all in a moment’s time, my peripheral vision also caught a glimpse of one of the creatures suddenly bolting for the right shoulder.
I swerved again, but the deer smacked me with its head, plunk, on the left front fender. The blow didn’t cause us to lose our trajectory, and I slowed easily to a stop. There was room to make a safe U-turn, so I could circle back to find, sure enough, the expired deer, sprawled in the middle of the traffic lane. I called 9-1-1 on my iPhone, and described the incident to a Highway Patrol person, and located it at Mile 32.
When we got to The Rustic, I examined the blow more closely, dark as it was. The damage appeared to be contained on the fender panel behind the headlight on the left front side. It shoved the bodywork back just enough so that I could still open and close the driver’s door. Otherwise, the car rolled straight and true, and, being the week leading up to Christmas, we continued to test the car through the whole scheduled time.
As if to give us a thorough test, Mother Nature gave us a 6-inch snowfall one night, then the bottom fell out of the thermometer, and it dropped to an observed low of 29 below zero, with windchill of minus-33. Farther North, it was cold, even though we felt the sting of the wind as we toured a couple of bright holiday light displays.
The 500 is not only small, it is bob-tailed, which makes it look smaller. But our older son, Jack, was able to sit in the back seat in comfort, and Joan took a turn back there as well. It is one of those European designs that starts out encasing adult riders, then meets styling demands.
The sport steering wheel is wrapped in leather, and has a flattened off bottom for both a sportier look and an easier entry and exit. Three-mode stability control and the firm suspension, which can be adjusted from normal to sport settings with a dash button, help make the 500 Abarth handle with exemplary manners. Foglights and bi-function halogen projector headlights light up the road ahead.
A 5 or 7 inch touchscreen on the center stack allows you to keep track of all the necessary settings and adjustments. One adjustment we welcomed was to switch on the heated seats, and I was impressed how soon after we started up my passengers were saying “turn down the heat.” When it’s 15 below outside and the word of the day is “windchill,” the little cabin heated up promptly
But most of all the Fiat 500 Abarth is fun to drive, and a level up from the standard 500. With its added kick, it makes for a quick and sporty ride. Hill assist helps at stoplights on steep climbs, the Brembo brakes stop it very efficiently, and the upgraded audio system was impressive, too.
Even left outside at 20-below, the 500 Abarth eagerly started up, and while we let it run a bit to keep occupants warm during short errands, we were able to record a consistent 31 miles per gallon in mostly city — and hilly — driving. I thought that was very good, in the coldest time of winter, and I was further impressed when I noticed the sticker for the test car indicated the EPA thought we would get a low of 24 in city, and a high of 32 mpg in highway driving, and we got 31 in conditions that were far from optimal. My guess is the high would translate to 35-40 mpg in spring, summer and fall.
Back at The Rustic Inn, we ate the best barbecued ribs in creation, but I must admit the circumstances of our drive prevented me from enjoying the meal to the fullest. I suggested they should add venison to the menu. I said I could supply some, but I don’t hunt with a .30-30. I use a 2017 Fiat 500 Abarth.