Diet Abarth

2013 Fiat 500 Turbo

Try as I might, I just can't bring myself to stick to a routine of drinking diet soda. Nevermind the fact that I'm trying to cut soda out of my life altogether – every now and then, I just want the high-octane stuff, and diet simply won't do. If I'm already going to subject myself to the sweeteners and caffeine, I'm going to take the calories that go along with it.

Some people feel the same way about cars (go big or go home!), but I'm not one of them – I often see the merit in less-potent machines that automakers offer. For example, while I simply adored the Mini John Cooper Works GP that I recently tested, I still said I'd rather have a Cooper S Hardtop every day. And while the Ford Focus ST may have been crowned the winner in my hot hatch comparison test from last year, my experience in the Fiesta ST a couple of months ago reminded me yet again that less can indeed be more.

So when Fiat introduced this 500 Turbo – a sort of Diet Abarth – I was prepared for the possibility of similar conclusions. But with the range-topping Abarth proving to be an incredibly delicious concoction, would this tall glass of diet quench my thirst just the same?

2013 Fiat 500 Turbo side view2013 Fiat 500 Turbo front view2013 Fiat 500 Turbo rear view

The 500 Turbo is far closer to the Abarth than it is to the standard 500 when you look at the numbers.

Our friends in Europe have been able to buy the 500 Turbo for a few years now... because it's called the Abarth in the Old Country. That's right, the standard European-spec Fiat 500 Abarth is pretty much the same thing that we get in the States with a Turbo badge (or, rather, without any badges). Our Abarth, on the other hand, is better known elsewhere as the 595 Turismo or 595 Competizione.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that the 500 Turbo is far closer to the Abarth than it is to the standard 500 when you look at the numbers. Under the hood is the same 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, tuned here to deliver 135 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 150 pound-feet of torque from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm. These numbers fall short of the Abarth by 25 hp and 20 lb-ft (assuming you've pressed the Sport button in the Abarth, that is – in standard tune, it produces the exact same 150 lb-ft), but represent increases of 34 hp and 52 lb-ft over the naturally aspirated 500 hatchback. Likewise, on-paper performance puts the Turbo more on the Abarth side of the spectrum. Hitting 60 miles per hour takes 8.1 seconds in the Turbo, compared to 6.9 seconds in the Abarth and nearly ten seconds in the base car.

2013 Fiat 500 Turbo engine

Like the Abarth, the Turbo is only available with this do-it-yourself shifter.

Visually, the Turbo falls somewhere in the middle, looking like a slightly more steroid-enhanced version of the non-turbo Sport trim. The hatchback's front fascia has been extended by 2.7 inches to accommodate the larger turbocharged engine, and larger air intakes, smoked headlamps and repositioned foglamps are all visual cues to the car's more performance-oriented demeanor. Along the sides, the Sport's 16-inch alloy wheels remain intact, wrapped in 195/45R16 Pirelli Cinturato P7 tires, hiding larger brakes (11.1 inches in front and 9.4 inches out back – an increase of one inch up front, but exactly the same as the standard 500 at the rear. Calipers get red paint, too). Speaking of the rear, the Abarth's dual exhaust has been ditched in favor of a single outlet here on the Turbo, though the more pronounced diffuser remains, as does the Sport's smaller hatch-topping spoiler.

Stepping inside, however, reveals an interior that's very much devoid of Abarth-ness. You don't get the beefier, flat-bottomed steering wheel of the Scorpion, and you don't get the more supportive sport seats with their fixed headrests. Instead, everything is nearly the same as what's offered on the Sport – the only performance cue is the larger five-speed manual shift knob that's found in the most potent of these little Italians. And like the Abarth, the Turbo is only available with this do-it-yourself shifter.

2013 Fiat 500 Turbo headlight2013 Fiat 500 Turbo grille2013 Fiat 500 Turbo wheel2013 Fiat 500 Turbo exhaust tip

The Turbo uses the same engine as the Abarth, just detuned slightly in terms of horsepower.

All of my original complaints about the 500 haven't changed here in the Turbo – the seating position is too high (and while this could largely be due to the fact that I'm on the shorter side, I simply cannot find a comfortable driving position), the materials used throughout the cabin are hardly premium, and all of the switchgear is merely a reminder of the fact that the 500 is, essentially, a six-year-old car.

Again, the Turbo uses the same engine as the Abarth, just detuned slightly in terms of horsepower. But because the torque number is the same as the Abarth when it isn't in Sport mode, you don't really notice a huge loss in low-end power for off-the-line acceleration. When I drove the Abarth last year, I basically never took it out of Sport mode, meaning I had the full 170 pound-feet of twist on hand at all times, but here in the Turbo, less grunt at the low end means there's less torque steer to manage, and when the full torque thrust hits, it's not as sudden.

There isn't a huge weight difference between the Turbo and the Abarth, either. The former weighs a sprightly 2,477 pounds, and the latter only adds 35 pounds to that. To boot, both cars have the exact same fuel economy rating – 28 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway.

2013 Fiat 500 Turbo interior2013 Fiat 500 Turbo front seats2013 Fiat 500 Turbo rear seats2013 Fiat 500 Turbo rear cargo area

Rev the engine on the Turbo and you can still hear plenty of Abarth aural cues.

What you lose in the Turbo model is the sort of hilarious fun that comes with the full-on Scorpion package. Many drivers will likely appreciate the more linear, better-balanced demeanor of the Turbo, but it just doesn't pull on the heart strings the way the Abarth does. That seriously sinister exhaust burble from the Abarth doesn't completely carry over, largely thanks to the single exhaust versus the more powerful car's dual pipes, but the low, grumbly tones are still there. Rev the engine on the Turbo and you can still hear plenty of Abarth aural cues, it just sort of sounds like the soundtrack is being smothered by a large pillow.

Compared to the standard 500, the Turbo's sport-tuned suspension is fitted with larger CV joints that provide a 53-percent improvement in overall torsional strength, meaning the car is better set up to handle the added power of the turbocharged MultiAir engine. On the road, the same bouncy characteristics of the short-wheelbase 500 are still present, but the added oomph is fun. As a daily driver, I can see why folks would appreciate the softer dynamics of the Turbo compared to the Abarth, but from where I sit, it simply feels like a quicker version of the cute little hatch rather than a detuned version of big brother Abarth.

2013 Fiat 500 Turbo steering wheel2013 Fiat 500 Turbo shifter2013 Fiat 500 Turbo sport button

Those looking for something to stand toe-to-toe with a Mini Cooper S will be disappointed.

Once again, my complaints with the Turbo are exactly the same as they are in the Abarth. Simply put, the steering feel isn't as direct and go-kart-like as you'd expect in a package this small, and the use of the five-speed manual transmission isn't as engaging as it should be. The action of the clutch pedal is light and linear with a clear engagement point, and the brakes work well with solid feel, but those looking for something to stand toe-to-toe with a Mini Cooper S will be disappointed, much like I was with the Abarth compared to a John Cooper Works (though the Fiat's seriously lower price point softens that blow quite a bit). And then there's the tippy feeling instilled by the aforementioned too-tall seats.

The Turbo model starts at $19,500 – a $900 increase over the Sport – and my tester was packed with optional goodies like the $650 comfort and convenience group (automatic air conditioning, heated front seats, satellite radio) as well as the $1,500 Beats by Dr. Dre audio system (that sounds awesome in such a little car, by the way). All in, that's just $22,350 – $1,800 less than a similarly equipped Abarth. And if you want the extra goodies that really make the Abarth an Abarth (larger 17-inch wheels and sport seats), you're looking at $26,550, or a $4,200 increase over the Turbo I drove.

2013 Fiat 500 Turbo rear 3/4 view

Those looking for a properly quick Fiat will find the Abarth a charming little package – I love it endlessly, despite its considerable flaws. This softer Turbo model is still a pleasant little thing to drive, but just doesn't get you as emotionally involved in the whole driving process as the sportier, louder, faster, quicker 500.

If I were shopping 500s, the bang-for-the-buck budgeter inside me knows that the Turbo still provides lots of thrills for a cheaper price – like how I know that diet soda can be just as tasty without all those love-handle-inflating calories. But every time I drove the 500 Turbo, I just kept wanting more. And that full-strength Abarth formula was exactly what I craved.