First Drive: 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Automatic first drives fiat
2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio. Click image to enlarge

Review by Mark Stevenson, photos by Mark Stevenson and courtesy Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

It’s no surprise that the Fiat 500 and its derivative models are aimed more towards female customers than their male counterparts. The high-fashion hatchback has one of the highest female buyer rates of any model currently on sale in North America (hovering around 70 percent in the US). And considering the “automobile as a fashion accessory” nature of the 500, the high-performance Abarth models have been totally counterintuitive to the wants of the 500’s average buyer.

Why is that, you ask? Because the Fiat 500 Abarth, at least until now, has been a manual-only affair, a transmission option incompatible with high-heeled shoes and their typically fashion-centric owners.

Fiat has finally come to their senses in the cog-swapping arena, and for 2015 will offer the 500 Abarth with an automatic transmission, in both hatchback and cabrio body styles.

Powered by the same 1.4L MultiAir four-cylinder turbo engine as the manual Abarth, automatic models are given an Aisin-sourced six-speed slushbox with some interesting tuning measures to give it the feel of a manual.

Along with reinforced clutch plates, automatic models get a specifically programmed Sport mode, introducing fuel-cut upshifts, rev-matched downshifts, brake-assist downshifts, corner gear holding, fast-off gear holding, and a much more aggressive pedal map. Along with an extra gear (manual models get five-cog units), the automatic Abarth also gets more torque (183 lb-ft versus 170 lb-ft) at the expense of a measly 3 hp loss.

So, with the Abarth automatic, you get more gears, more torque, and some interesting gimmickry to make you feel like you’re driving a manual without actually having to shift yourself. But, does it deliver the Abarth driving experience?

While at Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds, I had the opportunity to drive the manual and automatic models almost back to back (along with the ‘California special’ 500e, which is my personal favourite).

For all the work that’s gone into the six-speed auto Abarth, it’s almost as exciting as its manual predecessor, but not quite.

First Drive: 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Automatic first drives fiat First Drive: 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Automatic first drives fiat
2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio cabin & driver’s seat. Click image to enlarge

For starters, the transmission sourced from Aisin is a traditional torque converter unit. For those who’ve driven newer single- and twin-clutch automated manual transmissions, you’ll understand the difference in torque delivery from a standing stop between a traditional torque converter slushbox and a new, modern dual-clutch unit is immense.

Instead of the instant coupling of clutch plates mashing together to produce a rush of off-the-line acceleration, the torque converter unit in the Abarth makes launches feel much milder than its manual counterpart. Even with the extra torque from the 1.4L MultiAir turbo, torque delivery is distinctly smoother in the automatic in a way that mutes much of the Abarth drama.

That’s not to say the autobox can’t get the front wheels spinning a little quicker than the car is travelling. During a hard launch, and with a slight turn of the wheel, the Fiat 500 Abarth automatic will easily give the inside wheel a bit of slip, but it won’t do ferociously abusive launches like manual models.

Off-the-line performance aside, as the Abarth automatic gets moving, all this fuel-cut upshifting and gear holding starts to make sense. As the slushbox goes through the gears, the 500 will give you a pleasant little kick to the backside, reminding you this Cinquecento isn’t a Lounge edition or one of the many fashionista specials from Turin. Even the gear hold around corners works as advertised and gives the Abarth some sporting flair.

Yet, for all this fanciful programming, I still pine for a dual-clutch unit for this car, because I get the feeling a lot of this technological wizardry developed on some engineer’s computer would be far less important to the overall experience. And to top it all off, since the Fiat 500’s steering wheel isn’t compatible with paddle shifters, you are left doing ‘manual’ shifts using a +/– gate on the shifter.

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