One thing we hear all the time is, “What can I get that’s fun, affordable and most especially, I won’t see coming the other way all day long.” That’s not an easy task – there’s always a lot that’s new and exciting prowling the concrete jungle.
But fear not, we have a couple really interesting choices for you. Welcome to the Compact Car Wild Kingdom.
Let’s start with the Mad Mouse. Well, we think it sort of looks like a mouse, with its round shape, big eyes, and front grill that sort of looks like a moustache, The diminutive Fiat 500 could happily sit in your garage and munch on a piece of cheese.
The Mad part comes with the name Abarth. Carlo Abarth was a racer, racing manufacturer and became famous for offering high-performance versions of Fiat cars. Fiat bought out Abarth in 1971, and it became the in-house performance division, like BMW’s M, and Mercedes AMG.
Carlo would be proud with his name on the Fiat we tested. The little 1.4 liter, 4-cylinder has had its turbo boosted up to an impressive 160 horsepower, breathing through one of the most boisterous – but sweet sounding – dual exhausts ever strapped to a street car. That just the start; there’s a custom-designed suspension with Koni shock absorbers, lightweight 16-inch alloy wheels covering massive brakes (with red calipers for some visual pop).
You won’t miss that it’s a mad mouse either. A unique front and rear fascia, side skirts, front fog lights, rear spoiler and some carefully placed Abarth badges with the company’s scorpion design and you have one special looking Fiat.
Our White tester had some extra visual pop, thanks to a giant accessory black scorpion decal on the roof. One uniformed soul thought it was a lobster, but the rest got the idea.
Inside, you get super-supportive sport seats, a fat leather-wrapped wheel and a cool little turbo boost gauge. They all combine with the Fiat 500’s cheeky and stylish interior that although on the small side, makes you feel special every time you get in.
A surprise to us was our tester’s automatic transmission. But we were very happy with the heavy duty 6-speed. Made by legendary builder Aisin, shifts were quick and enthusiastic, and like many turbo-equipped cars, the auto helps keep the boost on tap, so you scoot away with real authority, and ride a wave of power, all the while enjoying that ripping exhaust note.
Another surprise, is for the short wheelbase, the ride is comfortable and well controlled. Handling is “right-now” turn the wheel and you are there! So you learn to be gentle and ease the mouse around. Grip is impressively high. It’s a blast on a twisty road or just cutting and thrusting through rush hour.
The size is diminutive, the performance is huge, and the price..well..you just have to be careful. While the Abarth starts at a very mouse-like $22,395, our loaded tester came in just under $29,000. Skipping the automatic will save you $1,350 off the bat. Like the Mini, you can be judicious and watch those options. Or, go bonkers and pay for it at the checkout counter.
Choice number two in the stand-out-in-a-crowd sweeps is the Hyundai Veloster. While the name sounds like lobster, the car actually has more of an enraged bug look to it. And as Fiat has Abarth, The Korean automaker has racing heritage too, having participated in the World Rally Championship since 1998.
The Veloster has always been an eye-catcher, with a hunkered-down hatchback body and a unique third-door on the passenger side. While many had hoped it would be the next coming of the beloved Honda CR-X, the early Velosters proved a little too plump for that. Quickly a turbo model was added, and things started to get interesting.
And Turbo is the only way to get the Veloster Rally Edition, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Unlike the Abarth, what you see is what you get. No options, no packages. Just one color.
But what a color! The Rally wears a Matte Blue finish that you’d expect to find on high-end German machinery, and combined with unique black Rays 18-inch alloy wheels sitting on an upgraded suspension, this is one bad looking ‘Lobster.
Inside feels special too. The deep leather sports buckets have eye-catching blue trim with “turbo” called out in bold lettering. Reach out your hands and you find a chunky leather-wrapped wheel, and a 6-speed manual hooked up to a B& M Racing short shifter.
While you’ll want to sit up front, the rear seats have good legroom, but stingy space for heads and shoulders – just the opposite of the Fiat, which has no rear legroom, but good height. Choose your friends accordingly.
Back to the drive. Pumping out 201 hp from a 1.6-liter engine is a strong accomplishment, and the Rally’s tuned exhaust has a nice throaty sound. It doesn’t like to spin up like the Abarth, but makes up for it with a nice fat torque curve. You don’t wring its neck out, you glide it along. The B & M shifter lets you crack off quick shifts and has a nice precise feel.
The bespoke suspension is a nice blend of controlled ride, good grip and response. It’s a great 7-tenths car, easy to drive quickly and you’ll enjoy a sporty drive on your commute.
Also in its favor, it’s a Hyundai, and that means you get loads of gear, seamless infotainment, and more for a very reasonable $23,950. And it’s got that 10-year/100,000 mile warranty.
We really liked both our Rodential and Crustaceous testers. The both have a unique look that sets them apart from the crowd, let alone their more pedestrian sibs. Choosing one comes down to commitment.
The Abarth will give you more and constantly goad you into tearing around like the mad mouse it is. But it will ask more in price, day-to-day livability, and will probably need more care and feeding.
The Veloster Rally Edition has a softer edge, greater practicality, and a lower pulse rate that makes it a fun and more livable daily driver.
A test drive will tell you all you need to know.
Fiat 500 ABARTH
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.