It is the 1960s all over again. Cooper MINIs and 500 Abarths are roaming the streets like a pair of unrefined European hooligans. If you are a car enthusiast originally from across the Pond, the names John Cooper and Carlo Abarth are probably well known. But on our shores, only those with strong cases of vehicular obsession would have known these names prior to the early 2000s. These two men did to Minis and Fiats what Carol Shelby did Fords; tune them, race them and even completely redesign them.
So decades later, these two small hatchbacks are back at it, promising to capture the spirit of their legendary successors. Can either achieve this monumental feat, or if not, which one comes closest? As we are always looking for any excuse to conduct a comparison test between a pair of fun to drive cars, a 2013 Mini Cooper S and a 2013 Fiat 500c Abarth were acquired, and we set out to find some answers.
GLASS ROOF vs. CLOTH ROOF
Now, before you start typing “how can you compare a MINI Hardtop against a Fiat Convertible!!!1!11!!!” in the comment box, know this: first, the Mini Cooper we have has the full glass roof which can vent both front and rear panels as well as retract half the roof back. Second, the Fiat 500c is not a convertible. It is more a targa with a cloth roof insert that rolls back sardine-can-style to add some fresh air into the cabin. Think of both vehicles as being uber-ventable-roofed vehicles. If a proper convertible is a must, only MINI has you covered with the Cooper S Convertible.
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The hardtop 500 Abarth starts at a base price of $22,895, which is slightly less than the $24,095 base price of the MINI Cooper S. As tested, our Fiat 500c Abarth rang in at $31,850 after destination charges thanks to most exterior and interior options being added to the vehicle like the 17-inch “hyperblack” wheels and premium leather-trimmed bucket seats. The MINI Cooper S was equally loaded and came in at $32,345 after options like the City, Technology and Premium packages were added.
TURBO vs. TURBO
Powering the MINI Cooper S is the usual 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, which can be expanded to 192 lb-ft briefly thanks to an overboost feature. Fiat counters with a smaller, 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that generates 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. Helping close this power gap is the fact that the 500c weighs only 2,545 lbs. compared to the MINI Cooper S at 2,668 lbs without options like the panoramic sunroof. Being that these two vehicles are sporty specials, we opted for the Cooper S six-speed manual over the optional automatic which lines up nicely with the Abarth’s only current transmission choice; a five-speed manual.
On the road, the MINI feels a lot more powerful than the Fiat; more than the numbers would suggest. Turbo lag is minimal with the Cooper S as power arrives early, and stays there all the way up to the redline; John Cooper could only wish he had this kind of power back in the 1960s. The 500c Abarth on the other hand suffers more from initial turbo lag and needs to reach higher rpms before generating full power. Once on boost, the little Fiat is plenty powerful, but it lacks that extra oomph of the Cooper S.
|Vehicle||2013 Fiat 500c Abarth||Advantage||2013 Mini Cooper S|
|Engine||1.4 L Turbocharged Inline-4||-||1.6 L Turbocharged Inline-4|
|Horsepower||160 hp||Cooper||181 hp|
|Max. Torque||170 lb-ft||Cooper||177 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||28 MPG city / 34 MPG hwy||-||27 MPG city / 35 MPG hwy|
|Observed Fuel Economy||25.3 MPG||Cooper||28.3 MPG|
|Weight||2,545 lbs.||Abarth||2,668 lbs.|
|Rear Cargo Capacity||5.4 cu. ft.||Cooper||5.7 cu. ft.|
|As Tested Price||$31,850||Abarth||$32,345|
RESTRAINED vs. LOUD
Both cars have sport modes that change steering feel and throttle response. After pressing the button, you’ll also notice the MINI sending all sorts of snaps and pops from its exhaust pipes after lifting your foot from the gas pedal. But the MINI sounds like a silent electric Vehicle compared to the 500c Abarth. The exhaust system gives a guttural growl akin to a combine at idle that ascends in a four-cylinder virtuoso only the Italians seem capable of creating. As stupid fun as this exhaust system is, the noise can become rather tiresome. Then again, for someone buying this vehicle, it will most likely be part of the appeal.
Despite having a larger engine with more power, and being heavier, the Cooper S (27 mpg city, 35 mpg highway) virtually ties the Abarth (28 mpg city, 34 mpg highway) when it comes to fuel economy ratings thanks to the MINI having an extra gear. In the real world however, the MINI beat the Abarth by three mpg in observed fuel economy.
COMPOSED vs. WILD
But these are not fuel miser sub-compacts; these are hot hatches. Fun is the name of the game when behind the wheel of these cars and they deliver – in entirely different ways. The Abarth is a tall city car that was never intended to be this sporty. Thanks to a short wheelbase and tall driving position, the 500c feels tippy during hard cornering and can be a bit unnerving, even though we know it won’t actually tip over. It does grip well in hard cornering once the fear of side planting the car is overcome. To help rotate the Abarth through corners, a large 22 mm rear sway bar has been installed and braking seems to be more rear biased than an average car. This leads to a vehicle that wants the back-end to step out ever so slightly during hard corner entries; trail braking this car is a cinch.
The Abarth features very quick, heavy steering that is great around the city, but makes the car dart all over the place on the freeway. Hit a bump mid corner, and the 205/40R17 tires will momentarily lose all traction and briefly wash out.
The MINI is better set-up for heal-and-toe shifting with properly placed pedals. It also features razor sharp steering, but lacks the dartiness of the Abarth on the freeway. In general, the Cooper S handles well and is so feels more composed while cornering; it just grips and turns without any of the drama felt in the Abarth. The downside to this handling prowess is, as always, a rock hard suspension that punishes occupants on poorly maintained roads.
RETRO vs. RETRO
Being retro inspired rides, both vehicles have instantly recognizable exteriors and arrived at our test with trademark looks; the MINI finished in British Racing green paint and the Abarth featuring white paint with red mirrors and large Abarth graphics. The Cooper S also had the John Cooper Works exterior package that added a larger rear spoiler, skirt package and multi-spoke wheels to better differentiate it from regular MINI Cooper models. Other than the red mirrors and decal package, the Abarth had no other exterior modifications which are fine since the Abarth itself already looks so much more aggressive and purposeful than the regular 500c.
The interior of the MINI is instantly recognizable with a slew of toggle switches and that large center mounted speedometer surrounding the infotainment unit. The front seats are supportive and comfortable for short drives, but on long drives some staffer’s legs began to go numb. Most of us hate the look and feel of the shift knob as well.
The 500c interior is stylish; it is Italian after all. The white panels and red seats add some color to an otherwise monotone interior, while the steering column mounted boost gauge is a nice styling touch. But a closer inspection reveals some issues. It seems like Fiat designed the shape of the car, and then tried to figure out where to put all the controls, pedals, and storage spaces. The steering wheel does not telescope and feels slightly off center. Some of the materials are cheap and there is no color infotainment unit; the tomtom GPS is a dash mounted afterthought. Quite a few of us also complained about the awkward seating position behind the wheel of the Abarth.
Legroom behind the front seats is tight in both vehicles and actually worse in the MINI. Surprisingly, even with the roll back roof, the 500c Abarth almost ties the MINI Cooper S in cargo space at 5.4 cubic feet compared to 5.7 in the MINI. They’re about on par with each other when the rear seats are folded as well.
John Cooper and Carlo Abarth would be proud. Their names are still being used to this day to signify an everyday small car that has been transformed into a hot hatch monster. With big turbo power, excellent steering and sport tuned suspensions, these two vehicles are a ton of fun.
The Abarth charms its way into your heart with an unrefined rebellious spirit not found in a lot of cars today. It’s like an energetic Boxer puppy always ready to play. But the MINI is just as fun, has a more comfortable driving position and easier to live with. Even with a small price premium over the Fiat, it is the better European retro-inspired hot hatch.
2013 Fiat 500c Abarth
2013 Mini Cooper S