Two European Convertibles under $30,000
|Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio||VW Beetle Convertible|
|Likes: the “how did that ever pass EPA testing?” exhaust note, nimble handling, responsive yet still fuel-efficient engine, track performance||Likes: Quiet and relaxed cruising, surprising acceleration and handling, smooth ride, interior quality and comfort|
|Dislikes: Ride gets choppy on bad pavement, not quite a full convertible||Dislikes: Top boot is difficult to install and will rarely be used, No cloth interior option|
Bottom line: – We like having new affordable options for European top-down fun
The Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio and the new VW Beetle Convertible are about as different as could be. The common thread here is that each offers serious performance and the fun of top-down motoring with their individual takes on European motoring flair. We recently had an opportunity to experience these two new European convertibles back to back in the hills of the Monterey Peninsula. We drove the cars on a variety of roads… from bumpy narrow country lanes, to freeway, to the smooth blacktop of Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.
The Abarth Cabrio is new this year, though Fiat has offered their 500C since the 2012 model year. This car essentially takes all of the performance goodies from the Abarth (1.4 L Multiair Turbo motor with 160 hp, sport suspension, brakes, and interior trim) and with little change mates this to the 500C’s top mechanism. The only mechanical difference between the Abarth coupe and cabrio appears to be the suspension tuning, with the cabrio about 20% softer than the coupe, but still substantially firmer and lower than the standard 500C.
Unlike the full convertible of the VW, the Fiat’s top retains the door and side window silhouettes and opens the top down the center of the roof only. Essentially, this acts like an enormous cloth sunroof and can be opened partially or folded completely down to the rear deck. Because of its design, it can be opened and closed at speeds up to 50 mph. The Abarth Convertible starts at $26,000 (plus destination) though ours was fully loaded with larger wheels, leather, and navigation, bringing the total MSRP to $29,000.
The Volkswagen Beetle Convertible is also new this year. Based on the heavily redesigned Beetle we saw last year, the design looks all new, more aggressive, but remains familiar to VW Beetle fans. This is a full convertible with an easy to operate power top. Our was a special “60’s” edition which comes fully loaded with a unique color, a matching blue/black leather interior, the 2.0L Turbocharged engine, DSG automatic transmission, Fender Audio, and Navigation. This is essentially the most fully loaded Beetle Convertible one can buy and it has an MSRP of over $32,000. However, the Beetle Convertible starts at $24,995 and even with the same engine and transmission options as our special edition (but without the upgraded stereo and nav) would start at $28,895 before destination.
Like we mentioned, these two cars have very different personalities. The Abarth starts up with the same deep throaty exhaust boom we’ve come to know and love in the coupe. With the top down the sound is just easier to appreciate. The experience is very similar to the standard Abarth but with the added noise and wind in the hair it is just more pronounced. This is a frantic little car… and feels like a quarter of a Ferrari for a tenth of the price. With the top closed, there is just a bit more wind noise than in a hard top Abarth but there isn’t much in a regular Abarth to begin with. The exhaust note is nicely toned down at freeway speeds while cruising but makes itself known on acceleration. Available only with a 5-speed manual transmission, this is always an engaging car.
On narrow bumpy roads, it took a lot of attention to pilot car smoothly. The short wheelbase and stiff suspension mean the car is easily upset by mid-corner bumps and broken pavement. On the freeway, the slightly more compliant suspension (relative to the Abarth coupe) was more in its element but there is little one can do to give a car this short a completely smooth ride.
Our car came with all the flash: pearlescent white paint, white 17-inch wheels, red stripes and mirror covers, a sumptuous red leather interior, an upgraded Beats Audio system and a Tom Tom navigation system that plugs into a built-in port on the top of the dash. At just under $30,000 this car has got to be near the top of a smiles-per-dollar list.
The base Abarth Cabrio still comes with all the performance goodies and just makes this same equation even better. It’s difficult for an auto enthusiast to not grin from ear to ear when driving this car. At the track it felt very much in its element, surprising for such a short and tall car. On the road, it never fails to add drama to even a trip to the store. It’s only when considering this as one’s only car does the jittery ride and general level of noise become an issue.
It’s in these areas that the Volkswagen Beetle convertible really trumped the Fiat. To be fair, the VW is more expensive, larger, and heavier than the Italian. It imparts the feel of a nice grand touring car rather than a hot little sports car. When the Fiat was noisy, the VW was quiet. When the Fiat was jumping around on bumpy roads, the VW just seemed to glide over the same bumps… unaffected. The VW seemed nearly as quick as the Fiat in terms of acceleration and while the handling was softer, it remained accurate and quite capable.
The DSG automatic transmission on our tester was quick to shift and smooth… and we suppose for those who cannot drive a manual transmission, this option would stop any comparison shopping right from the get-go. The VW is also available with an array of engine choices.
The Fiat Cabrio comes in two modes, with a 100 hp normally aspirated 1.4L four cylinder or with the Abarth’s frantic turbocharged engine. The VW Convertible can be had with a 2.5L inline 5-cylinder engine, our example’s 2.0L Turbo four, or even with the VW 2.0 L TDI Diesel. We were only able to drive the car with the turbo gasoline engine and felt it was a great match for this car… quiet, smooth, and deceptively fast.
The Fiat’s top provides an interesting take on the idea of a convertible. The retention of the doors and frames add to the structural integrity and allows the Cabrio to weigh only 70 pounds more than the equivalent hatchback. With the windows down and the top folded one gets most of the open-air feeling he or she would want. The main downside is a nearly complete loss of rearward vision from the center rearview mirror as the top stacks high enough to block the view out of the back window.
The VW has a nice look top up or down as well. With the top down wind management is good and we dare say that it may be quieter than the Fiat as there is no wind noise from the door frames and b-pillars. On a cold misty morning, we did enjoy the Fiat with the windows up and the top open only to the rear spoiler. On the other side, the top stacks lower on the VW, making rearward visibility better top down but the VW is more of an all-or-nothing proposition on the top.
We would call this a toss-up and defer to a buyer’s preference. One gets added safety, structure and flexibility with the Fiat’s top versus a more open and unobstructed experience in the VW.
Choosing the Right Convertible
So, besides a bit too much sun and some fond memories, what is our takeaway? Basically, we have two fun interpretations of a European convertible but they are so different in use that they aren’t likely to appeal to the same buyer.
Not surprisingly, the Fiat Abarth Cabrio made us laugh and smile. It’s a fun car with a type of Italian flair few other manufacturers would be able to come close to matching. If you are looking for a second car for weekend trips, around town fun; or even occasional track or autocross use, the Fiat Abarth has few peers. It’s even practical with a usable back seat that still folds down to carry cargo through the small rear hatch.
However, after driving the VW Beetle Convertible we knew instantly which car we would pick if we had to choose only one for daily driver and long-trip duty. For a slightly higher price, the Volkswagen delivers serious performance nearly on par with the Fiat but in a more comfortable and relaxed package.