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This Or That: Fiat 500 Abarth vs. Ford Fiesta ST [w/poll]

Thu, 21 Aug 2014 12:31:00 EST

They're pretty darn similar. And yet our views are oh so different.

If you guys could read the transcripts of our editors' chat room, you'd know that we're a pretty argumentative bunch. It's always good-spirited stuff (well, usually), but when we're not obsessively covering this or that, we're usually fighting about one car being better than another. We're all enthusiasts here, and our automotive tastes run the gamut from the weird and unusual to the decidedly mainstream – we all feel strongly about specific cars in a given segment. While it usually makes for good conversation, if we're passionate enough, it can turn into a tomato-throwing showdown.

I'm pretty well-known 'round these parts as the hot hatch guy, and anyone who's listened to the Autoblog Podcast recently has heard me rave about lovely little turbo cars like the Volkswagen GTI or Ford Fiesta ST, specifically. But I'm not the only one with a burning desire for some functional, affordable performance goodness – every one of us can find a hot hatch or two to really get behind.

In that spirit, we're kicking off our new This Or That segment with a discussion about my favorite class of car. For my money and thrills, nothing beats the Ford Fiesta ST. But ask managing editor Jeremy Korzeniewski the same question, and he'll cast a vote for the Fiat 500 Abarth. I think he's dead wrong, of course, but on the contrary, Jeremy scoffs at the level of my love for Ford's pint-sized puncher.

So, who's right? Read through our arguments below, vote in our poll, and sound off with your own opinion in the Comments.

By The Numbers

Before we get into the debate, let's introduce our contenders. In one corner, the Fiat 500 Abarth, offered in both hardtop and rollback softtop variants, with starting MSRPs of $22,195 and $26,195, respectively. Under the hood is a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four, good for 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, mated to either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Weighing 2,533 pounds, it'll sprint to 60 miles per hour in 7.2 seconds with the manual 'box, and is rated at 28 city and 34 highway miles per gallon.

At the other side of the ring is the Blue Oval champ, the Fiesta ST, at $20,915 (add $1,995 for the optional Recaro seats, because we consider them an absolute must-have). It only comes as a five-door hatch here in the US, powered by a 1.6-liter turbo-four with 197 hp and 202 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is the sole cog-swapper on offer (save the manuals!), and at 2,742 pounds, it'll do the 0-60 thing in a scant 6.7 seconds. Fuel economy comes in at 26/35 mpg, city/highway.

So, yeah, they're pretty darn similar. And yet our views are oh so different.

Collective Soul

Jeremy starts the debate by describing the Abarth as having "the perfect balance between performance, personality and soul." But it's that last word that really got me.

Ewing: Okay, let's talk soul. I'll give the Fiat credit for making its Abarth sound wonderful. But that's just shouting. Soul is emotion. Soul is what you feel, not what you hear. And in the Ford, you feel a car that allows the driver some of the best involvement I've felt in years – you sort of become one with the car, working all of the controls like they're extensions of your own being, whereas in the Fiat, I've never felt this well-connected. I never really felt like I fit.

Of course, there was a rebuttal.

Korzeniewski: Soul is indeed emotion, and that's exactly what I find just slightly lacking in the Fiesta ST.

There's something particularly soul-stirring, to me, that I feel when driving the Abarth, that I don't get from its hot-hatch compatriots, and it's that kind of emotional connection I'd be willing to pay good money for.

"I'd argue that the Fiesta is better to really flog like a hooligan." – SE

My next step here is to bombard Jeremy with facts. Can't argue with those, right? As I outlined above, by the numbers, the Ford is the better performance choice.

Ewing: Not only is the Fiesta more powerful and quicker than the Abarth, it's far nicer to drive with better handling chops and a more engaging manual gearbox. I've driven both on the track, and where the Abarth starts to show its flaws, the Fiesta remains sure-footed and agile through corners. And when it comes time for squirrely, hot hatch playfulness, I'd argue that the Fiesta is better to really flog like a hooligan – way more forgiving, and far better equipped to handle anything the driver throws at it.

I'll also point out the less-sophisticated suspension geometry and the Abarth's larger tendency to not only understeer, but oversteer, when driven hard. You call this soul, but I call this sloppiness. I get that, in a way, it's more involving to drive a vehicle that you really have to work. But the Fiesta is a car that can be worked just as hard, and the result is better performance and a more rewarding experience.

Immediately, Jeremy offers his opinion, pointing out that it's once again the soul of the Fiat that makes it so special. For him, it's not just about sheer track prowess and performance data. It's about the Abarth's relationship with the driver. I get that, totally. And I think he may be onto something here.

Korzeniewski: Yes, yes, you are correct that the Fiesta ST is more powerful than the Abarth. It's 197 horsepower easily trumps that of the Abarth, at 160. I'll grant you a more linear power delivery, too. But what I won't agree with is the Fiesta being more fun to put those ponies to the ground. In the Abarth, there's a constant game being played between the driver and the car when driving at even eight-tenths of its limit, and what that means in the real world is that its performance envelope can be explored on real, actual roads that people drive. In other words, it's endearing.

And that noise. Oh yes, the noise. The music – a symphony of internal combustion, if you will – sung from the Abarth's tailpipes betters that of anything costing twice as much. You offer statistics; I counter with soul.

Form vs. Function

Going back to my "I never really felt like I fit" line, that's a pretty literal descriptor of my relationship to the car. The thing I love most of all about hot hatches is that there isn't much to sacrifice – you get great driving dynamics with any of the offerings, and a usable, functional cabin. But here again, I feel the Fiesta handily trumps the Abarth.

Ewing: There's an awkward seating position in the Abarth, though I understand taller drivers don't necessarily have this problem. There's also the too-big, oddly angled steering wheel. And that seating position places the driver higher up in the vehicle, making you more susceptible to being tossed around when the Fiat dives into corners.

"There's something particularly soul-stirring, to me, that I feel when driving the Abarth." – JK

But my issues with the Fiat could just be short guy problems (I'm five-foot-seven, remember). My taller coworker, however, praises the Abarth's cockpit.

Korzeniewski: The driving position gets no demerits from me. I stand in at six-feet, two-inches tall (or thereabouts) and the 500 fits me just fine. The relationship between the pedals, steering wheel and my butt in the seat may be a little bit different than many other cars, but not objectionably so. Being tossed about in corners is an overstatement, I think, of the fact that the Recaro seats in the Fiesta ST are exceptional, while the thrones in the Abarth are merely excellent.

Yeah, those (optional and costly) Recaro seats are pretty great, aren't they? But that's not the only reason why I prefer the Fiesta from a livability standpoint.

Ewing: It's not just the driving position that gets me about the Fiat. The interior overall is an issue here – it's cramped, the rear seats are pretty much unusable, and there's barely any trunk space. Compare that to the Ford, and you've got a car you could easily live with as a daily driver – it's comfortable, has tons of technology onboard, offers reasonable rear seating, and has a usable rear cargo area. I know the MyFord Touch system is sort of terrible at times, but it's at least a genuine infotainment interface, something the Fiat doesn't even offer.

Am I Wrong?

In a way, Jeremy kind of agrees that, technically, I'm right. (Glad he figured that out.)

Korzeniewski: You have adequately explained why the Ford Fiesta ST is the more logical choice to this particular argument. If we were to perform a comparison test between the two, I have little doubt that the Fiesta ST would pull out a well-earned victory. Yet, if I were opening my own pocketbook and writing the check, I'd be writing it for the Fiat 500 Abarth.

But I can't argue with Jeremy's description of how the Abarth feels, and how it communicates to the driver. It's certainly a valid point, and an argument I've made with fellow editors about other vehicles in other classes.

Korzeniewski: Does the Abarth gets a bit squirrely when driven fast? Yes, and thank heavens for that. As you yourself say, it's more involving to drive a vehicle that you really have to work, to which I'd counter just slightly – it's not work to drive the Abarth, it's quite the opposite, really. It's fun. And that, to me, is what a hot hatch is all about. A tenth of a second here, a barking mad slip of the rear end under hard braking there, bothers me little. Because the smile on my face is bigger behind the wheel of the Fiat 500 Abarth than any other car it's cross-shopped against.

The Ford Fiesta ST may be the better car – on paper, and in the minds of many shoppers – but I can't shake the feeling that a unique swath of drivers might prefer the blend of performance, attitude and character offered by the Abarth. And I think they'd be the ones with the biggest smiles on their faces.

So now I invite, you, the Autoblog Commenteriat, to make your voice heard. Vote in our poll, tell me I'm right, or tell me I'm wrong. Or heck, tell us we're both wrong. After all, with so many lovely hot hatches to choose from these days, I can totally see the arguments for other fun little flingabouts, as well.

Which hot hatch do you prefer?

By Steven J. Ewing

See also: 2015 Ford Mustang fuel economy ratings leaked, Thieves still love older Hondas and pickups most, says NICB [w/video], Ford begins testing right-hand-drive Mustang.