I mentioned in my last piece about the Fiat 500 Abarth that I wasn’t impressed with its audio system — not that it mattered, because I found its excellent exhaust sound much more entertaining than any radio could be. But I figured that little criticism warranted an explanation, to be fair to Fiat. Here goes:
Way back last year when I tested a 2013 Fiat 500 Turbo, I mentioned the same basic criticism. I think what I actually said was something along the lines of, “the Fiat 500 is a cheap car, but what Fiat gets right, it really gets right.” That principle still holds true in the Fiat 500 Abarth of 2014.
In thinking a little more deeply about the Fiat 500 Abarth’s sound system, I think there are two distinct issues at play:
Firstly, it’s built to a price. That’s not always a bad thing, unless the components betray themselves as budget kit. The Fiat 500 Abarth’s components do just that. The speakers’ dynamic range isn’t great, nor is the head unit’s ability to crank out any kind of wattage. Compared to the neighborhood-rattling Burmester High-End Audio-eqiupped Porsche Cayman S that came the week before the Abarth, the little Fiat’s sound system seemed positively quiet, even at full volume. Beyond that, the head unit’s single-line-of-text display is basic LED stuff I had on a Kenwood tape deck 15 years ago, and the buttons leave something to be desired in their tactile feel and function. I’m a fan of twin knobs for their ease of use while driving, but Fiat elected to go with pushbuttons for volume and scrolling/tuning on the left and right side of the display, respectively.
Secondly, it’s competing with a lot of background noise. The Fiat 500 Abarth is the noisiest, angriest Fiat model available, and as such, there’s a lot of competition from that excellent-sounding exhaust. There’s also a fair amount of noise intruding on the cabin from the larger (17-inch) wheels and low-profile tires, not to mention the general lack of sound-deadening that usually accompanies an economy car like the Fiat 500. Add to all that the Fiat 500’s tall, flat-faced stature creating a lot of wind noise, and you understandably have quite a cacophony of sound competing with the meager audio setup.
Here is where I must mention that our Fiat 500 Abarth was equipped with only the standard audio setup that comes for free in any Fiat 500. There is an extra-cost ($700) Beats Audio option that brings with it six premium speakers and a subwoofer. I do not know how that system would affect the sound generated, but I presume it would be an improvement — or at least I would hope it would be an improvement, given I’d spend $700 and lose a little cargo space in the Fiat’s already-tight cargo hold thanks to the subwoofer enclosure being put back there. But one thing I don’t think even the Beats Audio system would improve upon is the car’s voice command recoginition.
Voice recognition in the Fiat 500, like the sound quality emanating from the speakers, must compete with all that noise. As a result, almost every time I made a request of my phone by voice, it was misunderstood by the Fiat’s head unit. And since the head unit has no touchscreen like many cars nowadays, I could not load my contacts quick-and-easy to see a list and select the name I wanted to call. With a good smartphone mount, this would be easy enough to remedy — but still dangerous poking around a small screen instead of keeping my eyes on the road.
Similarly, voice recognition did not work well with my 16 GB USB music stick. I could tell it to “Play Artist,” and it would fetch a (seemingly random) track by that artist, but I could not tell it “Play Album,” which is my preferred method of listening on the road. “Play Album” is a command that works very well in most GM and Toyota vehicles’ infotainment systems, for instance, but not in the Fiat 500.
Further complicating matters is the fact that there’s no way to navigate from folder to folder using buttons on the head unit. I can manually advance tracks until I get to the next album folder, but that takes a while when you’re listening to Audioslave and you want to skip ahead 20-odd albums to hear Pennywise.
Fair to say my experiences both before the Fiat 500 Abarth, in the afterglow of the awesome Burmester audio in the Porsche, and after, in a surprisingly boomin’ Mark Levinson system in a Lexus IS350 AWD F-SPORT (more on that later), may have colored my impression of the car’s audio a bit more negatively this time around than I felt last summer, when I had tested a Nissan Versa Note with pretty awful in-car audio quality just before getting in the Fiat 500 Turbo. And it’s fair to say the Fiat 500 Abarth was simultaneously more fun to drive most of the time while cost literally half what the Lexus costs or way less than one-third what the Porsche costs. For that trade-off, I’d be willing to invest a few hundred bucks in a better aftermarket setup from the likes of Rockford Fosgate or Kenwood.
Disclosure: Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.