Fiat Stilo Abarth Review & Buyer’s Guide

Introduction

In the early-mid 2000s, if you were on the market for a European performance hatchback, then your first port of call would probably have been a Golf GTI or possibly one of Peugeot’s GTI models.

However, for those who fancied something a bit different, Fiat happened to provide their own alternative – the Fiat Stilo Abarth.

In this Fiat Stilo Abarth review and buyer’s guide, we take a look at this somewhat “under the radar” option.

In particular, we are going to look at:

  • Key facts and technical data about the car
  • Fiat Stilo Abarth reliability & performance
  • What the car is like to drive
  • Buyer’s guide and review

It’s our aim to make this page the most comprehensive resource on the Internet for accurate and reliable information about the Fiat Stilo Abarth (and related models). As such, we will be reviewing and updating the content regularly. If you’ve spotted something that you think is incorrect or needs changing, then feel free to get in touch – we welcome all feedback and improvement suggestions.

Now, let’s get started by taking a quick trip down memory lane:

Fiat Stilo History

Fiat launched both the three and the five door Stilo in November 2001 at the Bologna Motor Show. Peter Fassbender was the design director of the Stilo, while Mauro Basso designed the exterior and Peter Jansen did the interior of the car. The Stilo was created to replace the popular Bravo/Brava and an estate version was launched in 2003.

Fiat’s Stilo came in third place in the European Car of the Year awards for 2002, behind the Peugeot 307 and the Renault Laguna.

When it launched the Stilo received mixed reviews, with many journalists and motoring enthusiasts criticising its “German-like” styling. However, the Bravo and Brava that came before the Stilo were criticised for being too “Italian”.

Critics also complained about the Stilo’s excessive weight and its semi-independent rear torsion beam / twist-beam rear suspension. However, this system was also used on the much loved Volkswagen Golf, the market leader in the segment.

The 1.2-litre petrol engine was also a target for critics who claimed it was underpowered and the Selespeed (or “Sillyspeed”) gearbox on the Abarth model was knocked for being slow and unreliable.

Still, motoring journalists praised the car for its high levels of grip (aided by the unusually wide tyres fitted to it) and the brakes.

The Stilo was the second production car in the world to use TRW Column-Drive Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPS) technology after the second generation Fiat Punto. This would later be introduced on the 2003 Nissan Micra and the Renault Mégane.

Unfortunately, the Stilo was a sales disappointment. Even an extensive advertising campaign using F1 legends Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello didn’t help shift the car. In October 2013, The Economist put the Stilo into their report on ‘Europe’s Biggest Loss Making Cars’.

Production in Italy would run until 2007, while Brazilian Stilos would be produced from 2003 to 2010. Fiat replaced the Stilo with a new version of the Bravo in 2007 for European markets (In South America, the Stilo was replaced by the Bravo in 2010).

Fiat Stilo Abarth Specs

ModelFiat Stilo Abarth
Year of production2001 – 2007

(2009 for South America)

LayoutFront-engined, front-wheel drive
EngineInline-5
Capacity2.4-litre
Power

(hp)

170
Torque

(lb ft)

163
Gearbox5-Speed Seleppeed

5-speed manual

Tyres205/55 R16
Weight1265 kg (2789 lbs)
Top speed215 km/h (133 mph)
0 – 100 km/h (62 mph)8.5 seconds

Fiat Stilo Abarth Options

There were relatively few options available for the Fiat Stilo Abarth (at least compared to the exhaustive options-lists available on many competing brands).

Fiat Stilo Abarth Schumacher

The Schumacher edition of the Fiat Stilo was produced to commemorate the Formula One legend’s fifth drivers’ world championship for Ferrari. Each car comes in Ferrari-red paint and features a custom bodykit, monographed badging on the flanks and bootlid, and a special numbered plate on the dashboard.

Fiat Stilo Abarth Prodrive

Those who wanted more performance could opt for the Schumacher Abarth GP that was produced by rally experts Prodrive. The GP featured lowered Bilstein struts and dampers underneath Eibach springs, plus lightweight 18-inch OZ alloy wheels and a stainless steel rear silencer with twin outlet pipes.

Only 60 of these cars were produced, so they are the rarest version of the Fiat Stilo.

Exterior

The Stilo Abarth was sold in two body styles: 3 door and 5 door.

Photos of 3 door:

Photos of 5 door:

Interior 

Overall, interior quality is what you’d expect from an Italian car of the era – perfectly adequate and stylish, but not the most durable. The car came with the following:  

  • Cup holders 
  • Refridgereated glove compartment  
  • Front arm rest with compartment  
  • Driver’s seat lumbar adjustment  
  • Electric power steering with city function  
  • Radio with CD front loader  
  • Controls on steering wheel (radio, cruise control, etc.)  

Leather was the only option for the seats, whereas base models could come with cloth seats.  

Engine 

The Stilo Abarth came with only one choice of engine – a 2.4 litre, 20-valve, 5-cylinder unit. This engine produced 170 horsepower (125 kW) at 6,000 rpm and 221 Nm (163 lb ft) of torque at 3,500 rpm.  

With an electronically controlled variable inlet manifold, the Stilo Abarth’s engine is responsive. Additionally, when the car launched it was one of the most fuel-efficient cars in its class with a combined consumption figure of 9.7-litres/100km.  

Gearbox

No review of the Fiat Stilo Abarth could be complete without a discussion of its gearbox.

The Abarth was sold with two gearboxes – a conventional five-speed manual (which is meant to be quite good by all accounts) and a five-speed ‘Selespeed’ paddle shift gearbox.

The name Selespeed stokes fear in the heart of almost all who hear it (presumably apart from gearbox mechanics who hear the sound of their cash registers ringing).

Without boring you with the details, the Selespeed is basically a manual gearbox with a robotised shifting function. It isn’t a tiptronic, or is it a “clever” modern DCT gearbox.

This article explains it far better than we ever could. explains it far better than we ever could. 

The problem with the Selespeed is that it really isn’t that good. It truly is the Achilles’ heel of the vehicle for a number of reasons:

  • Poor reliability – You don’t need to do much Googling to find plenty of horror stories of Selespeed gearboxes (both on Fiat Stilo’s and on Alfa Romeos) going catastrophically wrong. Fixing a broken Selespeed is far beyond the skills of all but the most talented and well-equipped home mechanics, and many auto shops won’t touch them with a barge pole. This means a big failure could render your Stilo no better than scrap.
  • Sluggish shifts – If you’re used to modern dual clutch gearboxes (e.g. VW’s DSG) then you will find the Selespeed to be – frankly – crap. Upshifts are particularly slow, and often result in a noticeable lurch at slower speeds. Downshifts are thankfully much faster … probably on par with a regular manual gearbox, although they can sometimes be sluggish too.
  • Jerkiness – The Selespeed just isn’t very smooth, especially when cold or if the car has been sitting for some time. The first 2-3 minutes of driving are marked by an experience that can only be likened to having a learner driver operate the gearbox. It’s like Fiat crammed a spotty 16 year old in the gearbox. This jerkiness can result in horrendous bunny hopping.
    • The solution? Short of actually repairing the issue (which is likely to be uneconomical considering the age and value of the vehicle) we have found that simply driving a bit more aggressively and shifting at higher RPMs results in smoother shifts when cold.
    • We also note that some owners have found that what they thought was jerkiness/“kangarooing” caused by the Selespeed was actually due to another problem, e.g. a fuelling issue. More information available here:
  • Rubishness in auto mode – On paper, one of the advantages of the Selespeed is that it offers an automatic mode. This means that you can share the driving on a long road trip within someone who can’t drive manual (the editor’s wife, for example). However, the Selespeed automatic mode is genuinely terrible, almost to the point of undriveable in our opinion. It should be used only in life-threatening circumstances.

Our view is that Fiat saw the growing trend towards paddle shift gearboxes at the time, and felt that the Selespeed would boost the value proposition of the Abarth, making it more “on trend”. In some respects, it could almost be seen as a marketing gimmick.

For shame, as a regular stick shift manual would be so much better (and according to reviews, the regular manual Abarths are much better to drive).

Reliability

It is an incontrovertible fact that Italian cars have a reputation for poor reliability, often in the electrical department.

Stilo Abarths are getting long in the tooth now, and with age comes a greater risk for expensive failure (or at least repair bills that are simply not worth it for the residual value of the vehicle).

Commonly-reported faults include: 

  • Selespeed gearbox issues and failures
  • Electrical problems of varying severity
  • Wearing of suspension and related components
  • Engine issues

As far as our own example goes, it has travelled around 85,000kms (at time of writing) and has – touch wood – been a model of reliability compared to what many would expect.

We feel this probably stems from the extremely diligent maintenance of the vehicle. It has been serviced on-time with little expense spared since brand new. A poorly maintained example is far more likely to go ‘bang’ … at horrendous expense to put right.

Faults we have experienced include:

  • Auxiliary drive belt whine, requiring replacement (this is a wear and tear item, but worth mentioning).
  • The alarm has basically not worked properly since brand new. It tends to set itself far too quickly after stopping the vehicle, sometimes resulting in the alarm going off if the door is opened. The solution? Remember to hit the unlock button on the key fob before exiting.
  • The air conditioning system really only has two modes – boiling hot or freezing cold. Anything in between just blows lukewarm air. This has been a problem since very early in the car’s life, and simply isn’t worth fixing for the prices we have been quoted.
  • Increasing jerkiness of the Selespeed gearbox when cold (although it does go very well when warm). Based on what we can find online, there is some speculation that this may actually be a sensor or fuelling issue, and not actually a problem with the gearbox itself.
  • Occasional electrical gremlins that seem to go away with an on/off of the engine.
  • Some build quality issues:
    • Deterioration of interior trim
    • Decals/graphics wearing off of stereo buttons and steering wheel controls
    • Trim pieces breaking (e.g. passengers seat adjuster handle cover)

Now we’ve looked at the Fiat Stilo Abarth’s reliability, it’s time to look at performance and what it’s like to drive:

Performance & Driving

Pros

  • Good engine – The five cylinder unit is torquey, but also perfectly capable of revving freely. Considering the age of the vehicle (practically a 20-year old design at this point) it really is rather good. In today’s world of easily accessible power, it might seem underwhelming. However, we never find any ‘everyday’ driving to be a struggle, and there is always adequate power to have fun when so desired.
  • Decent performance – By modern standards, the Stilo Abarth is nothing to write home about. A 2019 Toyota Camry is probably about as quick – and with a whole lot more kit. However, at Garage Dreams we don’t believe in comparing apples with oranges. For its age and what it was at the time, the Stilo Abarth remains a good car to drive performance-wise. Sure, it’s no face melter, but for day-to-day driving, as well as more spirited use, it does hold its own well.
  • Fair practicality – Despite its compact size, you can definitely get four adults in the car (five in a pinch) and the boot is reasonable as well, even on the three door model. Our example has done numerous road trips with multiple bags and passengers, with no ‘human tetris’ required to fit everything in.
  • Comfort – The front seats are comfortable and supportive and it is easy to cruise along in this car without getting tired. The biggest issue is that road noise can be quite intrusive at highway speed. This may be ameliorated by choosing different tires; if you find the tire/road noise intrusive on your Stilo, then it’s well worth looking at your choice of tire.
  • Great sound – Even critics of the Stilo lauded its pleasing exhaust note and engine noise. Aftermarket exhausts sound even better (provided you don’t mind the louder volume).
  • Attractive looks for the three door model – We still think the three door Abarth looks brilliant. We frequently get comments from unsuspecting others asking whether it’s a new car, and whether it’s an expensive car. This is high praise for an old hatchback that is available for next to nothing on the second hand market. However, the less said about the five door, the better.  It is pig ugly and should only be purchased if at an extraordinarily good price or because you truly need the extra space that the five door model offers.
  • Excellent value – Ultimately, a well-sorted example of the Stilo Abarth offers excellent value. We struggle to think of many other vehicles that offer so much for so little on the second hand market (provided you don’t buy a dog, and provided you can live with the Selespeed gearbox). For the price of a top spec iPhone, you could possibly drive away in a fun, relatively modern car that has a dash of performance credibility.

Cons

  • Selespeed gearbox – It is truely woeful for most of the situations in which you’ll probably be using it (at least if you live in an urban environment). Jerky, slow and temperamental, it is loathed by many for good reason. However, a well-sorted example isn’t bad when you’re on a twisty road or cruising. But if all your driving is around town, then you will want to seek a conventional manual model. If you can only find Selespeed examples, then test drive diligently to ensure you can live with the foibles of the gearbox on a daily basis.
  • Fuel economy – While not terrible at all for its day, being an older car with a larger displacement engine, the Stilo’s economy lags significantly behind more modern vehicles. The editor’s achieves anywhere from 11-12 litres per 100km of driving, with most of that being urban and short motorway journeys. If you’re doing big mileage, this would be a significant downside. The upside is that at cruising speeds, the engine doesn’t have to work particularly hard to keep the car ticking along, so fuel economy improves substantially.
    • You’ll need to run the car on premium fuel as well.
  • Lacks some modern features – No reversing camera, no aux input on the stereo (nor bluetooth connectivity), and no active safety features beyond ESC (e.g. no blind spot monitoring). These weren’t common during the Stilo’s production era, but if you’re comparing to more modern vehicles then this may disappoint. It may be possible to retrofit some aftermarket systems to the
  • Eats front tires – Like most powerful front wheel drive cars, the Stilo likes to chew through front tires. Not at an alarming pace, but certainly quicker than a ‘standard’ car. Ensure you have regular wheel alignments to reduce the risk of premature wear.
  • Doesn’t forgive poor servicing/maintenance – Like most European cars (especially higher performance variants) the Stilo does not take kindly to poor maintenance. If you are you looking to purchase one, then insist on service history – or you should probably be paid to take the car away.

Fiat Stilo Abarth Mods

For those looking to improve the performance of their Stilo, there are some opportunities available for tuning. The Stilo

Common modifications (based on feedback from Fiat owner forums) tend to be:

  • Chip tuning of the engine to produce additional horsepower (some owners report gains of 20-30hp)
  • Suspension improvements, lowering kits etc
  • Fitting of strut braces/sway bars
  • Aftermarket exhaust systems

Some of these aftermarket exhaust systems really seem to improve the sound of the car (which we already think sounds good):

VIDEOS 

https://youtu.be/VQe-llRPGjY 

https://youtu.be/rWewEeeEbc0 

Conclusion

Let’s get one thing straight – in no way to we think that the Fiat Stilo Abarth is going to be the next ‘205-GTI-in-waiting’.

It always ways – and remains – an interesting, stylish and fairly unique “warm hatch”

If you are on the market for an attractive (in three door form) interesting and enjoyable “warm hatch” at a rock-bottom price, then the Stilo has legs.

The rarer Schumacher and Schumacher Prodrive editions are even more compelling, but obviously command a premium. However, we genuinely believe that there is some potential “low level” classic value in these more desirable models, if only due to the name Schumacher being on the tin.

We haven’t driven a Schumacher or Prodrive, but feedback at the time of launch (and feedback from present owners) seems to suggest a significantly better driving experience, primarily in the handling department – with some reviewers suggesting that these hotter versions were what the regular Abarth should have been.

All things being considered, if you can get a well-sorted three door Abarth for a good price (by that we mean a price at which you’d be willing to walk away or sell for scrap if it all went horribly wrong) then it truly does represent good value for money. This is especially so if you can find a good manual version.

It won’t be the most economical to run, nor the fastest car to drive, nor the most feature-packed on the block. However, you are getting a huge amount of car for a modest price. The three door model remains – in our opinion – one of the best looking hatches ever produced, and still receives compliments many years after it first rolled off the production line.

The editor certainly hopes to keep his for the foreseeable future (as well as investigate the potential of importing a Schumacher edition into New Zealand – if any Kiwis are reading this and happen to know of one for sale, then please do get in touch!)

So if you are sitting there wondering “should I buy a Fiat Stilo Abarth”, then we think that you should definitely consider one. Provided the price is right and it is in good condition, then you can score yourself an interesting and fun car for cents on the dollar.

Is it a great car? Hardly. But is the Fiat Stilo Abarth a good car? Yes, we think so!

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