In the last installment of my stimulus-check Abarth 500 saga, I fixed a “blown engine” with a set of new spark plugs. About 50 miles later, I’m happy to say that it seems to have been the ticket. The car’s running well… sort of. Remember when I said other issues would present themselves after I started driving it? Like clockwork, they did.
Here’s what I’ve been working through now that the car’s drivable.
Vibration Under Acceleration
Whilst caning the living shit out of the Abarth, trying to get the engine to fail, I noticed the car would vibrate excessively under throttle. Not just a little wobble at speed, endemic to say, a wheel out of balance. This was real vibration, akin to a cheap back massager purchased from the likes of wish-dot-com. I knew it was a driveline issue rather than a wheel issue, as the vibrations came out mostly under acceleration, not so much while the car was coasting or simply rolling.
Hmmm. I figured: “Let me check underneath. I wonder if I have an axle problem?”
Turning the wheel to one side, I looked underneath the car and was greeted with Nutella-like grease flung all around the passenger side suspension members. The axle boot on the transmission-side axle joint was torn, and the grease had all been flung out.
The driver side was about the same story – less grease, but still black contaminated dirty grease flung around the suspension, coupled with a torn boot. Well, looks like it’s new axle time!
This is a common problem on Fiat 500 Abarths, I’ve learned. In most European countries, the Fiat 500 is commonly sold with engines in the double-digit range of horsepower and torque; there’s just not that much torque there in those engines to make any torque-steer issues noticeable to the driver. The Abarth, though, trades those sub-100 HP engines for a meatier lump with 160-plus. Likely in an effort to rein in the torque steer from the more than 50 percent bump in power and torque, Fiat created an equal-length halfshaft design to prevent you from having to fight the steering wheel when you tromp down on the gas.
It works, the 500 Abarth has virtually no torque steer.
Using the new-age Encyclopedia Britannica known as YouTube, I fell into a hole watching videos about cheap Abarth 500s. Hoovies’s Garage’s cheap Abarth also had a similar vibration, but they said their axles were more than $300 for the part alone, from the dealer.
Horseshit! RockAuto, AutoZone, O’Reilly and had aftermarket remanufactured units for $50 per side! What were they talking about?
Except RockAuto, AutoZone, and O’Reilly are all wrong. The axles listed on RockAuto are for the standard Fiat 500. The non-Abarth 500’s axles are too long, too narrow, and I don’t think they have the correct spline count, either. There is no replacement aftermarket axle for the Fiat 500 Abarth. So that’s why folks found themselves at the dealer parts counter looking for these axles.
I think that’s stupid. Most aftermarket axles aren’t even “aftermarket.” In my experience, they’ve used OEM axles in which the CV or spider joint parts are replaced, packed with grease, and put on with new boots. I couldn’t imagine a world where Abarth 500 axles are just littering scrapyards because they’re completely disposable.
After vague posting about my Fiat woes on Twitter, a random Twitter denizen mentioned the “Broken Fiat Club” on Facebook. Within five minutes of perusing the group, I learned that the factory axles are completely rebuildable at home. The Fiat Group had even compiled a nifty Google Doc that had part numbers for new axles, and the parts needed to rebuild your own ones.
Commonly, the “tripod joint” that goes into the transmission side of the axle is the part that fails. The boot tears, grease is flung out, and eventually, the bearing gets pretty destroyed from the dirt and water that obviously the boot is designed to keep out. The tripod joint itself is serviceable, although Fiat and Chrysler insist it is not.
I’ve had an easy time working on the Fiat thus far. Riding that confidence high, I figured I’d pull the axles myself, and save a bit of coin and rebuild them at home. I’ve never rebuilt an axle before, but both the broken Fiat Club and YouTube indicated that it was, in fact, very easy. My miserly spirit couldn’t resist the idea of saving cash, so why the hell not, let’s give it a go.
The replacement tripod joints were only $25 from Amazon, or $70 from DiCorse. I also had to replace the torn boots, and Fiat doesn’t have a part number for that at all. Some Fiat owners insist that boots from a first-generation R53 Mini Cooper will fit, but otherwise, DiCorse also sells boots that are a direct fit for the Abarth axles.
The job was remarkably easy. The Abarth’s axles are easy to remove; just remove the large axle nut, then separate the spindle from the strut, and the axle pulls out quite easily. The passenger side is slightly more complicated, as there’s an intermediate shaft as well, but the whole assembly is roughly the same as the driver side. Some opt to un-mate the passenger side axle from the intermediate shaft, but I couldn’t get them unmated on the car. So instead, I undid the three bolts and pulled both parts.
After removing the boot, the tripod bearing’s housing fell away with no effort, revealing the tripod bearing itself. They both looked pretty bad, they felt creaky and coarse, as if crystals of granulated sugar had somehow made their way under the races.
The bearings themselves sit on a splined shaft. Rebuilding the axle is as simple as removing and then replacing the tripod bearing, packing the housing with grease, then assembling it with a new boot.
The shafts are installed, so that should quell that hard vibration. Still, I had other issues, which brings me to the next problem…
Stiff Shifter Action
The car shifted fine, no grinds or excessive noise. But the gearstick itself had a really sticky and coarse side-to-side action. Sometimes, the shifter was so sticky I’d have a hard time finding third gear; the gearstick wasn’t in the right place.
Yet again, the almighty reference god known as Google and YouTube informed me that this is a common issue.
The shifter rod that goes into the transmission, loses its lubrication over time, resulting in a really sticky shifter. To remedy this, I undid the shift linkages at the transmission side, removed the shifter rod, greased it, and then reinstalled it.
I broke one of the shifter linkage bushings taking it off. But apparently this also must be a common problem, as Amazon sells a kit to fix that, too.
Success. The shifter is no longer sticky from side to side, and it foes into each gear with no binding. So, what else am I dealing with…
Like a young puppy, the Abarth leaves little piddling spots on the ground wherever it goes. Yep – I’m leaking oil. An inspection revealed I had a few oil leaks, one from the valve cover gasket and spark plug seals, another from the oil cooler gasket. The oil cooler gasket is a bumper-off job, and looks to be a royal pain, so I’m going to pay someone to do that repair for me.
People love to say that Fiats are horrible, junky cars that are hard to work on, and I don’t know how true that is. Some pieces and parts might be more brittle than you’d find on a VW, Honda, or Toyota, but thus far everything has been straightforward to service.
Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that everything on the Fiat tends to be smaller than what you might find on other cars. Say, on a Japanese car, you’d expect to find bolt sizes in 10mm, 14mm, and 17mm, and maybe a 21mm. The Fiat uses a lot of 8mm bolts to hold on to critical parts (like the valve cover gasket), it’s not a bad thing, it’s just different than what I’m used to.
Anyway, the valve cover is held on with about ten 8mm bolts. When replacing the valve cover gasket one, I used RTV in key areas to make sure this engine holds its drink. Yet again, replacement is reverse of install.
I had no clue when it had last been done, so I changed the oil using full synthetic Castrol 5w-40. The Abarth also got fresh gear oil, because Fiat’s “transmission fluid is good for life” claim feels like Fake News.
So where do we stand now?
- Well, I’ve driven the car since the rebuilt axles, and it still vibrates. The vibration is considerably better than it was, but it still vibrates nonetheless.
- The brake discs are all kind of pitted and warped from sitting, so they’ll need to be replaced.
- I still need to replace the oil cooler gasket and MultiAir filter.
Fiat insists that the Abarth is good for a 150,000-mile timing belt service. I, and other Abarth owners, don’t trust that, so I think within the next few weeks I’ll do a timing belt replacement.
I’m impressed with the Abarth so far. I bought this car knowing little about Fiats, expecting a total disaster filled with headaches. It is very weird, and high key annoying, that so many parts searches return incorrect or non-existent parts, but that hasn’t dampened my spirit. It’s still the best $1,500 I’ve ever spent. Even in its sub-100 percent state, I can’t help but grin like a maniac every time I get behind the wheel.
I’ll keep you posted on the progress. I think I’m going to keep this little thing.