That Fiat was looking to bolster its two-car North American portfolio with the high-performance 500 Abarth wasn't a secret, but there was one mystery surrounding the car: exactly what model was coming stateside: the standard car, or the hopped-up 500 Abarth esseesse?
After looking over the official specifications for the 2012 Fiat Abarth 500, we finally have an answer: the Americanized Abarth is an esseesse in all but name.
Let's recap, shall we? Abarth - originally a standalone tuning firm but now Fiat's in-house performance division - first had its way with the retro-chic 500 in 2008. When it launched in Europe, the Abarth 500 looked like quite the hot hatch. Flared fenders and bumper fascias lent the little car a menacing stance, while stiffer spring rates and bespoke damper tuning promised to improve handling. The 500's powertrain wasn't ignored, either: the stock 1.4-liter, 16-valve SOHC I-4 received both a turbocharger and a pair of intercoolers, which boosted output to 135 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque.
Those are respectable figures, especially for a car tipping the scales at 2500 pounds. But it lacked a certain lunacy of the original Abarth-tuned 500s from the 1960s; cars designed to win races and rallies above all else. To satisfy those calling for a crazier Cinquecento, Abarth launched the esseesse package. The optional kit boosted power to a whopping 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. Brake rotors were replaced with larger, perforated discs, while the standard 16-inch wheels were eschewed in favor of 17-inch wheels wrapped in performance-rated tires.
Although the 2012 500 Abarth offered in North America is devoid of any and all esseesse references, it's mechanically identical. According to the official spec sheet, the turbocharged 1.4-liter I-4 delivers 160 hp at 5500 rpm, while peak torque -- a stout 170 lb-ft -- is attained between 2500 and 4000 rpm. That power is transferred to the front wheels via a five-speed manual transmission (no automatic is available) and an electronic limited-slip differential.
For those keeping score, that places the Abarth smack in the middle of its competitors. Yes, it's more powerful than the naturally aspirated 500, Mini Cooper, or Volkswagen Beetle, but it also lags a bit behind its forced-induction rivals.
The VW Beetle Turbo offers 200 hp and 207 lb-ft from its turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4, while the Mini Cooper S hatchback -- arguably the 500's closest competitor -- has 181 hp and as much as 192 lb-ft of torque on tap. Weight may prove to be the Fiat's saving grace: the U.S.-spec car weighs only 2533 pounds, about 100-200 pounds less than the Cooper S, and about 500 pounds below the Beetle.
Fiat officials tell us they aimed to keep the North American Abarth -- which is built in Mexico -- as close to the European model as possible. In fact, apart from new reflectors on the front and rear fascias, the car looks identical to what's offered overseas. A muscular front bumper fascia is dominated by a gaping lower air intake, which provides space for two fog lamps while simultaneously directing cool air to the intercoolers. 16-inch wheels are standard, although the optional 17-inch wheels, available in argent, white, or black finishes, fill the flared fenders quite nicely. Aggressive side skirts, a roof spoiler, and a tweaked rear fascia round out Abarth's other aero modifications. Contrasting side stripes and matching mirror caps lend a historic touch, but are optional extras.
Abarth's interior revisions are relatively limited. A new leather-wrapped steering wheel boasts a thick-rim and flat bottom, while an analog boost gauge -- which incorporates an LED shift light -- is placed to the left of the speedometer and tachometer. One-piece front bucket seats are normally trimmed in black cloth, although buyers can opt for black leather with red accent stitching, which matches the material used to trim the door panels, shift knob, and gauge cluster. Blue&Me -- Fiat's Bluetooth phone pairing system -- and a Bose audio system are standard equipment; buyers can add Sirius satellite radio and a TomTom-based navigation system at extra cost.
Stack 'Em Up
That cost has yet to be formally announced, but it's widely expected that the 500 Abarth will likely be priced in the low $20,000 range, putting it on-par with the likes of the Mini Cooper S.
Is there room for yet another frenetic, high-performance retro small car in America? That remains to be seen, but we wouldn't be surprised if the 500 Abarth's power, style, power, and poise win it fans in our country -- much like it has across the pond.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
Engine: Turbocharged 1.4-liter I-4
Power: 160 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 170 lb-ft @ 2200-4000 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Curb weight: 2533 lbs