After seeing Fiat’s hotted-up 500 Abarth debut at the Los Angeles auto show, we were eager to learn more about the feisty hatchback. We sat down with Michael T. Vincent, platform manager for the Fiat 1.4-liter MultiAir engines, to learn more about the new-to-America Fiat 500 Abarth. 1. The American-spec 500 Abarth uses a different engine than the European 500 Abarth Although both the European and American 500 Abarth have a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four engine, the two mills are not the same. The European version is based on Fiat’s T-JET engine, and produces just 135 hp in the regular Abarth. The American model uses Fiat’s MultiAir valve control system, which is more efficient and allows the engine to produce 160 hp. Europeans, however, can upgrade the 500 Abarth to 160 hp with the Esseesse performance package. 2. Pushing the Sport button actually makes the car faster To help make sure the 500 Abarth is civil enough to be driven everyday, pushing the Sport button actually unleashes more power. Normally, peak torque is electronically limited to 150 lb-ft, and the throttle response is tailored for a gentle response. In Sport mode, the car’s full 170 lb-ft is available, and the throttle response is more aggressive. Vincent says that means the 500 Abarth is actually faster when the Sport mode is engaged. 3. There won’t be a higher-performance version of the 500 Abarth “No,” replied Vincent when we asked if Fiat would launch a more powerful version of the car. “We are essentially at our limit of what we can do,” he said. The 160-hp engine is already approaching the torque limits of the car’s manual transmission, as well as the power capabilities of the engine’s turbocharger. On top of that, extracting more power from the 1.4-liter engine would compromise its performance at higher altitudes. Fiat wants the 500 Abarth to offer the same level of performance whether it is running in Detroit, or at the top of a mountain in Colorado. 4. The 500 Abarth has an electronically controlled front differential Unlike some small performance cars that simply use the front brakes to mete out traction to the front wheels, the 500 Abarth actually has a limited-slip differential. The differential is electronically controlled by the so-called Torque Transfer Control. The computer can adjust the amount of lock in the front differential, depending on how much traction is available. And to provide even more traction, the stability control system can selectively brake one of the front wheels to transfer engine torque from side to side. In essence, the 500 Abarth combines the virtues of a true LSD with brake-operated traction management. “You’ve got a high performance engine in a little car that’s pretty light,” Vincent said. “When you stomp on it, you want to go straight down the road.” 5. Crash-test regulations mean the Fiat can’t have a six-speed manual transmission The five-speed manual transmission in the 500 Abarth is tougher than the unit in regular versions of the 500. But with many competitors offering six-speed gearboxes, why is the Fiat limited to just five forward ratios? To help the 500 meet American crash-test regulations, Fiat had to add lots of additional bracing in the chassis. With that bracing in place, there was no room for Fiat to fit a six-speed gearbox. Fiat had just 14 months to bring the 500 to market in the U.S., and there simply wasn’t time to adapt a six-speed manual transmission to the American model. 6. American buyers are enthusiastic about the Abarth “Since word got out that the Abarth name was coming to the U.S., we’ve had a flood of interest,” Vincent said. Sales volumes of the 500 Abarth will be low by design -- Fiat wants to make the car a special, somewhat limited-edition model. “It’s a halo car for the brand and for the connoisseurs of Italian performance,” explained Fiat spokesman Ariel Gavilan. He said Fiat expects buyer demographics for the 500 Abarth will be younger and more male than for the regular 500 -- although he notes that, in the U.S., 60 percent of Fiat 500 buyers are male. Production of the American-spec 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth begins in February 2012, and the car goes on sale in spring 2012. For more on the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, check out our First Look here. For more on the 2011 Los Angeles Show, including videos, the latest photos, and more information, click here to visit our L.A. Show homepage.
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