Americans get one Fiat 500 Abarth model while Europeans get two: the 135-horsepower Abarth and 180-horsepower Abarth Esseesse. Fiat thought the lesser Euro-market Abarth was too wimpy for the States so it only sent the high-performance model here. However, that makes a major gap in horsepower (and in price) between our Abarth and the second, er, sportiest 500 sold here, the Sport. Porca vacca! But the solution was simple enough: send over the 135-hp Abarth from Europe, and market it as something that fills the space between Sport and Abarth.
Enter the Fiat 500 Turbo. Essentially a chop-and-glue of a Sport and an Abarth, almost everything on the Turbo is shelf-sourced. It costs $20,200, which puts it roughly midway between its two donors. It's easy to see a less powerful and less expensive turbocharged 500 as a lesser Abarth, but it's more appropriate to look at the Turbo as a $2000 package for the 500 Sport. For that money, you get: an extra 34 horsepower and 52 lb-ft of torque; a transaxle with equal-length half shafts; blacked-out headlights and taillights; better brakes; a crisp-sounding exhaust; bolder front and rear fascias; and a leather-wrapped shift knob. On paper, that's a good investment -- hell, the Development Package for a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG costs $6050 and it doesn't do much more -- but is it worth it?
Aesthetically, yes. The Sport is cuddlier than a CareBear in a Christmas sweater, and the Abarth is almost as outrageous as its spokesman, the inimitable Charlie Sheen. The Turbo is a far cry from both, blending butch and cute better than Gina Carano. It looks bold and a touch devil-may-care, and we really dig the gloss black headlights (as does one of Fiat's own PR guys who already swapped them into his Abarth).
Athletically, the Turbo is a damn sight more enthusiastic than a Sport. Even though it has less horsepower than a Hyundai Accent, the 2477-lb Fiat can carve through the urban crawl with forced-induction confidence. This poise is especially welcome on the highway, where passing doesn't require a double downshift the way it does in the Sport. The only issue is that while the Turbo is faster in the straights, it's no more enjoyable than the Sport in the turns. Chalk this up to their virtually identical chassis; the Turbo does use the front brake rotors and front lower control arms from the Abarth but doesn't get other Abarth niceties like a rear antiroll bar, a limited-slip differential, or a seductive straight exhaust. The Turbo does use the Abarth's five-speed manual transmission that has shorter ratios (no automatic is available). The EPA says the Turbo gets the same fuel economy as the Abarth: 28 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway.
With our first drive of this car came our first encounter with Fiat's new, optional Beats audio system. While bump in the trunk is appreciated, it comes at a premium beyond cost. If the Fiat 500's cargo area were a space on the Monopoly board game, it'd be smack dab between Boardwalk and Go. At 9.5 cubic feet, it's valuable real estate that shouldn't be sacrificed, and the Beats subwoofer gobbles up a significant amount of it.
The 500 lineup is growing. The convertible Fiat 500 Abarth is coming stateside, and now there's an all-electric version of the hatch. Not to mention the outsized 500L, which looks like a 500 that's bulking up for a Raging Bull sequel. The Turbo, then, fills a noticeable hole in the burgeoning lineup. The short, $2500 hop from Turbo to Abarth might draw some buyers to the scorpion-badged 500, but we think the Turbo's driving dynamics are spot-on for a car with such a small footprint that's aimed at a milder crowd. Fiat made a strong choice bringing the weaker Abarth here.