First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Joe Loriowriter

Maybe you've admired the plucky little Fiat 500, with it art-object design and European sensibilities. But if you've also found it a little too cute, too soft, or too slow to seriously consider, then you'll want to know about the Fiat 500 Abarth. The Abarth addresses each those reservations in a very convincing way.

Start with a turbo

Taking the last objection first, the heart of the Abarth is its new engine. The 1.4-liter, SOHC four has been turbocharged, dramatically increasing its output. Horsepower jumps from 101 hp to 160 hp. Torque is up even more, from 98 pound-feet to 170.

Matching up to the Mini

Unfortunately, those figures still fall short of the Abarth's most obvious competitor, the MINI Cooper S (181 hp and 192 pound-feet). At 2533 pounds, the Fiat is a bit more svelte but the Mini is still quicker to 60 mph -- at a factory-estimated 6.6 seconds to the Abarth's 7.2. The cars' EPA numbers are more closely matched, with the Fiat at 28/34 mpg city/highway and the Mini at 27/36 mpg.

Upping the fun factor

The Abarth isn't a ground-pounding screamer, but it is definitely fun. The turbo four blats to life with a distinct and characterful exhaust note (fitting, given that aftermarket exhaust kits were one of the Abarth company's earliest and most successful products). The exhaust is quite loud under acceleration but the noise fades almost completely when you're just cruising.

As you'd expect, this engine is a lot more lively than the normally aspirated unit. Boost is available down low and response is nicely linear. The Abarth features beefed up, equal-length half shafts, and they're effective in combating torque steer -- the wheel never squirms in your hands. To access the turbo engine's full 170 pound feet, you need to hit the Sport button on the dash; it not only firms up the steering and alters the throttle mapping as in other 500s, it also lets loose the final 20 pound-feet of torque. Unfortunately you have to hit it again with every start-up, because making the lower output the default helped Fiat eke out better EPA numbers.

We drove out from Las Vegas to Spring Mountain Motorsports Park, in Parhump, Nevada, about an hour and a half away. Both on the street and on the track, we loved the much-improved electric power steering, which now has real heft and feedback. The steering is also substantially quicker (2.3 turns lock-to-lock, versus 3.0), and the car turns in energetically. Our example had the more aggressive tire-and-wheel set-up: seventeen-inch wheels and 205/40, Pirelli P-Zero Nero tires (16-inch wheels and 195/45 Pirelli Cinturato P7 all-season tires are standard). A suspension that's 40 percent stiffer than the 500 Sport's does a great job keeping this tall and narrow car from leaning heavily in corners. Ride quality, however, remains a question mark, due to the smooth desert pavement. Another Abarth upgrade is larger front brake rotors with more substantial calipers (painted red); the brakes felt somewhat grabby during street driving but pedal modulation was fine on the track. The dynamic weak link in quick track action proved to be the shifter. The gearbox -- again a five-speed (no automatic is offered) has different ratios than the standard car's, but the imprecise linkage is no better and doesn't like to be hurried. The clutch, though, gets full marks for effort and take-up.

A makeover with machismo

Design-wise, the Abarth is subtly but effectively made over. The car sits 0.6 inch lower and the front fascia is pushed forward at the bottom to accommodate the turbo intercoolers (two small ones rather than one larger one, for packaging reasons), which are fed by larger air intakes. Along the sides, the lower bodywork is just slightly deeper and a new diffuser marks the rear. The trailing edge roof spoiler is larger here than in the 500 Sport. Unique 16- or 17-inch wheels set off the look, and a contrasting side stripe and mirrors caps are available to turn up the visual volume. Unlike the wide-ranging, retro-heavy color palette of the standard car, the Abarth is available only in white, black, gray, or red.

Inside, there's no sign of the ivory steering wheel and swtichgear seen in the Pop and Lounge models. Instead, black is the dominant color, with available red accents. Leather is optional. Sport seats with a fixed, high-back design replace the standard 500 seats with their circular headrests. Side bolstering is more prominent, but it's also soft, so it tends to wash out during aggressive cornering. As in other 500s, the sitting position is fairly high; we liked the large dead pedal but found the steering wheel, which adjusts for rake but not reach, to be pretty far away. That wheel, which is unique to the Abarth, is aggressively sculpted and feels great; audio and Bluetooth controls are standard. Also standard is a boost gauge added to the left side of the instrument cluster, which has an upshift light that flashes when you approach redline.

More to come?

Owners may get the chance to further tweak both the design and performance of the Abarth, as Fiat is considering adding a line of Mopar appearance and performance parts. Conveniently, they've already been developed for the European market by Italian supplier Magnetti-Morelli. Among the items mentioned are carbon-fiber items, even-lower suspensions, and even-louder exhaust systems.

What it means

One thing Fiat managers are less keen to talk about is projected sales, having been caught out so badly when the company's initial prognostications for the 500 proved wildly optimistic (the car is currently selling at a rate of just under 30,000 units per year). They do, however, acknowledge that the Abarth's importance to Fiat is far greater than the incremental volume it adds. "It's critical for the brand," says Fiat U.S.A. chief Tim Kuniskis, adding: "it provides a performance halo that it didn't have before." To further emphasize the car's performance potential, every Abarth buyer will be offered the opportunity to attend an Abarth Experience track day.

Even outside of a track, however, the experience of the Abarth is quite different from that of a regular 500. It brings another dimension to the tiny Fiat; forget cute and cuddly, think small and snarling.

On sale: Late March 2012
Base price: $22,700
Price as tested: $27,600
Engine: 1.4L SOHC turbo I-4; 160 hp, 170 lb-ft
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Mileage: 28/34/31 mpg (city/highway/combined)

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