Fiat 500 Abarth — Small but wicked

By Jim Meachen and Al Vinikour

A well-worn adage is “good things come in small packages.” Perhaps with the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth (pronounced ah-bart') that adage can be altered to "wicked things come in small packages." The odd moniker for the performance version of Fiat’s popular tiny world car comes from legendary racer Karl Abarth who is responsible for more than 10,000 individual race victories, 10 world records and 1,334 international titles.

Fiat and Abarth have a history of collaboration going back 45 years that resulted in six international records and nearly 900 individual race victories. Thus, naming Fiat’s “everyday performance car” after this man is like linguini rolling off the tines of a twirling fork. His vehicles have always been described as “small but wicked.”

The Abarth configuration, which adds 59 horsepower and 78 pound-feet of torque in addition to an assortment of other go-fast goodies to the basic 500, turns the cute little car into a delightful pocket-rocket with an exhaust note as delicious as strawberry shortcake on a warm spring evening.

Last year the Fiat returned after more than a 27-year absence from the American marketplace. Through the graces of Chrysler it has found a way back to our shores.

And in its short time here it has drawn plenty of attention. Perhaps part of the attraction is its Italian roots. Italian design, be it chairs or toasters or cars is fraught with color and style. As a society they have an eye for cool, contemporary and chic. And the 500 extols the virtue of its artful masses not only as a mass market car but as a statement of simple artistry.

The 500 is a simple design, its purpose clear, efficient and smart with enough style to bring smiles from those in the car and those who see it pass by.
Since its debut as a concept at the 2004 Geneva Auto Show, it has been a sensation in Europe. The little car was penned by Roberto Giolito, Fiat style director, and went on sale in 2007, 50 years after the original — and even smaller — rear-engine Fiat 500 was introduced.

The Abarth is the latest version of the 500 to be “turned loose” in America. U.S. acceptance of the 500 is evident in the January-March sales figures that are up 69 percent. When future Fiat 500 models are marketed here later in the year there will be nine variations.

The Abarth’s logo is a stylized scorpion, which happened to be Karl’s zodiac birth sign (the scorpion itself, not the “stylized” version). It’s found creatively at various points of the vehicle like the center of each of the four forged-aluminum wheels (16-inch standard/17-inch available), in the center of the steering wheel, on the front fascia and rear liftgate.

It just adds to the allure, and the Abarth is a real testament to the ferocious reputation of the scorpion.

Want some brute power to propel this 2,533-pound machine? You’ve got it. The lightweight Abarth (just 2,533 pounds) is powered by a 1.4-liter SOHC 16-valve turbocharged multiair inline four-cylinder engine that produces 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. Recorded 0-to-60 numbers have fallen in the mid-to-high six-second range.

The inclusion of a 160 mph speedometer, however, isn’t just for giggles and grins. Although the top end is limited to 130 mph, but we're not certain it’s engineered to stay that way.

High speed numbers creep up undetected. There were several instances on some of the straighter desert roads we drove recently around Las Vegas that we glanced at the speedometer, figuring it was near the 70 mph speed limit, but were delighted there wasn't a law enforcement officer in the vicinity. For such a littler car, speed is very deceptive.

The engine is mated to an exceptionally smooth, heavy-duty 5-speed manual transmission. Don’t know how to drive a stick? You’re out of luck. Final drive ratio harkens back to those high-performance days of yesteryear: 3:35.1. And those two, huge chrome exhaust tips that aim out the rear fascia? As good as they look, aesthetics are not their reason to live.

Those “holes” are the escape point for the sweetest-sounding exhaust system since the deep burbling sounds made by big-block V-8s. The engineers have created a crescendo of ear-pleasing “speed music” and down-shifting sometimes results in a cool backfiring crackle.

The engine sports an electronically limited maximum figure of 6,500 rpm and though 91-octane fuel is recommended it will still perform admirably with 87-octane. The engine is built in Dundee, Mich., with final assembly at the Toluca, Mexico, plant.

Enhanced front-, and rear-suspension was designed to deliver the precision handling, steering and refinement required by a high-performance vehicle. It features 20 percent beefier rear springs, twist-beam design and minimal body roll, as witnessed first-hand during our jaunt through Nevada’s famed Red Rock Canyon. We drove one Abarth that was "loaded" and another that was fairly basic.

Ironically, we seemed to encounter the most noticeable wind noise with the former.

Abarth also features track-proven brakes, and 35 individual safety and security features, including three-mode electronic stability control, all-speed traction control, brake override, brake assist, hill start assist and advanced multi-stage airbags, just to name a few.

The interior is feature-laden with standard and available items. Such amenities as a floor console with three front-passenger cup holders, a 12-volt power outlet, two rear-passenger cup holders, cruise control, driver and passenger armrests that are coordinated with seat color, front overhead console with map lights, rear coat hooks, a really slick instrument cluster (though we could have done without the red digital readout), and a dynamite leather-wrapped steering wheel that feels like you’re holding on to the direction of a Formula 1 race car.

Seating for the 500 Abarth is listed as 2/2. If you have a choice, pick the front 2…definitely not the rear 2.

EPA estimated mileage figures are 28 mpg city/34 mpg highway.

Buyers can take advantage of a full day of training to learn the features, characteristics and handling of their vehicle. Thus far five tracks have been signed for this function. And now the good news — pricing. Where else are you going to get a features-laden high-performance “animal” like the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth for a starting MSRP of $22,700? That's about six grand more than the starting price of the standard 500. But, believe us, worth every hard-earned dime.

Our test car on home turf stickered for $23,100, the only option a removable TomTom navigation system.

Base price: $22,700; as driven, $23,100
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 160 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 170 foot-pounds @ 2,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 90.6 inches
Length: 144.4 inches
Curb weight: 2,533 pounds
Turning circle: 37.6 feet
Luggage capacity: 9.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 30.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.5 gallons (premium recommended)
EPA rating: 34 highway, 28 city
0-60: 6.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mini Cooper S, Volkswagen GTI, Scion FR-S

The Good
• Smile-Inducing performance
• Capable handling
• Excellent fuel economy
• Impressive braking

The Bad
• Limited cargo space

The Ugly
• Lack of a dealer network