2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

LAS VEGAS — 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 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.”

At first glance the Fiat looks like a tight fit, especially for two "buffet veterans." This brings to mind another old adage, “looks can be deceptive.” Yes, we rubbed shoulders, but primarily on hairpin turns that the Abarth seemed to relish.

Fiat began building the 500 in 1959 and the Abarth is the latest version to be “turned loose” in America. U.S. acceptance of the 500 is evident in the January-February sales figures that are up 69 percent. When future Fiat 500 models are marketed here later in the year there will be nine variations.

Fiat 500 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 cast-, or 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. Though we weren’t given 0-to-60 mph times, the European version with 30 less horses puts out numbers in the under-7-second category.

The inclusion of a 160 mph speedometer, however, isn’t just for giggles and grins — although the top end is estimated at 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 that we glanced at the speedometer, figuring it was near the 70 mph limit and we 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, Donna.) 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. To compare it to the God-awful tones of one of those ugly exhaust cans from a “beater” car is to compare a Renoir to a numbers-painting on velvet.

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., while final assembly is conducted 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" t and another that was fairly basic. Ironically, we seemed to encounter the most noticeable wind noise with the former. Coincidental? I don’t know. Further testing on another pair of vehicles would be required to see if this were a trend.

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 will get 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 $22,000?

— Al Vinikour and Jim Meachen