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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Posted on 17 December 2012 by Chris

Fiat 500 Abarth
Tested by: Dan Scanlan

Matt had that lost puppy dog look in his eyes as he walked up to my desk.
“Can we go out in the Abarth, please?,” he asked. My co-worker loves compact cars and has had a gander at the Fiat 500’s I’ve tested. But this was the first time he’d asked for a ride. I guess the squat, purposeful look of the 500 Abarth lured him in. Then he hung on, even whopped a bit, as we tossed this little Italian go-kart through some turns and let its snarling exhaust reflect off some overpasses. “This really likes to come out and play,” he quipped. “You’ll get a speeding ticket in here.”

Indeed — so let’s see how much sting this Abarth has.

  • Abarth acceleration — You see a tiny little Italian car, cute enough yet smaller than a Honda Fit. The base 500’s 1.4- liter MultiAir inline four puts out 101-HP and 98 lb.-ft. of torque with a precise, if a bit long-throw 5-speed manual. Use the stubby shifter quickly, and it hits 60-mph in a pedestrian 10 seconds while averaging 31-mpg. But us Americans always want more power and our Abarth delivers with 160-hp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque from that 1.4 liter motor. Then you start the car and the little Abarth spits out a bark, then a mean little burble as it settles into anxious idle. Go on, blip the throttle – it sounds a bit anti-social and so addictive out of the Abarth-designed dual-exhaust system. Then it really sounds great when you use it in motion. With the sport button on, which quickens throttle response and adds a more performance-weighted steering feel, our 6,000-mile-old test car got to 60-mph in a decent 6.9 seconds. There was also a bit of turbo whistle and a popping overrun snap-crackle on shifts. The engine had plenty of boost, even in fifth gear, where we could easily pass on the highway. The only let-down was a slightly rubbery five-speed manual transmission, and we could have used a sixth gear. We averaged 26-mpg after a fill-up with a recommended premium after some gleefully hard playing in the twisty bits.

    Twisty bits, you say? Fiat added 23 percent larger equal-length half shafts to mitigate torque steer, although we still had a bit of wiggle if we pressed the pedal hard while crossing painted stripes in lane changes. The inside wheel will spin with power in a turn as well. The car sits on a front McPherson strut suspension with a 40 percent stiffer spring rate and .6-inch lower ride height. There are cast-iron front lower control arms for more lateral stiffness and an increase in negative camber for better grip and steering precision. There’s 40 percent more torsionally rigid rear axle with strengthened coil-sprung supports for greater durability and a solid rear stabilizer bar increases cornering grip. And KONI front-shock absorbers work with it all to firm up the ride, yet help absorb bumps. All that means the short-wheelbase 500 Abarth has a very firm ride that can get a bit bouncy over rough terrain, yet works pretty well at handling cobblestones and bumps without a harsh rebound. It also means that with a 15.1:1 (up from 16.3:1) steering-gear ratio and that willing engine, the 500 Abarth brought out the go-kart racer in me every time I drove it. Toss it into a turn and it hangs on beautifully with a bit of body roll felt through the higher bucket seats. You can power the Abarth through a turn and it feels like it is on rails, the grip solid as it just power out the other end with a touch of stability control. Push harder and it offers some understeer, giving up progressively with good feedback from the electronic power steering that loads up nicely in turns. You can turn the stability control partially or fully off for more fun. The 500 Abarth did react to crosswinds a bit. The brakes had a nice precise feel with larger (by 1 inch) 11.1-inch ventilated rotors up front and 9.4-inchers in back. Yes, it’s small, as many pointed out. But there are driver/front-passenger/driver’s knee/full-length side-curtain and seat-mounted side pelvic-thorax air bags.

  • Abarth appearance- Carlo Abarth, born in 1908 in Austria as Karl Albert Abarth, was a racer and automobile designer in Italy who founded his race car-making company in 1949, using the astrological sign Scorpio as its symbol. The company, which made performance exhaust systems, was well known for tuning Fiat products including the first tiny Fiat 500 in the 1950s and 1960s. Fiat took the company over in 1971 and sportier versions of company cars carried the scorpion badge for decades more. In 2010, an Abarth version of the new 500 was launched shortly after Fiat became the majority owner of Chrysler. Since then, the Fiat 500 has come stateside in 101-hp form, and now the hotter Abarth version.

    The cute smiley face of the base 500 gets some tweaks as does the rest. Our metallic white Abarth starts with a wide-mouth lower grill with projector fog lights and side brake cooling ducts over a slim air dam. That front fascia is more pronounced, pushed 2.7 inches ahead of the familiar chrome nose accents that flank not a little Fiat emblem, but a larger Abarth scorpion badge on a 7-bar air intake inside a chrome shield. It sits above a larger intake between pop-eyed headlights and cheeky running lights. The clamshell hood is the same, as are flat-edged front wheel flares with reflectors. But the car rides on low-profile performance P205/40R17-inch Pirelli P-Zero Nero rubber that gives the Abarth a wide stance and lower ride height. You can also see the Rosso (red) painted brake calipers behind the thin-spoke Abarth white alloy wheels, which got dirty thanks to brake dust. The car gets more aggressive Abarth-designed side skirts under the red Abarth side stripe that replaces the stock 500’s rub strip. There’s tiny front fender running light/side turn signals, a big red side mirror and a larger Abarth badge on the rear fender. In back, almost no rear overhand as the base 500’s chrome rear accent is ditched for a more aggressive shape with vents and an aero under-bumper diffuser with two big stainless steel exhaust pipes. A larger hatchback-mounted spoiler extends the roofline as well and adds downforce, Fiat says. And FYI – not a Fiat badge on a car festooned with Abarth scorpions.

    With its aggressive leaned-forward stance, the Cinquecento Abarth attracted a lot of attention. I came out of the office to see another co-worker shooting cellphone photos to send to her boyfriend and calling it “cool.” At a teen driving program for my son, the car guys gave and students looked all around the car, one even getting on hands and knees to check out the suspension. At a hot rod cruise-in, I heard lots of “There’s a Fiat” cries from kids and lots of questions about it too. Interestingly the Abarth is only available in our white, black, red or gray – make mine red!

  • Abarth atmosphere – While base 500 interiors are cute and a bit basic in material, the Abarth gets a does of Ferrari attitude with much more black than white. First there’s the redesigned steering wheel with thick leather-clad rim and a flat bottom. Tilt-adjustable, it gets cruise, audio and BLUE&ME hands free cellphone controls. Behind the steering wheel, a big 160-mph Speedometer circling an 8,000-rpm tach and a trip computer display dead center with clock, outside temperature and a lit LCD temperature and gas gauges. Instead of the white-faced speedo on the base 500, this one’s black with orange numbers and floating red needles. The round cowl atop the gauges is wrapped in black Nero leather with red stitching, while the rest of the dashtop is hard black plastic. To the left of the gauge is an analog turbo-boost gauge with integrated LED shift light that glows when you approach redline.

    The high-back front seats get red leather with silver striping down the centers, a racing harness pass-through under the head restraing and aggressive-looking side bolsters that really didn’t hold me or passengers (who commented) in well. They were height adjustable, and sit high like a crossover. That’s fine for driving visibility, but a bit odd in a sports car. And when I set the seat for my long legs, the non-telescoping wheel was a bit too far, so I had to compromise and sit on top of Abarth-designed aluminum pedals. There’s more Nero leather with red stitching on the big shift knob and classic boot. On the dashtop is a 4.3-inch TomTom navigation system that unclips. Under it, a great-sounding AM-FM-CD-SiriusXM Satellite audio system with USB and MP3 audio inputs buried deep in the decent glove box. Your Sport, warning flashers and rear defrost buttons stand out on the white dash, then the climate control and fog light buttons are on a black fascia underneath. That meaty gearshift shares a small high perch with the awkwardly-placed power window switches, with three rubberized cup holders and a cellphone slot down low on a slim center console and two more cup holders at the rear. The door panels are hard black plastic on top with padded red arm rests, a bit tight in elbow room. Back seat access is via a fabric pull-strap on the tops of the seatbacks, then we squeezed one adult behind a willing front passenger. Trunk space is small but usable, but I had to drop one of the split folding rear seat backs to get a small rolled-up carpet inside. We had some serious wind noise from the passenger window at highway speed.

  • Fiat finances – A base Fiat 500 Pop starts at $15,500, but the base 500 Abarth starts at $22,000. Ours added the #1,000 leather seats; $750 convenience package with alarm, climate control and SiriusXM; $350 red mirrors and side stripe; $400 TomTom navigation and BLUE&ME’ and $1,000 for the 17-inch alloy wheels. With destination fee, it was a heady $26,200. For competition, we picked a group of hot hatches both subcompact and compact that promise as much fun as the 500 Abarth. Those include the Chevrolet Sonic RS, Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Si, Mini Cooper Works and a favorite – the Scion FR-S. Their prices range from $20,200 for the Sonic and $22,355 for the Civic Si to $24,000 for the FR-S and $29,900 for the MINI. Power ranges from 138-hp for the tiny Sonic and 200-hp for the FR-S on up to a heady 252-hp for the bigger Focus ST. The FR-S  is the only rear-wheel drive car here, and it is a blast to drive with sharp shift and decent power en route to 60-mph in x seconds. The MINI and Civic Si have a bit more vitality in their power, getting to 60-mph in 6.2 and 6.8 seconds respectively, although the British car is more like the go-cart that the Abarth is. The Focus is also quick, hitting 60-mph in 6.5 seconds. My choice – the MINI or the Abarth.
  • Bottom line – The Fiat 500 Abarth is a little hooligan that’s an absolute blast to play with, gets great fuel mileage (we saw 30-plus indicated), sounds and looks fantastic and is Italian. Need I say more?

  • Specicfications:
  • Vehicle type – front-wheel-drive, 2-door, 4-passenger sub-compact sports coupe
  • Base price- $22,000 (As driven — $26,200)
  • Engine type – SOHC, Turbocharged and intercooled 16-valve iron block inline four
  • Displacement – 1.4-liter
  • Horsepower (net) – 160 hp at 5,500 RPM
  • Torque (lb-ft) – 170 at 2,500 to 4,000 RPM
  • Transmission – 5-speed manual
  • Wheelbase – 90.6 in.
  • Overall length – 144.4 in.
  • Overall width – 64.1 in.
  • Height – 59.2 in.
  • Front headroom – 38.9 in.
  • Front legroom – 40.7 in.
  • Rear headroom – 35.5 in.
  • Rear legroom – 3 1.7 in.
  • Cargo capacity – 9.5 cubic feet/26.8 w/rear seat folded
  • Curb weight – 2,512 pounds
  • Fuel capacity – 10.5 gallons
  • Mileage rating 28mpg city/34 mpg highway
  • Last word – What a great little bambino of a pocket rocket

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