The sexiest cars arguably long have come from Italy, and the new Abarth version of the 2012 Fiat 500 is such a car.
The 500 Abarth follows the colorful tradition of the very small, low-volume race-winning “Double Bubble” Fiat Abarths of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Those cars are valued at $135,000—if you can find one that wasn’t thrashed in races. (They had nifty twin roof humps—or “bubbles”—to clear race driver helmets.)
The early Abarths were standard Fiats cleverly modified by Karl Abarth, who made a fortune selling hot rod exhaust systems, mainly for sports cars. If you wanted the greatest sports car sound around and higher performance, it seemed mandatory that you get an Abarth catalog-available exhaust system.
Abarth became part of Fiat in the 1970s, and the retained Abarth logo is a scorpion because Karl Abarth’s astrological sign was Scorpio.
Images © James Raia/2012
The new 500 Abarth has a $22,000 list price and adds sexiness to the Fiat 500 front-drive, two-door hatchback line. The standard Fiat 500 is cute, but just marginally fast. It hasn’t been an especially good seller during its first year on the U.S. market, but the Abarth is making quite a sales and image splash since its debut in the spring of 2012.
Why the sexiness? For starters, the Abarth has a 160-horsepower single turbocharger with twin intercoolers. The 500 has a 1.4-liter four-cylinder, compared to the standard 101-horsepower engine and more torque that allows for much less shifting. The 500 also has a great snarling sound during hard acceleration—like the early Abarths.
The 0-60 mph time is a quick 7.2 seconds, partly because the small 500 Abarth only weighs about 2,500 pounds. The fastest passing on highways in done in third gear, although fourth gear will do in many cases.
The high-performance engine and performance gearing allows just 28 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on highways despite this car’s size and weight.
A driver can press the “Sport” button on the dash to get the engine’s full 170 pound-feet of torque (up from 150 pound-feet). However, the Sport setting makes the ride too bouncy for comfort on long drives.
The engine works with an easy shifting five-speed manual transmission and a clutch that has a long throw but good takeup for smooth starts. However, the Abarth could use a six-speed manual because the engine is turning over at pretty high rpms above 65 mph.
No automatic transmission is offered—you must opt for a standard Fiat 500 if you want an automatic because the 500 Abarth is designed to be a serious “driver’s car.”
The Abarth version of the 500 gets electric power steering that’s quick, although the car’s turning circle is too large for tight spots, considering its size. Also standard are a stiffer “Abarth Performance Tuned” suspension that provides a smoother ride when not in Sport mode, performance tires on wider 16-inch wheels and larger front brake rotors with more aggressive pads.
Handling is sharp, assisted by electronic stability control, but my test car’s brakes were rather grabby in town until warmed up.
The Abarth turns heads. It sits lower than the standard Fiat 500 and has a lower front fascia, larger front air intakes for the engine’s twin turbochargers, a larger rear roof spoiler and a new rear diffuser with chromed dual exhaust tips. Abarth’s Scorpio signs are found at various places on the car.
My white Abarth test car had red bodyside striping and $1,000 17-inch forged aluminum gloss white wheels with wide 40-series tires. The wheels looked slick, but I stayed far from curbs to avoid scraping them. A driver also must keep the low front end in mind.
Other options include the $750 Safety and Convenience package, which contains automatic temperature control and an $850 power sunroof.
The Abarth has lots of standard equipment. It includes remote keyless entry with power door locks and windows, air conditioning, a manual driver height-adjustable seat, cruise control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio, steering wheel audio controls and a hefty Abarth perforated leather wrapped steering wheel, along with a vehicle information center.
Safety items include a driver-side knee air bag and side-curtain front/rear air bags.
Long, wide-opening doors made it easy to enter my test car’s $1,000 front perforated leather trimmed high-back bucket seats. But, while those seats looked like they provide good side support, their soft side bolstering mostly vanished during fast cornering. Also, the small sun visors didn’t swivel to the side.
The combination speedometer and tachometer is very difficult to read during the day, so thank goodness there’s also a small auxiliary digital speedometer that’s easy to read.
The turbo boost gauge to the left of the steering wheel is virtually useless, but the small sound system and climate controls are fairly easy to use. Large shoes will cause drivers to occasionally touch the accelerator pedal when a foot is on the brake.
Doors have storage pockets, but front cupholders are at floor level and rear windows don’t open. There’s no left-hand armrest for the front passenger.
The tight back seat is almost strictly for small children and pets. Split rear seatbacks flip forward to enlarge the cargo area, which has a high hatch opening and holds a week’s worth of family groceries.
The hood is held open with a prop rod, and the engine compartment looks overcrowded, although fluid-filler areas aren’t hard to reach.
The Fiat 500 Abarth is a blast to drive. But, after all, Fiat also makes Ferraris, doesn’t it?
Pros: Race-car personality. Quick. Sharp handling. Eye-catching. Great exhaust sound for car buffs.
Cons: Tiny rear seat. Small cargo area. Stiff ride. Hard-to-read gauges. Wide turning circle. No automatic transmission.
Bottom Line: The 500 Abarth adds considerable sexiness to the regular Fiat 500 line.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read his new and vintage car reviews, visit his website, www.danjedlicka.com