2012 Fiat 500 Abarth First Drive Review: Little fun
Say hello to my little friend.
On a recent flight from Denver to Los Angeles, returning from the Chicago Auto Show, I overheard a conversation between two women chatting about the Fiat 500 and how adorable it was. While unbridled adorableness might work for teacup poodles or fun summertime dresses, even garden-variety cute can hurt when selling cars to men.
In an effort to man-up their lineup, the Italian automaker has introduced the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. We're told the correct pronunciation is (ah-bart) with a silent H, but whatever you call it the Abarth is the antithesis of the Fiat 500 Gucci edition. In the immortal words of Tony "Scarface" Montana, first comes the money, then comes the power, then the women. Fiat already has plenty of women so let's focus on the money and the power. For a modest amount of money ($22,700 including destination), the 500 Abarth give you a substantial bump in power - from an adorable 101 horsepower to a relatively wild 160 hp. In a vehicle that weighs 2,500 pounds or so, 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque are plenty to play with.
Our subcompact Scarface has the money and power boxes checked, but where Tony lacked control the Abarth seeks to maximize it. The vehicle has been lowered, the springs stiffened, Koni front shocks added and other tweaks have been made to the suspension in order to improve handling. The brakes have also been upgraded with larger front discs and nifty red calipers that squeeze high-performance brake pads.
The racy makeover extends to the Abarth's appearance where revised fascias, dual exhaust outlets, Abarth graphics and badges, a large rear spoiler and unique 16-inch or optional 17-inch wheels distinguish the sportiest 500 from its tamer brethren. Inside there are sport seats, a flat bottom steering wheel, various leather covered bits and, the true hallmark of sportiness, abundant red stitching. The collective elements conspire to give the Abarth a visual swagger that Mr. Montana might've appreciated...you know...if he hadn't got all shot up.
So, what is this furious 500 like to drive? On the streets it's plenty of fun. A 60-percent bump in power will do that for you. The important thing to keep in mind is that the engine needs revs to really perform. Keep the transmission in proper gear and the Abarth moves with urgency and sounds good doing it. Let the revs drop below 3,000 rpm, however, and flooring the throttle results in a two-Mississippi pause before the power kicks in. The whole issue of turbo lag disappears at the race track where then engine spins perpetually in its power curve.
Cynically you ask, "how many owners will actually take their car to the race track?" Considering the Abarth's asking price includes a one-day race track experience, the number could be surprisingly high. With that knowledge, Fiat let us flog the Abarth around the entire 3.1-mile circuit at Spring Mountain Raceway in Pahrump, Nevada, a situation that drove home the flawless performance of its brakes. Brakes are a common weak point when street cars hit the track, but not so in the 500 Abarth. At the end of every fast straight the brakes slowed us with fade-free confidence.
The Abarth also offers capable handling, leading us to one of the car's shortcomings: the seats. While cool-looking and more aggressively bolstered than the units in the standard 500, the Abarth's seats weren't able to hold us in place during hard cornering.
And corner hard we did. While exploring the vehicle's limits along the long sweeping turns of Spring Mountain's East loop, I found it easy to adjust the car's trajectory with small throttle modulations. Adding some light braking to the mix helped step the tail out slightly, a fun tool in the track's decreasing radius corners.
Track time in the Abarth was fun, but something was missing in terms of driver engagement. Perhaps it's the steering system that, despite a quicker ratio, lacked the direct precision that is so satisfying in true performance cars. Or maybe it's the suspension, which couldn't quite keep the vehicle planted during ambitious lapping. On the street and during casual track days these shortcomings shouldn't be an issue but they do indicate potential areas of improvement, areas that could be addressed by MOPAR's forthcoming line of Fiat performance parts.
Despite all the talk of track-worthiness, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is really built to rule the streets; and it's pushing some primo product. It looks mean, sounds meaner, has a playful persona and doesn't cost too much. The Abarth isn't perfect but it's got character and swagger. It's one of those bad guys I can't help but like. And I'm guessing America will agree.
About the Author: Kelley Blue Book editor Micah Muzio writes about cars for kbb.com, but not as often as he makes videos about cars for kbb.com. In one of his latest adventures, he spent three days in a Mazda MX-5 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with Skip Barber Racing School.