2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test review
A Track-Ready Ride from that Other Italian Carmaker
Scores High: Wide powerband, track-ready performance with public-road drivability, perfect exhaust note.
Scores Low: Seats need more lateral support for track duty, only five speeds, still a lot of hard plastic inside.
Total Car Score Analysis
Fiat has had a rough first year in the U.S. market after a near-30-year absence. Its dealer network implementation took too long to ramp up, and first-year sales of the 500 suffered as a result. Throw in some early turbulence at the brand’s executive level and speculation regarding Fiat’s long-term viability in the U.S. skyrocketed.
But execs tell us these issues are in the past. The dealer network is ramping up, demand for the Fiat 500 coupe and cabriolet (including the high-priced Gucci version) is on the rise, and a recent Super Bowl commercial and March Madness/Charlie Sheen commercial created instant brand awareness during two of America’s biggest television events. Now comes the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, a model that will tackle Fiat’s challenges with that most American of solutions: MORE POWER!
The Abarth brand, much like the Fiat brand, is not well-known by the average U.S. car buyer. But European and vintage car enthusiasts speak the name with the same reverence they hold for performance brands like Mercedes’ AMG or BMW’s Motorsport divisions. Started by Karl Abarth, a highly successful racer and engineer with a penchant for getting big performance out of small cars, Abarth has been supplying performance parts to Fiat enthusiasts for over four decades.
Adding the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth to its product line gives Fiat the enthusiast pedigree it needs to break out of the “cute” zone many performance fans ascribed to it when the 500 first went on sale last year. And if it truly serves the halo role Fiat envisions, even a small number of Abarth sales will have a big impact on Fiat’s brand image.
It’s clear the Abarth is not Jennifer Lopez’s 500 long before you twist the key and fire up the turbocharged engine. Aggressive exterior upgrades, including multiple intercooler air intakes in the front fascia, a 15 mm lowered ride height, a roof spoiler and bright red-and-yellow Abarth/scorpion shields (Karl Abarth’s birth sign) elicit less “awww” from female onlookers while inspiring more “cool!” from males. Abarth-specific 16-inch (standard) or 17-inch (optional) alloy wheels show-off 11.1-inch front disc brakes squeezed by bright red calipers. Optional side stripes and unique twin exhaust outlets complete an exterior package that clearly writes a big “Check Me Out!” check, particularly given the standard 500’s less-than-ear-flattening performance.
Fortunately, the Abarth’s drivetrain and suspension tuning are capable of cashing such a check. An unexpected level of useable torque from the diminutive 1.4-liter engine is testament to how far turbo and variable-valve technology has come. Dubbed the MultiAir Turbo, the engine is capable of 18 pounds of boost, 160 peak horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque when Sport mode is engaged via a dash button. This combination of high horsepower and broad torque would be entertaining in a 3,000-pound vehicle. But the Fiat 500 Abarth weighs a mere 2,500 pounds, meaning it can get to 60 mph in just over 7 seconds and tops out at 130 mph.
Of course using the Abarth as a stoplight dragster neglects its potential as a low-cost track toy. Fiat tuned the Abarth’s suspension on the curves of Nelson Ledges Road Course because the company fully expects owners to utilize it as weekend racer. In fact, Fiat provides a day of professional driver training – at a track facility – in the 500 Abarth’s $22,000 starting price. We drove the Abarth at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Nevada to confirm its track-worthy status. With a faster steering ratio, stiffer springs and increased negative camber this is no Gucci version with a graphics package.
And despite the aggressive styling enhancements, increased horsepower and retuned suspension, perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Abarth comes from those twin exhaust outlets poking through the rear fascia. Fiat’s engineers worked tirelessly to get the sound just right, and we think they nailed it. A car this small isn’t supposed to make a loud, deep growl, but it should effectively announce to the world that something special is going on here. It does, belching a mid-to-low-frequency “BLATT” almost as compelling as the Italian-language tirade the Abarth girl barks at her latte-sipping fan.
Interior Design and Function
One might expect an Italian performance car to offer certain interior features, such as a thick-rimmed, flat-bottom steering wheel and an easily grasped, leather-wrapped gear shift knob. But the Italian brand most-commonly associated with these features is not Fiat. That may change when the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth goes on sale this month. Additional performance features found in the cabin, such as a boost gauge (wrapped around a shift light), aluminum pedal trim and high-back front seats with racing harness pass-through openings, keep the theme of track-day readiness intact.
The pass-through openings in the seats were particularly appreciated, as the Abarth’s seats (despite aggressive bolstering) couldn’t keep up with the lateral Gs the car generated at the Spring Mountain course. Using knees and elbows to brace oneself during the occasional on-ramp hi-jinks is one thing, but serious weekend warriors will want to add a race harness. Some racers might also be disappointed in the Abarth’s mere five forward gears, but that broad torque band (not to mention a 34 mpg highway rating) suggest a six-speed isn’t necessary, though it would feel more up-to-date in a world with cars approaching twice that number of gears.
Primary Features and Options
Despite appearances, the Fiat 500 Abarth isn’t all about lap times. A host of standard and optional features make relaxed, public road travel almost as enjoyable as apex clipping. Standard features include steering-wheel controls for cruise control, audio functions and Bluetooth connectivity. There’s also a standard Bose audio system with six speakers and a dedicated subwoofer (SiriusXM satellite radio can be added for additional cost). An optional TomTom navigation system is available, as is contrasting seat upholstery in cloth or leather (contrasting stitching around the instrument cluster and leather steering wheel is standard). A full battery of airbags (front, side, side curtain and even at the driver’s knee) stand at the ready should the Abarth encounter trouble.
It’s Perfect For…
With a starting price at $22,000 and EPA fuel mileage figures of 28 city, 34 highway and 31 mixed it would be easy to assume the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is just a dolled-up gas sipper. But the level of engineering might packed into the 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo, not to mention the resulting performance it provides Abarth drivers, is reason enough to take the car seriously. Combined with its rock-solid suspension tuning and performance-oriented interior, the Abarth really is a complete performance package waiting for a track date.
Don’t let the economy-car pricing or 7-second zero-to-60 time fool you. The Abarth is meant for legal-disclaimer driving (“Note: Professional driver on closed circuit.”). Buy one and do that.
Vehicle Tested: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $22,000
Options on Test Vehicle: None
MSRP of Test Vehicle (including destination charge): $22,700
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The manufacturer provided Total Car Score this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Photos Courtesy of the manufacturer.