2012 Fiat 500 Abarth - Don't you dare call it "Cute"

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A week with the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth here at “Drive…He Said,” was replete with proclamations of  “How cute it looks.” Not even the $350 Rosso stripes or four Scorpion emblems affixed to our tester in the traditional launch Bianco color could ward off such comments. Basta, already!

That junkyard dog on the choke collar and heavy duty chain is cute and cuddly, too.

Provoke the Fiat 500 Abarth, just by firing that ignition. Go ahead, Fiat dares you to. The result will be a bark coming out of the closest thing to an un-muffled exhaust (pipes to catalyst to resonator).  This from just a 1400 cc turbocharged 4-banger. Enough to send Fido and Impreza WRX’s wimpering, the idle note of the Fiat 500 Abarth will separate loyal neighbors from the ones who are merely tolerant.

Mosey on inside of the 500 Abarth for a “means business” cockpit. Front perches are race-inspired buckets; our tester was swathed in optional red leather. The same theme extends to a flat-bottomed steering wheel with thumb grips and red French stitching. Reverting from the meaty rim of the Abarth’s steering wheel to most others will feel like grabbing onto a circle of fetuccini. Good enough to hang on “for dear life” with, it’s a shame that it obscures the turbo boost gauge.

The rest of the 500 Abarth cabin is a love / loathe proposition as in other 500 models. No complaints as to fit. The black plastics which comprise the radio and climate control housings look downright uninspired next to the chic exterior colored dash panel insert and the traditional orange back-lit concentric gauge cluster. The center stack mounted gear shift lever inconveniently splits the power window switches. And decidedly high front seat cushions, good for legroom and visibility, still rob precious headroom.

Thicker sport seat backs in the 500 Abarth will make a contortionist out of anyone seeking out the back seat . Combining those same seat backs to some already wide B-pillars are responsible for blind-spots which no seeing-eye dog can diminish. Learn to trust those convex side mirror inserts.  Folding the split-back rear seat will expand cargo capacity from six grocery bags to twenty-four. Still M.I.A. in this three-door are ceiling-mounted grab handles. Even if the steering wheel still won’t extend for reach,  it isn’t too hard to find a satisfactory driving position.

Sure to make critics of the standard 500 model eat crow are the 500 Abarth’s  guts.  The 1400 cc inline 4-cylinder iron block and alloy cylinder head is fitted with lighter alloy pistons and a strengthened forged crankshaft that can withstand 18 psi of boost from the air-to-air intercooled Honeywell turbocharger. With much of the exhaust back pressure axed, power increases by 60% to 160  cavallo vapore  at 5500 rpm; all important torque  jumps by a colossal 73% to 170 lb-ft at 2500 rpm. MultiAir electro-hydraulic intake valve throttling also reduces fuel burn. Abarth supplies a PCM which improves throttle mapping in sport mode and and enhances brake applied torque vectoring, which can be disengaged. Launches to 60 mph in this 2500 pound fly-weight can be managed in a sprightly 6.9 seconds.

An Italian sourced 5-speed gearbox gets a taller final drive ratio of 3.0:1 which results in less shifting to build speed and acceptable fuel consumption. As in lesser Fiat 500’s, there is some notchiness in the 500 Abarth when shifting into 4th gear.  Clutch pedal action is very linear and light enough for daily-driver duty.

What would a “tuner special” be without chassis enhancements:  Abarth goes to work on the 500 with 40% stiffer springs in the front, 20% stiffer in the rear over the 500 Sport model. Ride height falls by .6 inches. Control arms and the rear stabilizer bar are fattened up. The front MacPherson strut assemblies are fitted with Koni FSD (frequency sensing dampers). Finally an enormously linear electric assist steering rack, with some real resistance and feedback in Sport mode. A mere one-and-a-half turns of the wheel to lock will assure easy u-ies or perpetual parking lot doughnuts.

Optional painted-to-match-body 17″ forged alloy wheels bound by Pirelli P Zero 205/40 three season W speed rated rubber aren’t there just for looks. More aggressive FF rated pads, proudly stamped “Lancia / Fiat / Alfa, ” fitted to single piston calipers, now squeeze down on larger 11.1″ diameter front brake rotors.

The 500 Abarth took to the road course at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois with the eagerness of a hound straining against its handler’s leash. Keeping engine boost up is easy enough above 2500 rpm..  In this element an exhaust, which is vociferous while  plodding along in traffic, is simply demonstrating enthusiasm.  Gear shifts that can be notchy on the street, are now crisp. Suspension damping that transmits a degree of pounding over poorer public pavement soaks up undulations and keeps the tail planted in fast transitions, absent roll, with just a trace of squat. Steering is well weighted and precise. The Pirelli P-Zero’s, which resonate into the cabin during interstate cruising, are always clawing forward, rarely crying “Uncle” or anything else. At the chassis limits, the faintest oversteer is easily corrected by easing back the throttle, without the aid of any torque splitting differential. Single piston calipers are good for a linear pedal and fade free braking, lap after lap. Just keep plenty of brake dust cleaner on hand.

At a base price of $22,000 for the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth you get a factory tuner for less than any Toyobaru [FT-S / BRZ] or VW Golf R. Granted our tester was maxed out at $27,200, including optional automatic climate control, moon roof, Blue and Me hands-free with a nifty Tom-Tom plug-n-play touch Nav Screen which doubled as an audio control interface (for the standard Bose system) and that contrasting Abarth red exterior striping.

Combined fuel economy of 26 mpg (which dropped to 22 mpg after some 30 miles on the track), and acceptable ride compliance make the Fiat Abarth 500 suitable for around-town daily driving. Some, though, may find the cabin din from exhaust and tire noise over interstate trips…well…”exhausting.”

If you want cute, surely Fiat can interest you in a “500 by Gucci” cabrio.


Special thanks to Kevin Rodgers, at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois for his hospitality www.autobahncc.com and Francesco D’Avola of Team Stradale Performance Driving for his expertise and soft-spot for Fiats. www.teamstradale.com

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