2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Review By Carey Russ


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

When I drove the Fiat 500 last year, I found it endearing, entertaining, and stylish. It wasn't particularly quick, and my first thought was "there's nothing wrong with this car that a good turbo wouldn't cure."

Which is exactly what Fiat has done with the 500 Abarth. The regular 500's 101-horsepower 1.4-liter engine gets replaced by a 160-hp variant, with torque rising from 98 lb-ft to 170 -- from 2500 through 4000 rpm. Any transmission you want, as long as it's a five-speed manual, with suspension tuning and wheels and tires upgraded appropriately. Cute becomes serious. And quick, for its size. No, the Abarth won't race a Ferrari, but as the old saying goes, it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow. Not that the Abarth is all that slow.

Unless you're well-versed in European racing history, you may be wondering about the name and scorpion logo. Carlo Abarth founded his eponymous company in 1949, producing the aftermarket exhaust systems that would continue to be his company's best-selling products throughout its existence. Other aftermarket tuning parts were made, primarily for the Fiats popular in Italy, followed by complete cars, mostly using Fiat-based engines with Abarth modifications including dual overhead cam heads. Abarths were winners in the small-displacement categories of sport car racing of the time, from 750cc through 2.0liters, with lovely, tiny coupes that featured Zagato aerodynamic bodywork with "double bubble" rooflines that are echoed in some sports cars today among the best known. Most were rear-engined, like the Fiat Nuovo Cinquecento of the Fifties that inspired today's 500. The scorpion on the company logo is, officially, because Carlo Abarth's astrological sign was Scorpio, but I've also heard that it was because the "stinger was in the tail" - more power in the engine compartment.

Fiat bought the Abarth company when Carlo retired in 1971. And, were he still with us, he would undoubtedly approve of the new 500 Abarth as it is a car very much in the vein of his creations.

Keeping with Abarth tradition of exterior and interior changes only for performance, not mere style, the 500 Abarth is visually little different from the regular 500. The chassis gets the most attention, with suspension, steering, brake, wheel, and electronic stability control systems upgraded to match the engine performance.

The 500 Abarth is meant to be an everyday performance car, and so is no Spartan racer. It's a well-equipped small car, with more room than expected, at least in the front, and all of the modern comforts and electronic conveniences expected standard or available.

I thoroughly enjoyed my week with a 500 Abarth that was equipped with a number of key options. The engine has enough low-end torque to make constant shifting un-necessary, but in the manner of all good Italian vehicles, it liked being revved. You could commute happily, and probably see over 30 mpg regularly. Or you could drive it like you stole it and end up with a large grin on your face and regular feedings thanks to the smallish 10.5 gallon tank. Either way, the Abarth adds serious substance to the regular Fiat 500's style.

APPEARANCE: Without the Abarth scorpion badges prominently displayed at the front of the car, on the rear fenders, and above the license plate at the rear (but, ironically, not on the muffler), the Abarth would be hard to tell from the regular Fiat 500. There is no Fiat badging, although the "500" on the trim piece above the rear license plate remains. For aerodynamic and space reasons, the front fascia is pushed 2.7 inches further forward than that of the 500, and there's an air intake behind the Abarth shield, and the ducts to the outside of the foglamps direct air to the twin intercoolers. Larger wheels and tires, more aggressive rocker panels, and a venturi-look rear bumper fascia and visor-type spoiler at the trailing edge of the roof complete the look.

COMFORT: As in the regular 500, space utilization is excellent and the style is unmistakable. Differences are in the details, with the Abarth getting unique seats (optionally leather-trimmed) with just enough bolstering to hold passengers securely when having fun while still being easily accessible and a thick-rimmed, leather-trimmed steering wheel with with auxiliary audio and cruise controls and a flat bottom that's more for racecar style than function. It's tilt-adjustable only, but the reach is reasonable. The shift lever is at the bottom of the center stack, as in an old Alfa Romeo, and the pedals have aluminum and rubber covers for style and function. There is no console box, but the glovebox is huge and hides jack and USB connections for external audio players. Sound systems allow all current media technologies, but the stereo out the rear is the best sound. Instrumentation is complete and functional, and stylish of course. There's plenty of room in front -- the first drive I did in an Abarth was as passenger with a 6-7 driver -- but the rear is less commodious, especially with tall people in front. There is a strong likelihood that a car like the Abarth will mostly be used as a two-seater, so no problem, and with the rear seat down there's ample cargo space.

There is an optional TomTom« navigation system that mounts on the top of the center of the dash. Nice idea, but it severely limits visibility for short or medium-height drivers.

SAFETY: Like the regular 500, the Abarth is small by today's standards. But it protects passengers with safety cage and crumple zone construction, side-guard door beams, seven standard airbags -- multi-stage driver and front passenger frontal, driver's knee, front side pelvic-thoracic, and full-length side curtain -- plus three-mode electronic stability control, all-speed traction control, strong antilock disc brakes with Brake Assist, and the Enhanced Accident Response System, which immediately stops the electric fuel pump in the event of impact, rollover, or damage to fuel lines. Active safety is addressed by excellent braking and maneuverability.

RIDE AND HANDLING: There are no major changes to the 500's MacPherson strut front, torsion beam axle rear suspension, but the details and tuning are significantly different. Stiffer springs, a 15mm-lower ride height, unique lower control arms for improved lateral stiffness, and dual-valve Frequency Selective Damping (FSD) Koni® shocks in front plus a reinforced rear axle, stiffer springs, unique anti-roll bar, and matching 15mm ride height reduction at the rear add up to an appropriately firm but reasonable ride and, especially with the optional three-season Pirelli P-Zero Nero tires, excellent grip and roadholding. It's great fun on the street, especially on tight and twisty roads, but not uncomfortable for highway travel. Earlier in the year I had the opportunity to take an Abarth for a few laps around a racetrack. It worked well there, although a real track setup would be considerably stiffer. I'd wager that the Abarth would be great fun at an autocross as well. Brakes are exceptionally good, aided no small amount by the car's light, 2500-lb, weight.

PERFORMANCE: 160 horsepower may not seem like much on paper, but with only around 2500 pounds of 500 Abarth to move it's plenty. The standard 1.4-liter MultiAir single overhead cam four-cylinder engine gets treatment that would make Carlo proud: a forged steel crankshaft with lightened counterweights for reduced inertia, forged steel connecting rods designed to minimize bending under stress, and lightweight forged aluminum pistons cooled by oil jets to their undersides sit in a sturdy cast iron block beneath an aluminum head that uses Fiat's innovative MultiAir electro-hydraulic system to infinitely vary intake valve lift, duration, and phasing in real time in part-throttle operation. Compression ratio is 9.8:1, high even without turbocharging. Twin intercoolers ensure a cool, dense air supply to said turbo, for greater efficiency and power. Maximum horsepower is at 5500 rpm, with 170 lb-ft of torque, a 70 percent increase over the naturally-aspirated engine, available from 2500 through 4000 rpm. The five-speed gearbox is similar to that of the regular 500 but strengthened to deal with the increased power. The strong torque means that the engine is responsive from 2500 rpm and up, especially in lower gears. It gets stronger as revs increase, pulling best above 4000. It drops off a bit after the 5500 rpm power peak, all the better to discourage familiarity with the rev limiter. UsuallyÔ€Ž While it's great fun at any speed, the engine is at its best at high revs, and the 6500rpm redline is low enough and internals strong enough to ensure longevity. That's the Italian Way, and even though the American-spec Abarth's engine is made in Dundee, MI, it's Italian at heart. And it sings, loudly.

CONCLUSIONS: A turbo with a 59 percent boost in horsepower and 70 percent boost in torque plus engine internal upgrades and chassis and gearbox improvements to make the best use of that is just what the Fiat 500 needed. No wonder the 2012 500 Abarth is sold out. Oh well, model year 2013 is just around the corner.

SPECIFICATIONS

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Base Price			$ 22,000
Price As Tested			$ 25,900
Engine Type			SOHC turbocharged, intercooled,
				 MultiAir 16-valve inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size			1.4 liters / 83 cu. in.
Horsepower			160 @ 5500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			170 @ 2500-4000 rpm
Transmission			5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		90.6 in. / 144.4 in.
Curb Weight			2533 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		15.8
Fuel Capacity			10.5 gal
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline recommended, 87 octane unleaded regular acceptable
Tires				205/40 ZR17 84W Pirelli P-Zero Nero
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut semi-independent torsion beam axle
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway /observed 28/34/24
                   0 to 60 mph - 6.9  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Performance Leather-Trimmed High-Back Bucket Seats	$1,000
Safety and Convenience Package -- includes:
  automatic temperature control with micron filter,
  Sirius/XM radio with 1-year subscription, 
  security alarm					$  600
Power Sunroof						$  850
TomTom Navigation System with BLUE&ME			$  400
Mirror Caps and Body Side Stripes			$  350
17"x7" Forged Aluminum Wheels with
  205/40R17 3-Season Tires				$1,000
Destination Charge					$  700 

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