2013 Fiat 500 Abarth - Carey Russ Review
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2013 Fiat 500 Abarth
...Fiat's Abarth means that more Americans can enjoy the Italian-style small-bore performance experience, and at a small price.
If you're the sort of person who complains that today's cars have no character, and you haven't taken a look at the Fiat 500, especially in performance Abarth trim, look. If only to prove yourself wrong.
Limited availability at the start of production meant that the 2012 Abarth sold out, quickly. Availability of the 2013 edition is better, and while the hardtop is largely unchanged -- no changes needed! -- as with the regular 500, a convertible is now also offered. It's "convertible" in the manner of small European cars of the Fifties and Sixties, with a cloth center section to the roof that may be folded back. There's no complex, heavy automatic mechanism so the weight penalty is an insignificant 30 or so pounds.
But this week's test car is the hardtop. The Abarth is the high-performance variant of the Fiat 500, and is a fitting tribute to the late Carlo Abarth. Austrian by birth, Abarth spent most of his working life in Italy and was best known for manufacture of aftermarket exhaust systems and cars. Most of the cars were based on Fiats, unsurprising given that Fiat has long been Italy's largest auto manufacturer. The cars varied from stock-looking with tuned engines and suspensions to sports coupes and sports-racers with specially-built chassis and bodies. The company's scorpion logo is, according to current PR info, based on Abarth's astrological sign, Scorpio. Maybe, but I do recall reading, somewhere in the distant past, that the scorpion was adopted because "the stinger was in the tail" -- most of Abarth's cars were rear-engined, and packed considerably more power than their stock counterparts. The Abarth company was absorbed into Fiat in 1971; Signor Abarth died in 1979.
The current Fiat 500 is a 4:3 scale tribute the the Nuovo Cinquecento (New 500) of the 1950s and `60. That car put Italy on four wheels, and was the successor to the first 500, the Topolino, of the late 40s and early 50s. With a 500cc two-cylinder engine at the rear in a ten-foot long body on a six-foot wheelbase, the 500 was tiny, inexpensive to buy, and inexpensive to run and maintain. Its 13 horsepower beat a moped, and eventually was raised, but there were people who wanted more and Abarth was there for them.
The powerplant is in front now, driving the front wheels, but the current Abarth is very much in the company's tradition, looking just a bit different from the regular 500 and with notably more power and upgraded suspension, steering, and electronic control systems. With a base price less than the cost of service for some exotics, it's affordable Italian performance at its finest.
If you're looking for a smooth, quiet ride and a numb transportation appliance, this is not your car. It's loud in the exhaust (appropriately!), firm in suspension, and thoroughly Italian in character, even if the North American examples are hecho en Toluca, Mexico, with engines from Dundee, Michigan. It's quicker than the regular 500 but by no means fast by today's standards -- but if you understand the old saying "it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow", you will understand this car. It can make a trip to the grocery store into a replay of the Mille Miglia, and you won't even be uncomfortable or (too) illegal.
APPEARANCE: Remove 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), and 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 below 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 performance 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 with just enough bolstering to hold passengers securely when having fun while still being easily accessible. The thick-rimmed, leather-trimmed steering wheel has auxiliary audio and cruise controls; its flat bottom that's more for racecar style than function. It's tilt-adjustable only, but the reach is reasonable, especially if you adopt the classic arms-out driving position. The shift lever is at the bottom of the center stack, classically Italian, 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 oh so 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 who had no problem fitting -- 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.
SAFETY: 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: Details make all the difference. While there are no major changes to the 500's MacPherson strut front, torsion beam axle rear suspension, the Abarth gets 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 axle, stiffer springs, unique anti-roll bar, and matching 15mm ride height reduction at the rear. It adds 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. Some time back, 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. Great fun could be had at an autocross as well. Brakes are exceptionally good, aided no small amount by the car's light, 2500-lb, weight.
PERFORMANCE: With a boost of 59 percent in horsepower and 70 percent in torque, the current Abarth would make its namesake proud. If 160 horsepower (at 5500 rpm) and 170 lb-ft of torque (between 2500 and 4000 rpm) don't seem like much by today's standards, the car only weighs 2500 pounds. 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 the turbo, for greater efficiency and power. 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. Usually! 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. Fuel economy is inversely proportional to how hard the engine is revved -- in sedate operation 30+ mpg should be easily attainable, but wick it up and you'll stop more for premium unleaded, especially with the smallish 10.5 gallon tank.
CONCLUSIONS: Greater availability of Fiat's Abarth means that more Americans can enjoy the Italian-style small-bore performance experience, and at a small price.
2013 Fiat 500 Abarth
Base Price $ 22,000 Price As Tested $ 25,100 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 2512 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 15.7 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 / 28 0 to 60 mph 6.9 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Customer Preferred Package 25X - includes: Comfort / Convenience Group - includes: air conditioning with automatic temperature control, heated front seats, Sirius/XM satellite radio w/ 1-year subscription, nero (black) seats $ 850 White mirror caps and bodyside stripes $ 350 17x7.0" gloss white forged alloy wheels with 205/40R17XL 3-season tires $ 1,200 Destination Charge $ 700