2012 Fiat 500 Abarth: The Fiat that roared

The small and economical Fiat 500 marks a mild return for the brand to the U.S., but the Abarth version adds a much more aggressive note, and will give enthusiasts a reason to drive Italian.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
The Abarth version of the Fiat 500 adds more than half the original horsepower. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

During a brief drive in the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, we stopped for a photo shoot. But as CNET editor Antuan Goodwin and I circled the car with our cameras, the idling Abarth suddenly gave a vicious growl.

The engine decided a few extra revs were in order, resulting in a burbly rumble from the exhaust. The car was either camera-shy or annoyed that we weren't driving it.

The Abarth scorpion badges look pretty cool, but the first thing that will make you sit up and take notice of this Fiat 500 is the exhaust note. It grumbles loudly running at a steady speed. Run up the revs, then let them drop, and it backfires, which makes me unreasonably happy.

The Abarth version of the Fiat 500 focuses on performance. The 500 has been lowered and the suspension tuned for more rigidity, to keep the tires in contact with the road. The 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the same as that found in the standard 500, gets a turbocharger, bringing the output up to 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque.

Although there has been a Fiat 500 Abarth in Europe for several years, the U.S. version is significantly different. The U.S. tuners used a different turbocharger on the base engine, with subsequently different tuning. Matt Davis, Fiat's U.S. head of Product Marketing, says the U.S. version is louder than the European version.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
This gauge shows how much pressure the turbo is generating. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Inside the car, the turbo made itself known in two ways. One was an extra gauge, mounted just about so the driver cannot easily see it around the steering wheel rim. This gauge shows the turbo pressure, the needle of which bounced up and down delightfully during my short spin in the car.

The second way was in how the car thrusts forward with each gear shift. After having previously reviewed the Fiat 500c , this was not behavior I was expecting. The standard 500 only produces 101 horsepower, and the extra 59 hp in the Abarth can certainly be felt.

Reviewing that 500c, I did not find that the Sport button made much of a difference to the car's performance. In the Abarth, it assuredly does. The Sport mode not only sharpens the accelerator response, it adds torque and tightens the response of the electric power steering. Fiat's Davis said it was going for a Jekyll and Hyde effect between Sport and normal driving modes.

As for handling, my brief run on public roads did not give the opportunity for much of a judgment. I will hold off until we do a full review of the car. But Fiat is certainly confident, setting up track days for owners. The company will include one free track day, which includes time with a professional driver, with each Fiat 500 Abarth.

The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is available now, with a base price of $22,000.

 

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