I must admit that I was impressed by the North American Fiat 500 when it graced the Car Tech garage last year. However, the 101-horsepower hatch could definitely use a bit (or rather, a lot) more power.
Preceded by the historic scorpion badge, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth seems to be the answer to my prayers.
With the arrival of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, it looks like I'll get exactly what I want from the 500 chassis: lots more power and much more fun. For those not in the know, Abarth (pronounced "ah-bart") is a historic line of high-performance Fiat models that dates back to 1949.
The U.S.-spec 500 Abarth is powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir engine. Power and torque are rated at 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet, respectively--which is significantly more powerful than the European Abarth's 133 horsepower and on par with its 500 Abarth Esse Esse.
The air ducts outboard of the lower fog lamps channel air through the 500 Abarth's twin intercoolers. By using two small intercoolers at the corners, rather than one large central one, Fiat leaves the 500's radiator unobstructed so it can perform at optimal efficiency.
Transmitting power from the engine to the front wheels is a five-speed manual gearbox with ratios that are unique to the 500 Abarth. Equal-length half-shafts mitigate torque steer, and beefier components throughout the drive train help deal with the increased power.
Carlos Abarth got his start building high-output exhausts, so Fiat's engineers paid extra-close attention to the 500 Abarth's twin exhausts. This little hatch is loud around town and downright raucous at full throttle--much louder, we're told, than the European 500 Abarth.
The short wheelbase and sport-tuned suspension work with the 500's tight chassis, giving the Abarth model its characteristic zippy handling. This is a vehicle that is eager to change direction and weave around traffic.
Nestled inside the lightweight 16-inch wheels are 11.1-inch brake rotors up front and 9.4-inchers out back that help to shave off speed when you need it. The braking system also works as part of the 500's Torque Transfer Control (TTC) system by bias-braking the inside wheel during hard acceleration while cornering to reduce wheel spin.
The 500 Abarth features three levels of electronic stability control. On is the default state. Partial Off is the setting that Fiat's engineers used for track tuning, which gives the driver a good deal more leeway before stepping in with the electronic nannies. Finally, there's a Full Off mode--affectionately referred to as "hoon mode"--for when you want to really get crazy with the wheel spin.
We're told that all of the 500 Abarth's cosmetic upgrades also have functional benefits. For example, the rear diffuser is aerodynamically functional; the front splitter creates zero-lift up to the 500 Abarth's 130-mph limiter; and the side skirts help channel air around the vehicle, reducing drag and lift.
Inside the cabin, the 500 Abarth is, predictably, similar to the 500C that we tested last year. Closer inspection reveals a plethora of small changes in the name of performance. For example, the sport seats can accommodate a five-point harness, if you should decide to take your 500 Abarth to the track.
The turbocharged Abarth adds a second gauge pod to the dashboard mix that houses a boost gauge and a large LED shift light. Fiat tells us that this is no fuel minder light, either--this drag-racing light doesn't illuminate until you're 0.3 second shy of the fuel-cut red line. Nice.
This is the most important button in the 500 Abarth's cabin. The Sport button activates, well, the Sport mode, which unleashes the full power of the 1.4-liter MultiAir engine and puts the throttle on a hair trigger.
The Bose audio system packs a great-sounding punch in the 500 Abarth's small cabin and delivers the standard suite of AM/FM/satellite radio. Digital audio sources and hands-free calling integration are handled by Fiat's Blue&Me connectivity suite.
Climate controls are easy to understand and handily placed; the color-matched dashboard panel simultaneously separates these controls from the audio cluster and brightens the mostly black plastic dashboard.
...The "button" was in fact a mounting point for the optional navigation system. Since there's no room in the 500's dashboard for a touch screen, 500 drivers will use this rather bulky cradle with a supplied TomTom portable navigation device (missing from our test vehicle). It's not the most integrated mapping solution, but with power and audio connections built into the cradle, I think overall that I like it.
Overall, there's a lot to like about the new 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. It's fast, nimble, and downright adorable. Drivers looking for a car with the Abarth's performance chops may find the 500's curves a bit too "Hello Kitty." On the other hand, shoppers who are into the 500 Abarth's cutesy aesthetic may find the exhaust a bit too loud and the ride a bit too pronounced; these prospective owners should check out the standard 500 or the 500 by Gucci.
Personally, I think the Fiat 500 Abarth is just right, but that's based on a short ride on a rainy spring afternoon. We're looking forward to spending more time with this hot little hatch before we can know for sure that it's a hit.