The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth performs two particular feats that can best be appreciated by those with a juvenile streak in their characters. I am, apparently, just that juvenile.
The first requires a start from a traffic light or stop sign, at pole position, and is enhanced by plenty of pedestrians on the sidewalks and maybe a BMW or Porsche at the same stop. Giving it some gas, I dropped the clutch in your basic jackrabbit start, let the tachometer push towards redline, and shifted up, the traction control lights flashing madly. Dropping the revs between shifts, the Abarth backfired, forcing little shotgun blasts of exhaust over the loud growl of the engine.
Meanwhile I'm grinning like a teenager as bystanders crank their heads around, not expecting this sort of noise from the more mild-mannered versions of the Fiat 500 that have previously whispered by.
The second feat requires a road with sharp turns, preferably with big yellow signs advising 15 to 25 mph. On a mountain road that fit the bill, I powered up to each corner, then got on the brakes to shave some speed off. Holding the brakes into the turn, trail-braking as it is called, I found the Abarth twirled neatly around the apex. The car's response to this technique was exhilarating, and I do not doubt that the Abarth would be competitive on autocross courses.
Obviously, I had fun with the Fiat 500 Abarth during my week with the car. As much as I wanted to give it some economical driving time, the Sport button on the dashboard was a constant temptation. The car proved very comfortable in everyday driving, but begged for fast starts and for choosing winding mountain roads over big, boring freeways.
A few aspects of the car mitigated the fun. The shifter could use a shorter throw, especially when dropping from third to second ahead of one of those sharp turns. The tires, wrapped around the maximum-17-inch wheels on CNET's car, lacked enough of a contact patch to allow really high-speed cornering. And the general shape of the 500 is more upright commuter vehicle than low-slung sports car, leading to a somewhat top-heavy feeling.
The Abarth edge
So what makes the Abarth so much more fun than the standard Fiat 500? The comparison is something like putting the standard Mini Cooper up against the Mini Cooper S. The Fiat 500 Abarth uses the same 1.4-liter engine as its less potent stablemates, but gets an 18 psi turbocharger, pumping up the horsepower from 101 to 160, and the torque from a measly 98 foot-pounds to a whopping 170.
The Abarth also gets a rear stabilizer bar and suspension tuning that keep it under control in the turns. The gear ratios on its five-speed manual transmission are closer than in the standard Fiat 500's manual, letting it maintain higher revs. And the six-speed automatic is not an option in the Abarth. Fiat lowered the steering ratio for the Abarth, making it more responsive but at the same time making for a larger turning radius.
As an interesting note, the U.S. Fiat 500 Abarth is a very different beast than the European version, which has been out for a few years. Chrysler's performance division was given the task of creating the U.S. Abarth, and ended up choosing a different turbocharger than the European version uses. Chrysler says the U.S. version has a louder, more aggressive exhaust note.
The extra power and lower gear ratios, not mention a few extra pounds, mean a hit to the fuel economy. Where the Fiat 500 is rated at 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, the Abarth version is down to 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. Although that estimate still puts the Abarth in a frugal set, antics such as described above put the average for CNET's car, over a week of driving, at only 24.7 mpg.
The 1.4-liter engine under the Abarth's hood uses the same MultiAir variable valve timing technology as the Fiat 500, although most likely with different programming. MultiAir means the intake valves do not rely on a camshaft to actuate them. Instead, Fiat uses hydraulic actuators, allowing for precisely customized timing not reliant on the engine's revolutions.
The case for TomTom
The Abarth has a few interior touches to differentiate it from the standard Fiat 500, but the dashboard is covered with the same hard plastic. The cabin electronics offerings are also the same. CNET's car had the navigation option, which consists of a portable TomTom Go with dashboard mounting bracket.
As TomTom Go navigation devices can be found all over the Internet for well under $300, the $400 for this option may make it seem like a typical overpriced accessory. But it is really an excellent value.
First of all, the mounting bracket is solid, using a powered bayonet to secure itself to the dashboard. It is easy to remove the TomTom unit or take out the whole bracket. Second, TomTom is a tried and true navigation-system maker, offering excellent maps and route guidance, including features such as integrated traffic.
But what really makes this TomTom unit worth the price is its integration with the car's electronics. It includes custom software to work with the car's Blue&Me phone and MP3 player integration. The TomTom unit shows not only phone information, but also an interface for a connected music library. Without the TomTom, the car's music player interface is terrible.
To get the system working, I had to pair both the TomTom and my iPhone with the car via Bluetooth. I also plugged my phone into the car's USB port for music playback. Fiat has not implemented Bluetooth streaming.
On the TomTom's screen, I could then go into the phone interface and choose contacts from my phone book. In the media interface, I could browse lists of artists and albums, selecting which music I wanted to hear. It is a level of integration I had not seen before.
By contrast, using the car's voice command I was able to say the name of a contact and have it place the call using my paired phone. That system worked well.
However, voice command would not let me request playback of music by artist or album name. That was a surprise, as Fiat's Blue&Me system is based on the same Microsoft technology behind Ford Sync. Fiat has not put as much development into the system as Ford.
To select music from a connected MP3 device without the TomTom, I had to activate voice command and say "media player," then say "advanced USB options." Those commands opened up a music library list in the instrument cluster display, which I could scroll through and select using steering-wheel controls.
Instead of making drivers go through multiple voice commands to get to this music library interface, Fiat should make one of the buttons on the steering wheel open it up.
Rounding out the somewhat limited cabin tech in the Abarth is the standard Bose seven-speaker audio system. The music reproduction from this system is very clean and balanced. It maintains good quality at higher volumes, but lacks really punchy bass.
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth comes with excellent performance tuning, making it a very fun car to drive fast. However, it is not overpowered, so does not require a racetrack training course to keep it on the road. Fiat did an excellent job of tuning the electric power steering for responsive turn-in. The suspension strikes a nice balance between holding the car flat and everyday comfort.
As in the standard Fiat 500, the cabin tech features come off as mixed. The TomTom navigation option improves the interface for phones and MP3 players immensely, and is well-integrated with the car, making it well worth the price. Fiat has not demonstrated any sort of app integration strategy as yet, though app integration is starting to catch on with other makers.
|Model||2012 Fiat 500|
|Power train||Turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, 5-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||28 mpg city/34 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||24.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional TomTom navigation|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with contact list integration|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bose 7-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$26,900|