2013 FIAT 500 AbarthView Vehicle Profile
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth: Firecracker more toy than muscle
Turbo-charged Abarth hot-rod is a real hoot to drive, but is lacking the charm of the original 500.
Both my wife, Claire, and 15-year-old daughter, Leanna, were smitten with the red Fiat 500 I tested last year. So when I brought home the hot-rod Abarth version, I expected it to receive a similarly warm reception.
Not so much.
Leanna asked, “Why would anybody want a high-performance Fiat 500?”
And after Claire’s first turn behind the wheel, she didn’t want any more to do with the Abarth. Exhaust too noisy. Ride too bumpy. The optional Tom Tom GPS ($495) perched inelegantly on the dash top was right in her line of sight. For her, the simple charm of the 500 was gone.
Okay. So we know for whom the Fiat 500 Abarth does not toll.
But does this scrappy hatch, with a 160 hp turbocharged 1.4 L MultiAir four and a starting price of $23,995, have what it takes to attract fans of the Volkswagen GTI, Ford Focus ST, Mazdaspeed3 and, more specifically, Mini Cooper S?
The price certainly plays in its favour, although my optioned-up tester rang in at just over $28,000.
To become an Abarth, the 500 gets more than just a cursory makeover. The big difference lies under the hood, where the regular 101 hp 1.4 L four gets the beefed-up internals necessary to handle the 18 psi blown into its cylinders by a Garret turbo. Power swells to 160 hp at 5,500 r.p.m., and 170 lb.-ft. of torque is on tap from 2,500-4,000.
This is a terrific little engine. It makes an appropriate Italian snarl and, with the dash-mounted Sport button pushed, throttle response is sharp and all 170 lb.-ft. are there to play with (150 lb.-ft. otherwise). Unlike many turbo’d engines, this one has tons of character and is happy to sail to the 6,500 r.p.m. redline.
A beefed-up five-speed manual, with a stick spouting from the lower dash, is your connection to the proceedings. No auto is offered.
Once above 2,500 r.p.m., the Abarth rockets ahead with unbridled enthusiasm. But keep a firm grip on the wheel. There’s a bit of torque steer and I found it prone to wandering over uneven pavement and under hard braking.
Although 16-inch wheels are standard, this tester wore the optional ($995) 17-inch forged aluminum Hyper Black alloys with 205/40R17 performance tires.
The Abarth’s ride height is lowered, it gets stiffer springs, Koni dampers, bigger half-shafts, thicker rear anti-roll bar and increased front negative camber for more bite in the corners. Factor in a quicker steering ratio, and it distances itself from the “cooking” 500 by a wide margin.
Inside, you’ll find a fat-diameter, flat-bottomed steering wheel, bolstered seats and a turbo boost gauge.
As you’d expect just by looking at the butch stance and aggressive snout, this little firecracker comes alive on a winding back road. The steering is meaty and it turns like a Jack Russell chasing a squirrel. For a front driver, this retro-chic Italian has a pretty neutral disposition — when you lean on it really hard, it digs in and hangs on. Truly a hoot.
However, its short wheelbase, firm suspension and low-profile tires mean the Abarth never really settles down unless you’re on smooth pavement. Where I live, there ain’t much of that. So be prepared for lots of jostling, bumping and pitching if you plan to drive your Abarth in the GTA.
Like the regular 500, the driving position is really only suited for those whose family tree hasn’t strayed far from their simian ancestry — ie. long arms, short legs and short torso. The steering wheel is too far away, the pedals too close and the seat cushions are too high. Teach a baboon how to drive one of these things and you’d really have something.
That said, the Abarth is a truly entertaining piece, with buckets of character and, for some, this will be enough to win them over despite its flaws.
For me, it feels more like a toy than a car. You can’t compare it to the refined and well-rounded VW GTI. Even a Mini Cooper S, in all its darty “go kart” glory, is more substantial; and more grown up.
Of course, talk to Peter Pan and he’ll tell you growing up is highly overrated.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
PRICE: $23,995 base/$28,205 as tested
ENGINE: 1.4 L MultiAir turbocharged inline-four
POWER/TORQUE: 160 hp/170 lb.-ft.
FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km: 7.1 city, 5.7 hwy.
COMPETITION: Mini Cooper S, VW GTI, Mazdaspeed3, Ford Focus ST
WHAT’S BEST: engine, handling, fuel economy, price.
WHAT’S WORST: driving position, bumpy ride.
WHAT’S INTERESTING: engine built in Michigan, car assembled in Mexico.
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