Performance-oriented hatchback honors a racing legend
By Nina Russin
A year after its reintroduction to the American market, Fiat expands its Cinquecento line-up with two new models: a larger L version which debuts this week in Geneva, and the race-inspired Abarth. Taking its name from Karl Abarth, a German-born driver and engineer who spearheaded Fiat\'s motorsports efforts between the end of World War II and his death in 1979, the Fiat 500 Abarth is a track-worthy subcompact hatchback which maintains the fuel efficiency of other 500 models.
Although the new Abarth shares sheetmetal with the Fiat 500 hatchback, the powertrain is vastly different. Under the hood, a 1.4-liter dual intercooled and turbocharged engine develops up to 160 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque. The high-performance block reaches peak torque at 2500 rpm, for exceptional low-end power.
Equipped with a heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission, the Fiat 500 Abarth accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in 7.2 seconds, and to 100 miles-per-hour in about 20 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 130 miles-per-hour.
What the acceleration statistics don\'t reflect is the Abarth\'s most appealing attribute: its exceptionally nimble character. Curb weight is a scant 2512 pounds. The Fiat 500 Abarth is to automobiles what Kenyans are to distance running: a pared down, well balanced package that gets the job done with remarkable efficiency. Highway fuel economy is 34 miles-per-gallon.
Base price is $22,000, not including the $700 destination charge: not a lot of money for a car as adept at commuting as it is navigating chicanes on the track. A versatile interior has room for up to four passengers and enough cargo space for a modest amount of luggage.
While the new Abarth might not meet the needs of all buyers with active lifestyles, it\'s versatile enough to work well for many, with a price that doesn\'t break the bank and performance which appeals to those wanting some muscle under the hood. To help Abarth buyers get the most from their cars, Fiat throws in a one-day driving instruction program, during which buyers learn how to safely push the Abarth\'s performance limits on the racetrack.
The mouse that roars
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
I am not the only writer who has commented on the Cinquecento\'s mouse-like appearance. Fiat designers describe the front end as a "logo-and-whiskers" grille. While the Abarth retains the mouse-like front end, it\'s not a cute mouse. This is a mouse on a mission.
As with Peter Sellers\' army in the classic 1959 comedy, this mouse knows no limits. The front fascia is pushed further forward to make room for the intercoolers in the corners, which transform hot air from the turbocharger into a cooler, denser charge. Air intakes up front are larger than for other 500 models, to improve engine performance.
In the back, a liftgate-mounted spoiler improves downforce over the rear wheels, to better balance the chassis. On the sides, Abarth shields and arrows complement the red brake calipers which peek through the alloy wheels.
Test drive in Las Vegas
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
This week I had the opportunity to drive the new Fiat 500 Abarth on surface streets and highways around Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon and over the Spring Mountain pass to the nearby town of Pahrump.
Despite its small footprint, the Abarth feels surefooted at speed, thanks to standard 17-inch wheels with Pirello P-Zero low profile tires. A specially-designed steering wheel is thicker than average and flat on the bottom, giving the driver a better grip.
The driver\'s side mirror has a convex section on the outer edge, making it easier to monitor multiple lanes of traffic on the highway. Visibility to the right is also excellent. A tinted rearview mirror is a nice feature at night, since it dims headlamps from following vehicles, but can limit visibility when the driver is wearing sunglasses in bright sunlight.
A short-throw shifter makes it easy to snap between gears on the five-speed manual transmission. When the driver accelerates hard, a dual exhaust system unique to the model emits a throaty growl which is all business.
A sport-tuned performance suspension has a 40 percent stiffer spring rate than other Fiat 500 models in front and more rigid rear torsion beam axle to keep the chassis flat in the turns. When the driver engages the sport mode using a button on the instrument panel, the onboard computer alters the throttle map for more aggressive acceleration, stiffens up the suspension and quickens the steering ratio.
The electronic stability control has three modes: full on, partial on and off. The partial on setting gives the driver maximum power while still preventing the car from pushing in the corners. Four-wheel disc brakes with large calipers stop the car on a dime, and resist fading during long days at the track.
Fiat 500 Abarth Interior
Inside, the cockpit wraps around the driver in true sports car style. Buyers can choose between standard cloth and optional leather trim. The test car is also equipped with an optional TomTom navigation system, which also adds the hands-free Bluetooth interface.
By locating the shift lever at the base of the center stack, designers maximized storage space in the center console.
Bolstered seats hold the driver and front passenger in place. Although the bolsters are large, I didn\'t find them uncomfortable during the two-hour test drive. The sport seats have plenty of lower lumbar support, although the lumbar area isn\'t adjustable.
The steering wheel has redundant audio, Bluetooth and cruise controls, to minimize driver distraction. A clean-looking gauge cluster includes a 160 mile-per-hour speedometer, turbo boost gauge and tachometer. I found both the center stack display easy to read in bright sunlight. Designers minimized buttons below the touchscreen in the center stack to maintain a clean, easy-to-decipher appearance.
A single lever on the front seats flips the seatbacks down and slides the seats forward to easy access and egress to the rear. The rear seats aren\'t particularly large, but they will accommodate a small adult. Rear upper seatbacks are bolstered for additional back support.
The Fiat 500 Abarth comes with front, side, side curtain and driver\'s knee airbags, three-mode electronic stability control and antilock brakes. Fiat builds the 500 Abarth in its Toluca, Mexico assembly plant.
Likes: An affordable high-performance subcompact car which is equally at home on city streets and racetracks. Fuel economy is exceptional for this type of automobile.
Model: 500 Abarth
Base price: $22,000
As tested: $26,050
Horsepower: 160 Hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 170 lbs.-ft. @ 2500 rpm
Zero-to-sixty: 7.2 seconds
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 28/34 mpg city/highway