By David Colman
Hypes: Turbo Transforms the 500
Gripes: Invisible Tachometer, Poor Side Vision
It’s been a long time since the name “Abarth” meant anything to motorists in North America. Back in the 1960s, Karl Abarth’s tuning firm, which got its start in Italy by modifying Fiats for road racing, also sold high performance exhaust systems for almost every economy and sports car. These exotic looking exhausts were expensive, but worth the extra cost for the great improvement they provided in sound if not actual performance. When Fiat recently returned to North America to sell the diminutive 500 sedan, it was only a matter of time before they resurrected the Abarth name for a high performance version of the 500. The resulting combination of Fiat style, Abarth performance and bargain pricing has resulted in the performance deal of the year. And yes, it sounds great when you gas it.
In basic form, the Fiat 500, with its 101hp “MultiAir” 1.4 liter 4, is a beguiling car to behold, but ultimately unsatisfying to drive, due to the performance limitations of its underpowered engine’s 98 lb.-ft of torque. The new Abarth version retains the same small displacement 4, but turbocharges it to gain an extra 35hp and 52 lb.-ft. of torque. At 135hp, the Fiat 500 Abarth becomes a much more interesting prospect for drivers seeking kicks. Turbocharging infuses the performance envelope with such a rush that the Abarth will gleefully scoot through openings in traffic that simply don’t exist for the base model 500. Ladling out further enjoyment is the close ratio 5-speed manual transmission, which seems to have a cog for every occasion and a gate precise enough to preclude missed shifts.
Although the Abarth still sits a little high, and thus feels a bit tipsy, its contact patch grip level is substantially augmented by the addition of Pirelli P Zero Nero tires (205/40R17) at each corner. These rubber G-force generators mount on $1,000 optional 17 x 7 inch “Forged Aluminum Hyper Black Wheels” which carry an Abarth inscription on the rim and an Abarth Scorpion insignia on the hub. Inside each black rim glows the red painted caliper of a disc brake. On a “Rosso” red car like our test vehicle, the contrast effect is beguiling. The Abarth is the perfect car for an owner suffering from an identity crisis. There are no less than 19 separate “Abarth” ID medallions, stickers or signs adorning the little speedster, including 8 on the wheels, 6 on the body, 1 under the hood, and 4 more inside. If you like scorpions, you’ll love the Abarth 500. I loved all these medallions.
At an all-in price of just $26,200, the Abarth is a terrific buy. You can even shave the price by eliminating the $1,000 optional “Performance Leather Trimmed High-Back Bucket Seats” which look great in black with red piping, but don’t offer as much side bite as the Fiat’s chassis does. If you can live with just 17 Abarth ID tags instead of 19, you can drop the bottom line price by $350 by eliminating the “Black Mirror Caps With Body Side Stripes.” If you need a navigational aid, Fiat offers a unique Tom Tom which uses an adaptor to slide into a receptacle on the dash top near the steering wheel. This extra will cost you $400.
There is room for improvement on a couple of fronts with the Abarth. The instrument cluster places a large speedo front and center with a tachometer mounted inside the speedo. In daylight, the tach is difficult to read, and at night, impossible, since the gauge glows the same color red as the tach needle. Fiat has thoughtfully provided a separate boost gauge, hung off the left side of the dash where it is easy to see and read. Why not switch the positions of the tach and the boost gauge?
For spirited drivers, the Fiat 500 Abarth is THE performance deal of the year: affordable, cute and nasty all at the same time.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
- Engine: 1.4 liter inline 4, 16 Valve MultiAir Turbo
- Horsepower: 135hp
- Torque: 150 lb.-ft.
- Fuel Consumption: 28 MPG City/34 MPG Highway
- Price as Tested: $26,200
- Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars