Fiat's 500 Abarth is a surprising car — quick, balanced, fun, strikingly styled, even. It's such an improvement over the standard 500 that after a few laps around the road course at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch we all but forget the things we dislike about that car. Here's a genuinely lightweight car with reasonably sticky tires, a track-focused suspension, an extra 59 horsepower over the standard model and undeniable hipster appeal.
But performance models — especially this one — have a way of covering up flaws in the car on which they're based, and the Abarth is no exception. A huge increase in roll stiffness will help a tall car like this one corner. And producing enough power to shove a car this small around with authority is easy.
Problem is, none of that makes the competition disappear. So the biggest obstacle to the success of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth isn't its performance; it's the existence of the Mini Cooper S.
OK, let's get this out of the way immediately. The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth — with its 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbo engine and five-speed transmission — has a base price of $22,700, including destination fees. The test car you see here is optioned up to $26,900 with 17-inch forged aluminum wheels, leather seats, a power sunroof, the Safety and Convenience package, TomTom navigation and a few other amenities.
The Mini Cooper S starts at $23,800 with destination and can be had for $25,550 with 17-inch performance tires and the sport suspension. It packs 21 more horsepower, and 7 pound-feet more torque than the Abarth. It's also 87 pounds heavier and 6.5 inches longer.
And if you're willing to embrace something a little bigger, the comparisons become dramatic, silly even. The Mazdaspeed 3, which can be had almost fully optioned for $26,930, produces 103 more horsepower and 110 pound-feet more torque than the Abarth. Of course, it simply dwarfs the 500 with a full 13.3 inches more wheelbase and an additional 656 pounds.
Whether these are grim statistics for the Abarth depends largely on how blind your love is for this saucy little Italian.
Speaking of saucy blind love, it's possible that the most potent attraction to the Abarth is Catrinel Menghia, the towering Romanian supermodel who slapped that spineless wimp silly in the car's Super Bowl spot. Well, her and an exhaust note that says plenty about the level of detail Chrysler engineers indulged to make this car unique.
Then again, most Abarth buyers aren't likely going to be making the above comparisons. They're going to be dedicated Fiat people. Fiat people, you say? Yes, Fiat people.
Don't think they exist? Visit your local Hipster bicycle shop. You know, the kind where the kids ride fixed-gear road bikes with narrow handlebars and no brakes. Near as we can tell, those are Fiat people. All of them.
So that's exactly what we did. And after a few hours listening to unrehearsed Fiat love and one too many Dashboard Confessional albums, even we started to think the ironic mustache is a good idea. Leave it to these guys and Fiat will next resurrect the 900T.
Back to Reality
Then we took the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth to our test track where it flatulated through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 88.8 mph. This pass included a run to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds (6.7 seconds with 1-foot rollout like on a drag strip). The last Mini Cooper S we tested, way back in 2007 when the car produced 172 hp (today it makes 181), hit 60 in 6.9 seconds and tripped the quarter-mile traps in 15.0 seconds at 93.9 mph.
Then we did some turning, something the Abarth established itself quite capable of on the road course in Nevada. Circling the skid pad at 0.87g and slithering through the slalom cones at 68.8 mph proved the Abarth is capable of handling numbers nearly identical to the Mini Cooper S.
Stopping, though, is an Abarth weak point. Its best stop from 60 mph was 123 feet, but several stops were as long as 131 feet. It also exhibited directional challenges during full-ABS braking. It's not dangerous, but it will let you know you're riding on a 90-inch wheelbase if you need to stop quickly. The Mini managed the same stop in 115 feet.
A good portion of the Fiat's personality comes from under its diminutive hood. That's where the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder resides. The engine is built with respectable parts like a forged crankshaft and oil squirters under each piston. Also, the MultiAir technology provides individual control of the intake valves' lift and timing. Together the bits produce EPA fuel economy ratings of 28 city/34 highway/31 combined mpg. Our apathy regarding oil prices produced 22.4 mpg over 600 miles of mixed driving.
At 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque the engine produces ample yank. Access to all 170 lb-ft of torque, however, is only available by pushing the Sport button on the dashboard, which also increases throttle response. In default mode only 150 pound-feet are available and then only in 3rd, 4th and 5th gears. Punch the button and 170 lb-ft are available in every gear.
Oddly, there's no mechanical limited-slip differential. Development engineers chose to rely instead on individual control of the Abarth's front brakes to redirect torque through its open differential. This technology, which Fiat calls Torque Transfer Control (TTC), is lighter and less costly than a mechanical limited-slip differential. What's more, Dan Fry, lead vehicle development engineer, prefers the tuning control it offers in both low- and high-speed operation. And, unlike a mechanical limited-slip, it doesn't increase torque steer.
We'll admit that the system is more effective than the similar system in Volkswagen's GTI — largely thanks to its calibration. Still, applying the brakes hardly feels like a good strategy when the goal is going faster. At this price, the car should have a real limited-slip differential.
Remarkably, there are no structural changes to the Abarth's body. Engineers did, however, beef up the front crossmember, replace the base car's stamped-steel front control arms with cast-iron units and increase the rear twist-beam axle's stiffness by 40 percent. There are new bushings all around and 1.5 degrees of negative camber are dialed into the front suspension from the factory.
The body sits 0.6 inch lower and spring rates are increased 40 percent in the front and 20 percent in the rear. Koni front dampers provide two damping rates. High-frequency bumps are isolated from the chassis while low-speed inputs, like those experienced during steady-state cornering, are met with heavier damping.
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth's steering rack is quicker as well (15.1:1 vs. 16.3:1). Fry pointed out that increased on-center precision and more road feel were the top priorities. The latter is achieved through a reduction in assist in Sport mode.
Even so, we'd guess few fights break out at Urban Outfitters over the merits of a mechanical limited-slip differential, so let's get back to those hipsters who are actually going to buy this thing.
Hipsterism is itself a backlash fashion statement so Fiat's styling efforts won't go unnoticed. You'll pay $1,000 for the 17-inch tires and the Gloss White or Hyper Black forged wheels to go with them. The Abarth decals will run another $350. More importantly, this pricing structure will feel downright reasonable to those accustomed to paying $100 for a distinctly indistinct T-shirt.
Inside, our test car's red and black leather is arguably more attractive than a man in women's pants. So are the thick steering wheel and leather-wrapped gauge cover. The addition of automatic climate control, though, left the 500's dash bereft of even a single knob. Temperature, volume, radio tuning or any other adjustments can only be made by punching buttons, which is indeed a burden.
Character. Plenty of It
We do like that the Abarth thrives on getting tossed around a racetrack — a character trait due at least partially to its 2,587-pound curb weight. The harder we drove, the more it obliged. Punch the stability control button once, though, and you'll find a performance mode that will tolerate modest slip angles. Fully disable the stability control by holding the button for 5 or so seconds and the car will rotate under braking in a way that's both fun and effective in pointing it where you want to go.
But you'll never forget that the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is 3.3 inches taller than a Mini (58.7 inches vs. 55.4 inches) and it carries 64 percent of its weight on the front axle — two traits that make it feel distinctly unfocused as a driver's car. Its seats need more lateral support and its console-mounted shifter is indirect. Then there's the matter of directional stability. Keeping the Abarth in its lane on Southern California's rain-grooved freeways requires more attention than it should.
Fiat is peddling the Abarth as a track-ready machine because it's proven itself as such during development. Fry told us that the car endured a 24-hour track stint from which two goals had to be accomplished. First, it had to survive. Second, it had to be fun to drive at the end of the test. It passed.
That might be the case, but the only way we see the Abarth making it to a racetrack is if there's an American Apparel store nearby.
In the context of a world containing a Mini Cooper, the Abarth is not our first choice, but that doesn't make it a bad car. It's a genuinely fun-to-drive, character-filled, lightweight performance car. If you're after a durable, tossable back-road machine, the Abarth will get the job done. Or maybe you just want a rolling fashion statement with look-at-me styling and an eccentric exhaust note? Well, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth can do that, too.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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