Thumbs Up: One of the most entertaining front-wheel-drive cars on the market.
Thumbs Down: Unless you’re Tanner Foust’s size, you’ll look comical driving it.
Buy This Car If: You want the most fun for the least amount of money.
When Fiat returned to the United States with its Fiat 500 city car, initial reviews were mixed. Some found its European charm irresistible, while others found its diminutive size terrifying to drive in traffic. One thing that most who test-drove the Fiat 500 agreed on was this: although the handling was go-kart like, the car really needed an infusion of horsepower to deliver entertainment value to driving enthusiasts.
That’s where the Fiat 500 Abarth comes in. Launched in Europe in 2008, the Abarth was a step up in both handling and output from the base 500. Euro Abarth buyers get 133 horsepower from the car’s turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which is about the bare minimum you need to provide entertainment value in a car as small and light as the 500 Abarth.
To ensure brisk U.S. sales, neither Chrysler nor Fiat was content to spec the bare minimum output for Abarth models sold on this side of the pond. Instead of 133 horsepower, U.S. models get a respectable 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, and Abarth models come with any transmission you’d like, as long as it’s a five-speed manual.
Visually, Abarth models are distinguished by their unique front and rear fascias (complete with cooling ducts), aerodynamic side skirts, dual rear exhausts, Abarth striping, Abarth logos, contrasting mirror caps and 16-inch (or optional 17-inch) wheels. While the look is distinctive, it’s also refined, and few will feel as self-conscious driving a Fiat 500 Abarth as they would a Mazdaspeed3 (or even a Ford Focus ST in some of its brighter hues).
Abarth models are only available in a limited number of colors, including Grigio (dark gray), Rosso (deep red), Nero (black) or Bianco (white). Contrasting stripes and mirror caps are optional, as are the forged 17-inch wheels, but we think they should be ordered with every Fiat 500 Abarth sold. To be honest, we’re not fans of the white-with-red combination found on our press fleet tester, but love the way the Abarth looks in darker colors. If we were parking one in our own garage, it would be Grigio with the black stripes and black mirror caps.
The dash will look familiar to anyone who’s driven a Fiat 500. Body-color trim with the 500 logo is the order of the day, but Abarth models get a leather-wrapped instrument cluster hood and a flat-bottomed steering wheel for easier heel-toe driving. As with other Fiat 500 models (and somewhat reminiscent of the Alfa Romeo Spider), the shifter for the five-speed manual gearbox is mounted high, making it more a part of the dash than the floor.
Instruments aren’t radically different from a standard Fiat 500 either, except for the boost gauge and shift arrow that sits at the instrument cluster’s 8:00 position. The shift light is helpful, since trying to read the tach (or the speedometer, for that matter) can be a challenge, especially with sunglasses on.
We’ve yet to sample the base cloth sport seats, but we’re fans of the optional leather trimmed sport seats. There’s enough bolstering to hold you in place without being obtrusive, and the chairs are comfortable enough for the Abarth’s intended purpose. We wouldn’t want to sit in them for a cross-country trip, but they’re more than comfortable enough for a drive to the nearest road course for a day of hot lapping. They look good, too, although we’d favor the all-black version over the flashier black with red trim.
Rear seats are, in a word, there. No one will buy a Fiat 500 Abarth for rear seat comfort or utility, though we suppose it is possible to stuff a smallish human back there for short trips. Besides, the back seat offers storage for your helmet and gear bag when the trunk is filled with tools and an air tank.
Power comes from a turbocharged version of the 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine found throughout the Fiat 500 lineup. Models sold in the U.S. are rated at 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, meaning that (for once) we get a faster car than our European cousins do. Faster is still a relative term, as the 500 Abarth still has a hard time keeping up with competitors like the Volkswagen GTI, the Ford Focus ST and the MINI Cooper S, acceleration wise. Expect the run from 0-60 mph to take just over seven seconds, which is quick but not necessary impressive. For what it’s worth, the car feels quicker than that on the butt-dyno, and you’re likely to be grinning so much that you won’t care about getting walked by a GTI. The EPA says the Fiat 500 Abarth will return 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, which agrees with our own fuel economy of 29.2 mpg in mostly city driving.
There’s only one word to describe putting the Fiat 500 Abarth through its paces on a twisty road, tight racetrack or autocross course: fun. We’re not sure if it’s the best-handling front-wheel-drive car we’ve ever scrubbed the tires on, but it’s certainly among the most entertaining. Unless you exceed the grip of the front tires, turn in is immediate, with minimal body roll despite the car’s relatively high center of gravity. Push harder, and understeer is noticeable until you correct with a bit less steering lock. Punch the “Sport” button on the dash, and the steering becomes just a bit heavier, with a nice, progressive buildup as you crank in more angle. Shift throws aren’t exactly short, but the gearbox has a good-enough feel, and the clutch pedal effort is light. Brakes are very good for the price, with decent pedal feel, progressive grip and virtually no fade, even after (relatively) hard use. Opt for the white wheels, though, and you’ll notice how quickly the high-friction pads are scrubbing off material.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
The Fiat 500 Abarth isn’t the perfect car, but it is a perfectly entertaining option for a commuter car or weekend autocross toy. If we had one of our own, we’d probably install a set of lower and stiffer springs, add a thicker rear sway bar, mount up some stickier rubber and begin collecting autocross trophies in earnest. We’d overlook the fact that there’s no real back seat, and we’d be sure there was another car in the family for long road trips. Driving the Abarth everyday, though, would put a relatively affordable grin on our faces, especially if we could work in a few twisty roads on our way to work.
Fiat loaned us the 500 Abarth for our evaluation. Base price on our press-fleet tester was $22,700, including a delivery charge of $700, and options included the $1,000 Performance Leather-Trimmed Bucket Seats, the $750 Safety and Convenience Package (automatic climate control with micron filter, Sirius/XM radio with one-year subscription, security alarm), the $350 Contrasting Mirror Caps and Side Stripes. the $400 Tom Tom Navigation Unit (with Blue & Me) and the $1,000 forged 17-inch wheels with performance tires for a total sticker price of $26,200.
For comparison, a similarly equipped MINI Cooper S would sticker at $32,500, while a comparable two-door Volkswagen GTI Autobahn would list for $31,890.