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Saturday Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Start off your weekend of motoring with a quick take on something fast, fun or rare that's recently grabbed our attention in the automotive world.

May 26, 2012|By David Undercoffler, Auto Critic | Los Angeles Times
  • The 160-horsepower Fiat 500 Abarth starts at $22,700; the model seen here is $26,050.
The 160-horsepower Fiat 500 Abarth starts at $22,700; the model seen here… (David Undercoffler / Los…)

The car: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

The power: 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque from a 1.4-liter, inline, turbocharged four-cylinder engine routing power to the front wheels via a five-speed manual transmission.

The photos: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

The speed: Zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, according to Road & Track.

The bragging rights: Peppiest little squirt on the road.

The price: $22,700 is the base entry fee; $26,050 as tested.

The details: Looking to add a little spezia to its diminutive 500 and perhaps steal away a few sales from the slightly larger Mini Cooper S, Fiat has introduced to the U.S. a little terror called the 500 Abarth (ah-bart). A similar version has been gnashing at the roads in Europe since 2008, but our example lands with more power and a single transmission choice, so if you like your shifts done for you, this isn't your car.

The Abarth gets its "go" by taking the 500's 1.4-liter engine and adding a prodigious 59 horsepower and 72 pound-feet of torque by way of a turbocharger and its maximum of 18 PSI boost. Peak torque is yours from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm.

Meanwhile, the suspension has been lowered and stiffened; the steering ratio is tighter and quicker; the standard stability control has been retuned and can be set at "on," "partial on" and "full off"; the front brake rotors are larger; and the car now has an unapologetically loud dual-exhaust system that is difficult to describe without referencing a bodily function that decorum encourages me to describe merely as flatulence. (Fine, this car farts more than the Mel Brooks' cowboys in "Blazing Saddles.")

Exterior upgrades on the Abarth include more aggressive front and rear bumpers and side skirts, a rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels. Another $1,000 gets you the 17-inch versions I had on my tester.

Inside, the Abarth gets a thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel (which, because of the snug proportions of the 500's cabin, feels enormous), a turbo boost gauge, aluminum pedals and unique, one-piece seats.

My tester added butter-soft leather trim to those seats for $1,000, automatic climate control for $600, body stripes for $350 and a $400 TomTom dashboard-mounted navigation system.

The drive: Fiat bills the 500 Abarth as a track-day tool for enthusiasts, and although it's certainly a hoot around town, I'd still lean toward a Mini Cooper S for closed-circuit shenanigans.

Though the suspension and steering have been tightened and tuned for the Abarth iteration, both systems still leave something to be desired for immediacy and communication with the pavement. There's a bit too much body roll, and the car as a whole felt softer than I'd like if I were considering a car for even occasional track use. The long, slightly vague throws of the oddly shaped gear shifter (it's not unlike a banana) and the five-speed gearing (it needs six) didn't help.

But claims about track prowess often belie the reality that most buyers will stick to the streets, and as a daily driver, the 500 Abarth always entertains. Cars this small generally aren't known for their raw acceleration, so onramps and freeways were regular opportunities to remind the populace that the Abarth is the exception to this rule.

Be sure to do such acceleration exercises with the car's "sport" mode engaged; without it, the car maxes out at 150 pound-feet of torque. This, to help keep the fuel economy reasonable; the 500 Abarth is rated at 28 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on the highway.

Unfortunately, the Abarth's raspy, bratty exhaust note is such a wonderfully cheap thrill, you'll probably never see economy figures near those estimates. I averaged 22 mpg, such was my proclivity for making the little car bark. Drive it hard, and you can even elicit the sharp crackle of exhaust overrun. Yes please.

That same suspension that's too soft for relentlessly aggressive driving is plenty comfortable around town, and the leather used on the seats is soft enough you'll consider driving to work without pants. Just don't try to drink your coffee on the way.

The takeaway: Sounds like fun.

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