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Is the Fiat 500 Abarth automotive amore?

Published: June 9, 2012 | 7:35 am
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Italian cars traditionally evoke an abundance of emotion, often from their sounds and shapes, and less frequently these days, as a result of frustrating reliability. The Fiat 500 Abarth has emotional appeal, with bystanders seeking the noise source always taking a second look. For more than a few it is love at first sight.

Abarth was founded by Austrian Karl Abarth, who later became Italian citizen Carlo Abarth, having made a name for himself with exhaust systems and tuning kits for small-engine cars. The company, acquired by Fiat in the early 1970s, has always had a scorpion logo because it was Abarth’s astrological sign, and this 500 is covered in badges bearing a black scorpion on a yellow and red background, some overlaid on Italian-flag tricolore lighting bolts. This 500 carries nine scorpions but “Fiat” doesn’t appear anywhere; it’s also the only one that does not have a price of $500 after the comma.

Beyond the arthropods an Abarth has unique bumpers that add five inches to its length — remember it was only 139 to start, more grilles and nostrils to feed intercoolers, deeper side sills, big hatch spoiler and a rear diffuser sculpted around a pair of exhaust barrels. Colors are limited to red, white, black and metallic grey, and color-contrasting striping/wallpaper and mirror caps are available. Standard wheels are 16-inchers but handsome Abarth forged 17’s should be a required option.

Cabin upgrades include sport seats, a boost gauge, aluminum pedal covers, thick, flat-bottom steering wheel and standard Bose audio with iPod/USB integration.

The best changes are less visible. The 1,368 cubic centimeter engine is full of forged rotating parts and turbocharged, increasing output to 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque and married to an Abarth-specific five-speed gearbox and driveline. It sits lower on substantially stiffened suspension with a big rear antiroll bar and Koni FSD shocks, the brakes are larger, the steering is recalibrated and it gets a 33 percent stouter alternator to power a suite of rallye lights prominent in Abarth history.

Twist the key and the Abarth lights with a loud blat, not much quieter than a 1.4-liter Harley-Davidson. Roll off the clutch and feed in power and the sound isn’t unlike a piston-prop airplane or outboard motor pulling a water skier out of the hole. You’ll be playing with the shifter more for the soundtrack than seeking more thrust; the action is tighter than a plain 500 but can’t match standard-bearers like Honda’s Civic.

Despite a 59-horse improvement the extra 72 lb-ft of torque, all of it at much lower revs, is the big performance boost. Where the 500 needs to be wound up and wrung out the Abarth generates significant grunt from just 2,500 rpm and it’s all done by about 5,700; you can keep flogging it to 6,500 to see the upshift light in the boost gauge but there’s no huge payoff in added speed. If you don’t notice power falling off at high revs you won’t notice the light either.

This is the only Italian car in the U.S. market you can’t call fast — 60 in the mid-high six-second range, down from 9 to 10 seconds for the 500 — and the only one without a V-8 engine or bigger, name ending in “i” or a six-figure price tag. However the Abarth is also the only one you have to shift twice before 60 mph and you can enjoy a good portion of its capability on public roads on a daily basis. Those “i” cars have their place but when they’re illegal in second gear and still have five more to go, exercising requires a track. An Abarth just needs an excuse to leave the garage.

Steering is quite direct and just 2.3 turns lock-to-lock; the fat tires necessitate a lot more space than you think to U-turn and there isn’t much in the way of steering feel. There is slight understeer with two-thirds of its weight on the front wheels but the rear bar helps and it changes direction nimbly, no doubt aided by it’s 2,500-pound weight, firm roll stiffness, unintrusive stability control and wide (everything is relative) Pirellis. It is very firm and a bumpy corner doesn’t upset the car but it might upset taller occupants knocking their head against the roof. Even a light brush of the brake pedal brings quick bite and once used to them they are easy to modulate and stop well.

The ergonomics infer Darwin was on to something, with a seating position suited to long arms and short legs, primarily because there’s no telescope function on the wheel. Sport seats add considerable support and are well padded, as are the door armrests; if the shifter abutment was padded on the sides, knees would be much happier. Brightly colored stitching and meaty handles for shifter and parking brake match the steering wheel.

Instrumentation and dash layout match the regular 500 except for the 21-psi boost gauge to the left of the tri-centric gauge pod. A busy place this with speed, engine revs, bar-graph fuel and engine temperature all surrounding trip/radio/outside temp readings in the middle. If you pop for navigation it’s a nominal $400 Tom-Tom dash-insert unit that links with the Blue&Me hands-free system also available through steering-wheel controls. Cabin space is the same as a 500 with room for four flexible adults of average size, and note the sunroof shade is marginal … if the sun’s out you will be in it.

The arch-enemy MINI Cooper S could have a slight edge in performance (more power, six-speed gearbox, but heavier), handling, braking distance, steering feel and maneuverability but the deltas are miniscule compared to different drivers. An Abarth has slightly better mileage, brake feel, bigger cargo area, it costs about $4,000 less similarly equipped and it’s still a hoot to drive.

An Abarth costs about $4,500 more than a 500 Sport and comes with a day of pro driving instruction, not a bad value. You’ll pay $1,000 for the forged alloy wheels and 17-inch tires unless you have your own plan, leather is another $1,000,and miscellaneous options can add another $2,200, bringing it to $26,900 all in. A comparable Mini Cooper S hardtop starts at $24,300 plus $1,000 for leather, $500 for metallic paint and any number of $500-$750 options that’ll bump it up to $30,000 easily. An MX-5 Miata at $27,000 won’t have quite as many features but is the most rewarding drive and a convertible.

Only the Abarth garners the attention of drivers and onlookers. Andiamo!

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