The Fiat 500 Abarth Comes to America
We take this more masculine model for a spin on the road and on the track.
Any immigrant coming to America may have a rough first few months. And even though Fiat is not entirely a stranger to U.S. shores, the brand has been absent for almost three decades, making it a new face for most car buyers.
That could explain why Fiat’s only stateside model, the 500, has gotten a cold shoulder from consumers here thus far -- so much so that the executive deck was reshuffled at Fiat’s U.S. foothold, Chrysler, as a result. Some also point to the J-Lo commercials that introduced the Fiat 500 to the U.S. market as overly feminizing the diminutive vehicle in a land where horsepower wars still rage and size counts -- and many people remain willing pay for those privileges at the pump.
Good thing for Fiat that the next 500 off the boat is the distinctly more masculine Abarth model. While the Abarth moniker may not ring a bell for the average U.S. car buyer, astute racing enthusiasts know the name as a parts supplier that has helped Fiat go faster for more than four decades -- and they probably can tell you that it’s named after Karl Abarth, a racing legend and engineer known for getting big performance from small cars.
Abarth’s scorpion emblem is emblazoned all over the new 500, and Fiat has infused his racing legacy and a decidedly macho design DNA into the 2012 vehicle, as well. We traveled to that most manly of playgrounds, Las Vegas, to get a firsthand look and drive the Abarth to see if Fiat succeeded.
First, the details: Power comes from a variable-valve 1.4-liter engine that Fiat calls the MultiAir Turbo. It produces 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, and is capable of 18 pounds of boost with the Sport mode engaged via an in-dash button. This setup pushes the 2,500-pound Abarth from zero to 60 in just over seven seconds, on to a top speed of 130 mph.
The engine is mated to a 5-speed manual transmission, and power is transferred to Abarth-bespoke standard 16-inch (or optional 17-inch) alloy wheels that are bitten by 11.1-inch front disc brakes decked with bright red calipers. Other eye-catching exterior touches include intercooler air intakes in the front fascia, a roof spoiler, a ride that’s lowered by 15 millimeters compared with the traditional 500 and a sprinkling of red-and-yellow Scorpion shields. And once the engine is cranked, the aggressive note from the twin exhaust tips is also hard to ignore.
Inside, enthusiasts will be tipped off to the fact that this is an aspiring track-day car by the bolstered, high-back front seats with racing harness pass-throughs; a thick, flat-bottom steering wheel; a leather-wrapped gear shift knob; aluminum pedal trim and boost gauge. And with a $22,000 starting price (plus a $700 destination charge), it’s within the budget of most weekday commuters -- although the 28 mpg city/34 mpg highway rating shows that the Abarth doesn’t exactly sip fuel, despite its small size.
After a day of driving the 2012 Abarth on the streets of Vegas, surrounding desert back roads, the highway and the track at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, our take is that the Abarth is a unique beast. It’s sporty, fun and quirky in a MINI Cooper sort of way. Like that singular British import, which Fiat clearly has in its sights, the interior of the Abarth felt cramped, and despite Fiat’s overt attempt to man-up the 500, the exterior remains a bit cute for our tastes.
On twisty mountain roads, the suspension kept the car stable, although the steering felt somewhat numb. On the highway, the ride was smooth and nowhere near as fatiguing as many (or MINI) cars this size. We also had to keep a close eye on the speedometer to keep from drifting above the posted limit, since the Abarth had a way of making us want to go faster.
The track was where the Abarth really beat its chest. While the front-wheel-drive car was susceptible to plowing through tight turns when trying to nail a sharp apex, it otherwise proved quick and nimble. Some may grumble that the transmission needs a sixth gear, but the vehicle’s broad torque band didn’t leave us wanting.
It remains to be seen whether the Abarth will help reverse Fiat’s U.S. fortunes, although representatives from the company say that sales of the Fiat 500 coupe and cabriolet are up and that demand for the high-ticket Gucci version is especially high. The sexy Super Bowl commercial also helped create buzz for the brand.
Besides the aesthetic and performance appeal, the Fiat Abarth has one thing going for it that other brands can’t offer: If you want a fast and cool Italian car, you’d have to spend a lot more than $22K to get one.
On twisty mountain roads, the suspension kept the car stable, although the steering felt somewhat numb.
That really bugs me, but:
While the front-wheel-drive car was susceptible to plowing through tight turns when trying to nail a sharp apex, it otherwise proved quick and nimble.
If the handling is there, I might forgive a little numb steering. Thank you column mounted electric assist.
Once you see an Abarth you will always remember it.
How? All 500 models look the same aside from the little label on the side what makes it look differant from any other 500.
Too this day I have only seen one 500 anywhere, and even a tree hugging friend of mine said there were way better looking cars that get the same or better MPG alot cheaper than the 500.
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