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First Drive: Fiat 500 Abarth

Why did we have to wait so long?

by on Mar.05, 2012

The Fiat 500 Abarth delivers subtle visual tweaks -- and a 60% boost in power.

You can’t sell a young man an old man’s car, goes the old automotive marketing adage.  And, the conventional wisdom goes, it’s tough to sell a guy a “secretary’s car.” Now, we’ve got nothing against secretaries, but the term usually applies to products that are more show than go.  And, arguably, that applied to the Fiat 500 hatchback that rolled into U.S. showrooms a year ago.

The Italian automaker is quick to note that it’s already sold over 500,000 of the 3-door microcars outside the U.S., but demand in the States has been sorely lagging behind expectations, and the anemic little 101-horsepower engine is likely one reason why.  But perhaps things are about to change.

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With the help of supermodel Catrinel Menghia and “bad boy” actor Charlie Sheen, Fiat is staging a high-amp launch for the new Fiat 500 Abarth.  With its taut suspension, 160-horsepower engine – and subtle styling tweaks that give it a bit of its own bad-boy look, the Abarth is the machina the Italian automaker should have brought State-side from the start.

Supermodel Catrinel Menghia and U.S. Fiat brand boss Tim Kuniskis with the 500 Abarth.

To put this into perspective, think John Cooper Works, the scrappy, soccer hooligan alter ego at Mini.

Where the original Cinquecento could barely hit 60 before the stopwatch clicked 10, the new Fiat 500 Abarth will get there in a wee bit under 7 seconds thanks to its turbocharged version of the base car’s 1.4-liter Multi-Air engine.  It bumps the pony count up to a substantial 160 while torque jumps to 170 pound-feet in Sport mode, a 62 lb-ft increase from the naturally aspirated base car.

That U.S.-made engine is, notably, made in Michigan and not shared with the less powerful European version of the Abarth.  The heart of the powertrain is its turbocharger which can generate up to 18 psi of boost.  But the engine also adopts cast aluminum pistons and a forged steel crank and connecting rods, among other enhancements.

Power is delivered to the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox paired with equal-length halfshafts – a layout designed to minimize dreaded torque steer under hard acceleration.

The Fiat 500 Abarth gets a lowered and beefed-up suspension and tighter steering.

Meanwhile, Fiat engineers have tightened up steering.  To better enhance handling, the Fiat 500 Abarth’s suspension has undergone extensive upgrades, with faster spring rates and Koni dual-valve front shocks and beefed up sway bars front and back.  There’s more negative camber and the entire package has been lowered by nearly an inch.  It’s not a complete makeover however, the Abarth retaining the base car’s twist-beam rear axle.

Visual changes start with the menacing Abarth scorpio logo and unique wheels, but most of the revisions are functional, starting with the added air intakes at each front corner to feed the turbo’s twin intercoolers.  There’s also a new rear spoiler.

A closer look will reveal the upgraded braking system, at 11.1-inches the discs are an inch larger than the standard-issue 500.  The pads are semi-metallic to reduce fade.

The Fiat 500 Abarth follows the original hatch, convertible and Gucci edition to the U.S. market.

To see what all that actually translates into we headed out to Las Vegas for a couple days of driving on-road and on track.  The differences quickly became apparent as we left the Hard Rock Hotel just off the Sin City strip.  Even in fourth gear the turbo provided ample passing power without working the gears to the point of risking carpal tunnel syndrome.

Hitting 80 proved easy – almost too easy and as we headed out to the Spring Mountain Race Track we found it wise to power up the cruise control.

On the hour-long drive we found one significant complaint: while the various versions of the Fiat 500 offer a tilt steering wheel it doesn’t telescope.  And that resulted in a slightly awkward seating position for this author’s 6’2” frame, a bit too close to the pedals in order to maintain the right grip on the wheel.  After a half-hour my right ankle was cramping up.

Switching to Sport mode adds 10 lb-ft of torque.

On the track, the layout was less of a problem, perhaps because the many turns on the Spring Mountain track don’t let you keep your feet in one place very long.

What was impressive is how readily torque came on even in standard mode – where the engine is slightly detuned to produce 160 lb-ft.  Switching to Sport results in a more aggressive throttle map and that extra 10 lb-ft, with torque available over an extremely wide rev band.

Equally impressive, the equal-length halfshafts really did seem to eliminate apparent torque steer.  There was, meanwhile, only a modicum of tire spin, thanks to a brake-based limited slip system.  Some colleagues will argue a mechanical LSD is necessary, but we saw little justification for that complaint on or off the track.

For those who might give serious thought to racing the Fiat 500 Abarth, the maker provides a 3-mode stability control system, including a truly serious track mode that shuts the brake intervention system off entirely.  We spent most of our time at Spring Mountain in the mid-level setting and found that even there ESP was surprisingly unobtrusive.

For those who aren’t expecting to spend all their time pressing the little hot-hatch’s limits, the EPA gives the Fiat 500 Abarth a 28 mpg City rating, and 34 on the Highway.  The Combined number – what most folks will likely get under normal driving – comes in at 31 mpg.

The Abarth “is going to change everything you think you know about this car,” suggested Tim Kuniskis, the U.S. brand boss for Fiat.  We had our doubts before heading out on the road but were true believers by the time we returned.

At $22,000, it’s a reasonably affordable package, and definitely worth the price to discover just what the Fiat 500 platform is capable of.  Actually, the Abarth doesn’t even hit the limits.  We got a look at a variety of accessories while in Las Vegas, including a set of engine modifications that can bump power up to an even 200 horsepower.  While Kuniskis couldn’t quote a precise price tag for the customized version he’s dubbed the Venom, it appears you can get pretty close for not much more than $25,000.

While we might wish Fiat had come up with the 500 Abarth a year ago, we’re glad to see it’s finally rolling into showrooms.  It transforms the Cinquecento into another car entirely.  And that’s something even a secretary could enjoy.

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