Just a year after tiny little Fiat 500 made its American debut at the L.A, Auto Show, Olivier Francois, Global head of the Fiat Brand and chief marketing officer, stepped on the stage at the Los Angeles Convention Center to unveil the latest version of the Italian microcar.
Though the name Abarth might not be familiar to the average American, there are still plenty of aficionados who recognize the heritage of the Fiat 500 Abarth, which traces its roots back to the work of Carlo Abarth, a former European motorcycle champion, who founded Abarth & Co in 1949, producing aftermarket products for production cars.
In 1958 Fiat introduced the original 500 and Carlo Abarth saw some use for the tiny city car. His company gave it an extensive makeover, increasing the compression ratio of the small 479 cc engine, fitting it with a Weber carburetor, optimizing the intake system and adding an Abarth exhaust system.
With improved performance — power doubled to a full 26 horsepower — and improved handling the Abarth 595 broke six international records in its first year of production, and claimed nearly 900 race victories by 1965.
With the scorpion on its badge – which represented both Abarth’s astrological sign and the symbol for power and performance — Abarth became everyday language in the Italy of the 1960s, where customers ordering a strong coffee or coffee with a shot of alcohol, would ask for an ‘Abarth coffee’.
“With the 500 Abarth, we reach out to enthusiasts who want Italian performance at an attainable price,” said Francois. “With dynamic handling it brings to life the legendary racing heritage of the brand and becomes the Italian high-performance car for everyday driving.”
The quirky little 500 is equipped with the new 160-hp 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo engine, Abarth-tuned sport suspension and brakes and several features that are usually not to be found in small cars. It is also possible to get an automatic transmission, which will not yet be the case in Europe.
On the stage, the base 500 disappeared in a box and seconds later, the Abarth came up.
The Abarth name was re-launched in 2007 but has since become a significant force on race tracks again: with championships for the Trofeo Abarth 500 Italia and Europe.
In the US, the Fiat 500 Abarth will join the 500 and 500 Cabrio – with Fiat next planning to introduce a battery-powered version of the microcar next year.