Fiat 500 Goes from Cute to Wicked

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth.

It’s been nearly a year since Chrysler re-launched the Fiat brand in the U.S. after a nearly three decade absence. With Chrysler now part of the gigantic Fiat empire, it only made sense to sell the cute little 500 or “Cinquecento” in boutique showrooms as a way to both offer a premium small car and try to catch some of the success of the Mini brand.

The year 2011 wasn’t kind to North American Fiat operations. Dealers were slow to open, and the marketing of the car had some hiccups, including an expensive television spot featuring Jennifer Lopez driving a 500 in the Bronx … but not really.

A new ad campaign has already garnered attention for the latest version of the Fiat 500, the Abarth. Featuring a leggy Italian model and a nerdy admirer, Super Bowl viewers got their first look at the hot-rodded variation of the compact 500 coupe.

What the heck is an Abarth? Think of the AMG version of any Mercedes-Benz model, the M designation for breathed-upon BMWs, or the Z28 in Camaroland. Karl “Carlo” Abarth was an Austrian-born Italian who specialized in tuning cars as diverse as Porsches, and yes, Fiats.

Heritage dictates that hotter Fiats over the years were souped-up by Abarth, so it only made sense to honor the epitome of Fiat performance with a model carrying his name. (For the record, the name is pronounced “Ah-bart,” not “AAAY-barth” as has become common in American car circles.)

So what differentiates the Abarth from the pedestrian Fiat 500? Well, first let’s look under the hood. The regular car gets a 1.4 liter four cylinder engine making 101 horsepower. The Abarth model gains a turbocharger to boost output to 160. While that may not seem like a huge number by today’s standards, keep in mind that this is a pretty tidy car with a curb weight of just a tick over 2,500 pounds.

Backing up the potent little four is a 5-speed manual gearbox specifically set up for the car, and even the drive shafts were modified to keep the power to the wheels and the nose pointed straight ahead. Revving the engine up in full boost and whacking the shifter through the gears is really giggle-inducing fun. It’s not the fastest compact on the road, but it sure feels like it is.

Part of the sensation of speed is probably due to the snarly rasp of the Abarth’s twin exhaust pipes. Karl Abarth made his name initially in building mufflers for sports cars, so it’s only fitting that the car which bears his name makes sweet internal combustion music. The Abarth engineering team in Michigan tried fourteen different set-ups before they were satisfied with a system that made just the right sound. (But obviously still came in under federal noise standards.)

The interior gets some fun stuff too. Racy, bolstered sport seats keep driver and front passenger in place during spirited cornering, and the thick, leather-covered steering wheel rim has a flattened bottom section, just like many sports and racing cars. There’s also a shift knob with matching leather and stitching, and the theme is repeated on the parking brake lever.

While this is still an economy car at heart (mileage estimates are 28 mpg city and 34 highway), it’s also one that you could do a bit of amateur racing with on weekends. Friends who have driven the Abarth on a racetrack say it’s an amazingly competent little car.

It has a fairly little price tag too, considering what you get in the package. Base price is $22,000, and the example I tested was equipped with things like automatic climate control, a gorgeous set of 17” wheels, and even a somewhat clumsy portable navigation system that docks into a slot in the dash. (I left it in the glove box.) For a bottom line, fully-loaded price of just over $25,000, this is arguably the performance bargain of 2012.

The Fiat 500 may have gotten off to a slow start last year, but the quicker version of the car is helping it make up ground. In a hurry.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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