First Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

“What is making that noise??”  I certainly wasn’t the only one asking that question the first time I heard a driver behind the wheel of the new Fiat 500 Abarth revving its heavily-boosted 1.4 liter four cylinder engine with low-restriction exhaust.  Literally, in a parking lot full of amazing cars – most of which put the Fiat’s 160 horsepower/170 lb-ft ratings to shame – the car whose exhaust note drew the most attention was this little Fiat.

The formula for the Fiat 500 Abarth (which is pronounced “eh-BART,” by the way, you silly most-likely-American reader) is simple.  Take the 500 – the good and the bad – and add noise, power, and better handling, then find a place to hoon the car.  The faults of the 500 – an interior the prioritizes form over function, a driving position that is too upright, a cabin that is too narrow – mostly carry over intact for the high-performance version.  But you aren’t likely to find much to criticize in the Abarth’s power output considering its approximate 2,512-pound curb weight, and handling is much more surefooted thanks to firmer suspension and better tires.

The delivery of that power is not exactly linear.  Turbo lag is an issue; not surprising considering that the car’s tacked-on boost gauge shows the turbo adding 18 psi of boost at full boil, which may be the highest boost number I’ve seen in a production car (the more calmly-tuned Ford Flex EcoBoost, for instance, has 12 psi of boost at its peak).  It takes a moment for the little Garrett turbo to spool up to its power peak, which occurs at 5,500 RPM (the torque peaks between 2,500 and 4,000 RPM).  What’s not an issue, though, is torque steer.  Thanks to a three-mode stability control program and active locking differential, you can drop the clutch in your 500 Abarth and not hop over into oncoming traffic.  Sounds like a selling point to me!

As I was waiting for this test car’s previous driver to exit the car so I could take my turn with it, he very ungracefully exited the car (which he parked far too closely to the car on its left, despite this being nearly the easiest car int he world to park due to its large windows and minimal width) and complained about leg cramps.  “Fun car, but you have to be a damn chimpanzee to drive it.  The most uncomfortable car in the world.  Be sure you put it in Sport mode.”

Thus admonished, I climbed into the car.  Having spent two weeks in other Fiat 500s, I wasn’t too worried about leg cramps, despite my 6’4″ frame.  I even managed to cram my family into both of my previous Fiat 500 test cars, so not having to worry about a rear-seat passenger’s comfort, I had plenty of space for my legs.  Yes, you still sit bolt upright, but the Abarth has completely different front seats from the normal 500.  How can I tell?  They were more supportive, and they had integrated head restraints rather than the adjustable circular ones in the pedestrian Fiats. 

Aside from the seats, and a totally different gearshift knob (the Abarth has a more traditionally-shaped one, wrapped in leather, versus the 500 Sport’s plastic/chrome ball), and a few other minor interior details (like faux leather across the top of the gauge cluster, complete with red contrasting stitching) and a bit more meat on the Abarth-specific flat-bottom steering wheel, it felt like any other Fiat 500 behind the wheel until I started the engine.

Once I did that, though, it’s almost impossible not to cause a scene with this car, just because of its sound.  Backing out of your garage on a Tuesday morning in this car, you will most likely wake up sleeping neighbors.  Take off down the road, and you’ll wake up your neighbors’ neighbors.  It’s loud, yet it’s a fun, playful sound.  Attention-grabbing, but not annoying.  I’ve heard four cylinders without mufflers and four cylinders with coffee can pipes, and those sound like a barfing dog compared to the 500 Abarth’s hoots, pops, and snarls.

When I was a kid (OK, between ages 20 and 23), I drove an Oldsmobile Achieva SCX.  It was an “under Achieva” in many ways, including a blown head gasket at just 60,000 miles, but I had a similar waking-up-the-neighbors problem with that car’s low-restriction exhaust.  My friend’s mother insisted that there was something wrong with its exhaust system (there wasn’t) and when I would come home to my parents’ house just a bit after my 2:00 a.m. weekend curfew at age 20, I’d have to shut off the engine down the street and coast a bit until I got to the front of their house.  You won’t be sneaking up on anybody in this car either.

Well, to make a long review brief, I suffered no cramps, endured no stalls, and generally had a blast in my 20-minute jaunt at Bear Mountain, NY in the Fiat 500 Abarth.  Because the car is so small, the 205/40R17 Pirelli PZero Nero tires look much bigger than their 17 inches, and they offer serious grip.  The clutch is easy to modulate and to get used to, and the Abarth-exclusive 5 speed manual seemed to offer slightly more direct shift action than the standard car’s standard 5 speed manual.  It may have just been my imagination, though.

There is a shift light in the middle of the boost gauge (which itself falls to the left of the main instrument cluster), but apparently, having the car in Sport mode deactivates it.  Though I despise old-school vacuum-actuated shift lights that tell one when to shift for economy reasons, it’s a shame that the Abarth engineers couldn’t leverage the upshift light in Sport mode as well, but in a way similar to the gauge tracers in the Cadillac CTS-V, so you know when you’re approaching the redline.

Pricing for the Fiat 500 Abarth starts at $22,000.  My tester had the $1,00 performance leather trimmed high-back bucket seats, $750 safety and convenience package (automatic climate control, satellite radio, alarm), $350 red mirror caps/body side stripes, $400 TomTom navigation unit by Mopar, and $1,000 17 x 7 inch forged aluminum hyper black wheels.  Tack on $700 in destination charges to get the car from Italy Mexico to your local dealer, and the total MSRP is $26,200.  Certainly not cheap, but not bad compared to a Mini Cooper S.

If you like the Fiat 500’s style and just want a bit more – and want to stand out against the more mainstream choices like the Volkswagen GTI and Mini Cooper S – take an Abarth for a spin.  It’s far from a perfect car, but it will most likely put a smile on your face.  Isn’t that what driving a sporty car is all about?

Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance, and a few ounces of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. One of the best ways to describe torque steer (or lack-there-of) I’ve seen on any article – made me chuckle…

  2. Thanks, Scoop. Glad you liked that!

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