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Review: 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth

by Mark Elias

Legendary tuner Carlo Abarth\'s spirit is alive in Fiat\'s rorty little runabout.

Small but wicked. Those were the words that Karl Abarth used to describe the object of his affections, the original Fiat Cinquecento - a.k.a 500 - more than 50 years ago.

Abarth, a tuner before the phrase really existed, was known throughout Europe for his masterful massaging of small, mostly Italian cars, into formidable pocket rockets.

The Fiat Abarth was probably his greatest hit. But sadly here in the States, the Abarth name only strikes a special chord with those in the know.

Fiat, now firmly a part of America, hopes to change all that.

What is it?

The Fiat 500 Abarth is the tuned version of the 500 subcompact that was introduced to rave reviews in 2012. Surprisingly tiny, it still manages to be a competent four-seat city car. Using a 1.4-liter four-cylinder MultiAir engine as its basis, Fiat has added a liquid-cooled turbocharger that boosts the engine from 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque in the standard 500 up to a relatively whopping 160 ponies and 170 lb-ft in this little stinger.

Power is sent from a five-speed manual gearbox to a set of 17-inch low profile meats. A puller rather than pusher, the front wheels deliver all the oomph while the rear with its twist axle setup offers wide track stability. Traction is stellar in this prime example of a torquey beast in a miniature package.

An Abarth-tuned suspension is front and center with a lowered geometry, beefier springs, bigger brakes and wide Pirellis. The end result is a car that asks to be driven as though it's on the Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps.

In addition to the Abarth, the 500 can be had in standard and 135-horsepower Turbo configurations. The Abarth has lots going for it, but one thing that keeps coming front and center is the raspy sound from its exhaust. Clearly there's something special here.

What's it up against?

Most obviously, the first head to head competitor would be the Mini Cooper S, but we think it's also worth cross-shopping the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, both of which are priced about the same but deliver their non-turbocharged power to the rear wheels instead.

How does it look?

Start with a basic 500, but strip it of all Fiat logos and signage. Next drop it a bit, add a roof spoiler, and dose it with a liberal amount of scorpions. Oh, and remember to add the Abarth stripes all about.

Fiat has installed a new front fascia with intercooler air scoops in front, while the rear has been replaced with one of its own that incorporates an under-bumper diffuser that now includes a dual exhaust system instead of the single unit that is part of the standard 500 fitments.

For added emphasis, the Abarth wheels are attractively swathed in the same color as the body. On second thought, maybe not. With the largish, and soft brake pads, expect to have to clean them every other day lest they look quite dirty.

And on the inside?

Laid out in a very driver-centric fashion with a slightly cramped gauge binnacle, the Abarth isn't much different than its siblings.

Buttons for menu functions are at the right side of the instrument cluster housing but become disabled when the vehicle is in motion. A flat-bottomed steering wheel with all the redundant controls is right in front. It offered tilt but not quite enough telescoping functions. In place yesteryear's faux wood, Fiat has outfitted the entire dashboard in a body-colored white panel.

The five-speed manual shifter is nicely located on a pedestal at the base of the center stack, located in such a way that it almost offered a comfortable rest. Speaking of rest, there is an armrest on the driver's seat, but none for the passenger.

Navigation is available via a TomTom system that is basically a Best Buy-spec unit mounted on a special pedestal setup. Although it manages to keep costs down versus the expense of an in-dash type system, it still pegs the needle on the weirdness scale.

Our particular Abarth was fitted with Nero/Rosso (that's black and red in Italian) high-performance seats that were mounted a bit high for averaged-sized occupants - and only the driver's throne is equipped with a height adjustment function. For our tastes, we found the seatback just a bit over-bolstered. It tends to be a bit heavily padded in the high-center of the back, between your shoulder blades. After a while it can become a bit uncomfortable, but the overall space is wide enough so you won't be bumping shoulders with your fellow occupants.

Rear seat legroom, while not exactly plentiful, offered a little relief for a short hop. Perfect for a quick run to the local movieplex or restaurant, the Abarth seemingly says it is just the car for a double date. In the way back, there is sufficient space for a small suitcase, although the Beats by Dr. Dre (who doesn't strike us as a Fiat owner) subwoofer does encroach on a bit of the trunk space. The rear seats can be folded forward raising the cargo capacity from 9.5 to 26.8 cubic feet.

But does it go?

The Fiat Abarth is an absolute hoot to drive. While not the kind of car for road trips unless, of course, you are a masochist, it provided even a hardened driver enough excitement to remain engaging.

It loves to jump out ahead of everyone else at a stoplight and likes to stay there.

Power seems to continue on for days, and while most cars in top gear tend to adopt a low power cruise attitude, the Abarth manages to keep on pulling regardless of which cog you have chosen. But we think it is in need of a sixth gear for cruising.

Keeping the revs up results in a great rasp to match the exhilarating acceleration, the result of squeezing a torque monster under the hood of the Abarth. Unfortunately, traveling on a coarse road surface manages to combine with the engine's snarl as well.

Another minor qualm: the rather soft brake pads that stop it on a dime do their part to darken up the painted white 17-inch alloys.

On the other hand, the Abarth's steering is go-kart fast and it gets even better once you tap the Sport button on the dashboard, which tightens up the electric tiller.

Our tester was surprisingly agile and caused a double take from a BMW M3 driver who saw his entire rear view mirror filled with the front of an Abarth that didn't want to let go.

Unlike the M3, the 2,512 lbs. 500 Abarth is rated at an impressive 28/34 mpg. We came close to the promised 31 mpg average, too.

Leftlane's bottom line:

By offering up its zippy little 500 to Fiat's in-house Abarth team, the Italian automaker has dialed up the fun factor.

Loaded up like our tester, the 500 Abarth isn't the world's best value, but we can't deny that it offers a bit of grunty magic ready to put a smile on most any enthusiast's face.

2013 Fiat 500 Abarth base price, $22,000. As tested, $27,100.

Leather seats, $1,000; Package 25X, $700; Comfort/Convenience Group, $650; Red mirror caps, $350; TomTom navigation, $500; Painted alloy wheels, $1,200; Destination, $700.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.