Enter the Fiat 500 Abarth.
Based on the standard 500, it seems to be the answer to many of our desires. A two+two city car, this little 500 has been subjected to magic fairy dust, as specified by Fiat's performance arm, Abarth.
Enter the Scorpion
An Austrian who was really an Italophile, having exhcanged his love for things from the boot-shaped country for citizenship following many racing victories, Karl (nÃ©e
Carlo) Abarth is something of a legend to Fiat cognoscenti. Under the sign of the Scorpio in 1949, he founded Abarth & Company as a supplier of aftermarket parts for cars as well as high performance exhaust systems. Along the way, he won the Italian 1100 and Formula 2 Championships with his Fiat 1100-derived 204A roadster.
A performance legend was born, and modified Fiats continued to build the company's reputation until Abarth was absorbed into the Fiat brand, where it was eventually put to pasture. Having passed in 1979, the brand's namesake has not been around for its reintroduction in Europe in 2007.
Cinquecento on steroids
Fiat's modern day goal was to build an affordable, pedigreed track car for enthusiasts that was high on value but low in costs.
Start with a Fiat 500 Sport. Sass up the body with bold air intakes and spoilers as well as a rear diffuser. Toss in a bunch of go-fast parts including the firm's new MultiAir 1.4 liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Use cheap gas, although 91-octane is preferred. Regardless, the hydraulically controlled MultiAir camshaft system will adjust accordingly. Add a pair of intercoolers in the lower corners of the front fascia, with vents on the sides, just before the front wheels. For good measure, plaster the 500 with Abarth Scorpion logos at all four corners.
With sequential multi-port injection, and 18 psi of boost, it's all good for 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, versus 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque found in the standard Fiat 500. And did we mention the exhaust note? Abarth is known for its aggressively voiced mufflers and exhaust systems. It's clear that with the Abarth, Fiat is interested in keeping a reputation intact.
Through all of this, the Abarth achieves 0-60 in 7.2 seconds, with a quarter mile in 15.5 seconds. Top speed is 129 mph.
The gearbox is a standard five-speed manual transmission, although we think a double clutch automatic unit will increase sales numbers exponentially. Underneath, the 500 is sprung with 40-percent stiffer MacPherson struts in front with Koni frequency selective damping shock absorbers and a stabilizer bar, while the rear is equipped with a twist beam axle, coil springs and a 22 mm solid stabilizer bar. It's shoed with 17-inch wheels wrapped in Pirelli P-Zero Nero three season tires, which help lower the entire car by 0.6-inch. Electric power assisted steering has been tightened up for a little more feel.
The 500 Abarth tips the scales at just 2,512 lbs., while fuel economy is rated at 28/34 mpg, according to the EPA.
The interior of the Abarth is full of sporting intentions like single needle stitching around the dashboard and on the shifter knob and boot. Behind the leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel, a single binnacle with its concentric speedo and tachometer are the only major distractions that exist for the driver. Our tester was equipped with an automatic climate control and Bose audio system that are also available on the standard 500. An accessory TomTom navigation system plugs directly into a dash-mounted receptacle to eliminate the need for unsightly wires.
Leather covered sport seats offered the kind of support that is appreciated on quick turns and switchbacks. The driver's side offered standard adjustments including seat height, rake, as well as fore and aft adjustments. We knick the passenger side seat that, although comfortable, sits too high for average occupants. Our heads had brief dates with the headliner. This could quickly be remedied by the addition of a height adjuster.
The panorama moonroof is equipped with a web-netted sunscreen that is intended to block sunlight, to a lesser degree, than a fully opaque version of the same. With the sun in just the right portion of the sky, it becomes a total "flare fest." Although we spent most of our time driving around Sin City, the back seat is actually habitable especially around town for quick jaunts.
Considering the intoxicating sound of the Abarth exhaust system, the car was still relatively quiet except on the harshest of surfaces. Crosswinds on the nose of this Scorpion tended to raise the cabin sound level a bit, but thankfully not to unbearable levels.
Bad habits are hard to break, and such is the case with auto manufacturers and Las Vegas. We once again found ourselves in Sin City, a burg that bills itself as having "just the right amount of wrong." It also has a fun little club track in the form of Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, which is actually located in Pahrump, home of the Chicken Ranch, and other such houses that are not homes. See, the right amount of wrong, again.
The 3.4-mile road course offered us an opportunity to toss the Abarth around in many different situations since the track is designed to imitate portions of famous racetracks around the world. The Abarth offered surprising acceleration from pit out, followed by a quick lefthander known as "Ego Check." Run it properly and you'll be fine. If not, hold on because you could end up in the weeds or worse. The Abarth's traction control is equipped with a three-mode calibration called Torque Transfer Control for improved handling. Choose from On, Partial Off and Full Off to dial in your desired level of assist.
Picking up speed over the corkscrew-like off-camber turn causes a little dance to the left but if your wheel is positioned right, you just keep your foot planted on the skinny pedal. A slight tap on the brake shows good brake bite - and some "hang the tail out" skittishness as you set up for a doglegged back straight. We'll chalk that up to the short wheelbase and disabling of the traction control. Up ahead are the 3-2-1 braking placards telling you of the upcoming hard right-hander. You stand on the binders (touchy until you get used to them), which brings you onto the longest straight. We saw 95 mph before we realized we were running out of track and needed to downshift.
An exciting ride, for sure, but we also got to test the Scorpion on highways to and from Las Veags.
We found the manual shifter a bit on the long and rubbery side, needing more in the way of a precise gate for confident gear changes. At speed, we had to resist the urge of shifting from fifth to a phantom sixth gear that doesn't really exist. But perhaps it should. Chief powertrain engineer Dave Schmidt told us it came down to space availability. The five-speed tranny fits with barely a centimeter to spare. Add a sixth cog, and the space deficit would cause the gears to be thinner, which might not be able to handle the extra torque from this pressurized engine.
As for the tentative nature of the shift lever, Vehicle Line Executive Joe Grace said that the samples we tested were early pre-production cars that were undergoing further development in the gearbox department and that they were being addressed.
We can't wait to drive the finished product.
Leftlane's bottom line
Abarth has always been known for extracting ungodly amounts of horsepower from small packages. Although these were early examples, we think Fiat, and by extension, Chrysler are both in the game of making fun to drive cars for the rest of us.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth base price, $21,300.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.