The Abarth may look cute (it is!), but this tight new ride packs real fire-power


PURRING POWER | With its snubbed nose and compact frame, Fiat’s Abarth has a density that contrasts to its perky engine and Italian styling.

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

 “Look at that. Isn’t it cute?” said the lady to her husband as she walks into the sub shop where I’m eating. Yeah, lady, that’s the Fiat Abarth. Real cute — with a bad attitude. I wouldn’t pet that scorpion! But I would flog it. Hard.

Two blind monks could tell there’s something amiss with the Abarth upon first encounter. Our test car was painted Nero Black metallic with 17-in. forged aluminum alloys shod with low-profile Pirelli P-Zero performance tires. Wide stripes and Abarth logos adorn the sides. The 500’s traditional “whiskers and logo” face looks as good as ever, but is accentuated by bolder faschia, twin snarling nostrils, and a big scorpioned Abarth logo in the nose. Flared wheel arches, unique side skirts, and twin chrome exhausts up the visual gravity. A rear spoiler gives the car a longer look while increasing downforce and the rear diffuser optimizes airflow. While there is some jewelry for jewelry’s sake, most of the add-ons have purpose.

If the monks sniffed deeply, they might believe they’re in a Ferrari. One-piece leather thrones look beautiful, grip your sides, and smell like fine Italian cow. It is hard to deny the thick flat-bottom leather-wrapped steering wheel either. Dash panels continue the body color for an expensive look. Automatic climate control and TomTom Navigation add convenience. Fiat’s BLUE&ME hands-free communications system utilizes smartphones, connected via USB or Bluetooth, for calling, real time traffic reports, weather and points of interest. Beats by Dr. Dre audio with a 368-watt amplifier and subwoofer rocks you happy, but the powertrain will blow your hair back.

The Abarth’s acoustically-tuned exhaust makes the car sound like a souped up lawnmower, but the car’s light weight and abundant energy give it a fun-loving spirit that only an Italian could divine (even if it is built in Mexico). Under the stubby hood is a turbocharged and twin-intercooled 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that sends 160hp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque through a five-speed manual transmission to the front wheels. That may not register as a lot of power until you realize the Fiat only weighs 2,500 pounds.

That all sounded like the potential for rapturous turmoil and hedonistic pleasure, but on first drive, the car was not living up to the spirit I imagined. It seemed to take a lot of throttle-caressing to get it to move even when revved obnoxiously through its click-click shifter. But then, I discovered the Sport mode’s “fun button” and all Hades erupted. In no time, I was giggling like a devil on the win. Fuel economy is rated 28/34-MPG city/hwy. — less so under full stomp.

All of the body accoutrement and rebellious thrashing is backed up by a track-ready chassis. Engineers lowered the ride height and stiffened up the suspension to give the tall city car handling that would set a Mustang back a couple of paces. Four-wheel disc brakes are up to the car’s potential while an innovative 3-mode stability control system can be switched “On,”

“Partial Off” or “Full Off”, allowing the Torque Transfer Control system to maximize performance through corners. There’s only so much you can do to make a front-drive car handle like a sports car, but the Abarth gives its soul to play the part.

The Abarth is not all whipped espresso. The driving position is typically Italian with a forward-canted steering wheel and legs-length clutch travel — made more difficult with a dime-sized pedal. You feel like you’re shifting with your tippy-toes. The suspension is necessarily stiff, but thunks over rough pavement. Except for what’s leather and painted, interior quality is about what’s expected for a $15,000 car. Rear seat space is best left to those with severed legs. My partner got hot over the rowdy exhaust rumble, but it could tire your ears every day.

Your morning drive, whether to a stuffy office or college campus, does not have to be boring. The Fiat Abarth is as practical as every other city-sized 500, but comes with a lot more attitude. Don’t pet the Abarth. Love it. Relish it. Wash it. And, by all means garage it. But, don’t hug it.

An as-tested price of $26,200 puts it against the Mini Cooper S, Chevy Sonic RS, and upcoming Ford Fiesta ST.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 26, 2012.