2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Cute and powerful, but overpriced and a rough rider

A co-worker put it perfectly after seeing my black and white Fiat 500 Abarth, it’s the Beanie Baby of cars – Cute with a capital C.Fiat's new Abarth

I like small cars, appreciate their efficiency, their fun factor and generally their lower cost. The Fiat 500 is cute, almost to a fault. At its base Pop trim level it’s a fun sub-compact that starts at an extremely attractive $15,500.

The Abarth (Fiat tells us that’s pronounced AH-bar) is its racy version. Think of its 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine as a Mini-Hemi, seeing as how Fiat and Chrysler are now linked up.

The turbo, with dual intercoolers, gives what normally is a decidedly mild-mannered 101-horse I4 some potent ponies. In a car that weighs just 2,533 lbs., the turbo’s 160 horses would seem to create a pocket rocket. Combine that with its slick black paint job, white racing stripes along the sides, red and black leather seats and white aluminum 17-inch wheels and you’re pretty sure you have a racer on your hands.

To be honest, the Abarth is much racier than the original Fiat 500 and the name has been used in Italy for years to denote its performance models. But let’s be clear, unless you’re going up against a bunch of your compadres on a racetrack, the hot-rod nature will remain largely in your head. This doesn’t come anywhere close to a MINI in performance or overall feel.2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

There is some pop off the line with its five-speed manual, but it’s just that, a short burst of power that doesn’t feel strong and sustainable. Sadly the tranny also has extremely long throws so you won’t have a sports car feel to the shifter, as you would in a Mazda Miata. Shifts aren’t so precise, but are long and notchy. Honestly, if this is your top-of-the-line racer wanna-be, a six-speed manual seems more appropriate.

Gearing also isn’t what you expect from a sporty model as the car often bogs as you accelerate in city driving and is lackluster going up mild area hills. Heaven forbid you don’t live in the relatively flat Midwest. I found myself downshifting to second and third to manage decent speed on hills near the Town of Brookfield.

Handling IS sporty. It’s light and lively like a go-kart with both a light feel and quick response. That’s the highlight of driving a 500. Zip into a corner and crank on the wheel and you clip off a corner’s apex and hustle out the other side. Driving rotaries are a blast.

Ride though, despite its independent front suspension and semi-independent rear, is punishing. This is a performance tuned suspension, and I suspect it would make the Abarth a hoot on the racetrack, but I found myself slowing considerably on many area cement streets due to all the rump-busting seams and potholes. The short 90.6-inch wheelbase also does the 500 no favors. Few cars I’ve driven the past 25 years required me to slow this much to avoid a painful posterior.

Braking is fine with four-wheel discs, ABS and stability control. Being a small car the Fiat stops quickly too thanks to those discs.

Some may find the Abarth’s grumbling, rumbling exhaust tone racy, but mostly it’s just noisy with a distinct diesel-like grumble at idle. The exhaust tone is so loud that on several occasions I shut off the radio, deciding it wasn’t worth the effort to try and hear it.

Inside the car featured black and red leather seats, which pepped up the interior considerably. That look and the leather add cost, as they are optional. Like Chrysler’s PT Cruiser of a few years back, glossy body-colored trim inside offers a fun factor for some Fiats. This being a sparkling black model, all the dash’s gloss trim was black. Sadly the dash and door top trim is a black textured plastic that feels pretty low-cost.

Fiat Abarth interior
The Abarth’s interior is colorful. My black test car had white racing stripes outside and a red leather interior.

Artsy folks may appreciate all the round styling cues inside the 500, and I give the stylists full credit for being consistent here. To name but a few, the power mirror control on the driver’s door is round, the door handle base is round, the air ducts are round, the turbo boost gauge to the left of the big ROUND main speedo/tach gauge is round, the radio volume, tuning and info buttons are round (no round knobs though!), the climate control buttons are round and the two power window controls next to the round shifter are round. FYI, that shifter knob is excessively and awkwardly large, sort of like shifting with a big cucumber.Abarth is key-started with a switchblade style key and has a rear wiper control for the hatch. Trip computer functions are handled via a button on the end of a stalk to the steering wheel’s right. The steering wheel tilts, but doesn’t telescope and includes radio controls on the hub. I also like the wheel’s flat lower portion, which allows for easier in and out for the driver.

Room inside is tight, with a six-foot+ friend having trouble with both headroom and seeing out of the windshield from the passenger’s seat, which seems to ride tall as there is no height adjustment.

Fiat 500 Abarth interior
As in the MINI Cooper, you’ll notice a lot of round trim, dials and buttons in the Fiat’s interior.

Luckily the driver’s seat HAS a height adjustment, so taller folks can drive the car. All seat controls are manual, with the seat back angle control on the seat back’s inner edge, near the center console. These tall-backed ($1,000 option) leather seats are comfortable though, providing good lateral support.A few other bits worth noting – outward visibility over the driver’s right shoulder is limited by the tall seat backs and curve of the roof’s C pillar; the cool white forged aluminum wheels ($1,000 including 17-inch tires) turn gray quickly from disc brake dust, especially the front wheels; the test car came with a portable Tom-Tom navigation system that plugs in easily atop the dash. When you’re not using it you can stash it in the glove box, and it’s only $400.

Storage is minor at 7.0 cubic feet behind the rear seat, which could only be used by wee ones. The rear seat split and fold down, but not flat, making for an awkward cargo area. I also found the radio’s volume control toggles irritating, a knob is much simple to adjust. Also, the car’s tiny sun visors are stubby and useless.

Pricing starts out in the value range, considering the car’s turbo and unique looks. Base here is $22,000, but add $700 for delivery and with options this one hit $26,200.

Gas mileage was good at 31.3 mpg and fits within the EPA estimates of 28 mpg city and 34 highway. Although I’d suspect many folks would expect higher mileage in this size car. Premium fuel is recommended, but not required.

If cute dictates your next purchase, then the Fiat should be near the top of your list. If comfort, practicality or value are benchmarks, then move on down the road. Click here to see my test drive at Road America.

FAST Stats: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Made in: Toluca, Mexico

Engine: 1.4-liter MultiAir I4, turbocharged, 160 hp

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Weight: 2,533 lbs.

Wheelbase: 90.6 in.

Cargo: 7.0 cu.ft.

MPG: 28/34

Base Price: $22,000

Dealer’s Price: $21,145

Major Options:

Performance leather high-back bucket seats, $1,000

Preferred package 25X – safety and convenience (automatic temperature control, XM satellite radio – 1-year sub., red/black seats, $750

Mirrored gas cap and white body stripe, $350

TomTom navigation (removable), $400

17-inch forged aluminum gloss white wheels w/17-inch 3-season tires, $1,000

Delivery: $700

Test Vehicle: $26,200

Sources: Fiat, www.autos.yahoo.com

Photos: Courtesy of Fiat

Hits: Cute, sporty handling, flat steering wheel bottom, nice paint job and markings. Good gas mileage.

Misses: Noisy grumbling exhaust makes it hard to even hear radio, modest power, cucumber-sized shift knob, extremely bumpy ride, irritating radio volume toggle and useless sun visors.

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