What It Is
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth plays to city-dwellers looking for that added racing flair, but without draining their bank accounts every time they refuel.
A free day of instruction at a real, live race track with your new Fiat 500 Abarth is included at the time of purchase.
No center-console is present between the driver and front passenger's seats, making it tricky to stash all your regular ride-along essentials.
Fiat has taken care of many loose ends to ensure the Abarth is something very different from its tamer sibling.
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is a rare second chance for a carmaker to create a good first impression. After a year of sales, the standard Fiat 500 has come up short, to say the least. That comes as a surprise to some, as the 500 has fascinating exterior styling, and is easy on the wallet at first purchase, and at every stop at the pump thanks to its EPA fuel economy rating of 30 mpg in the city and 38 mpg in the highway. Yet even with all of these supposed appealing futures, the 500 hasn't caught on with the American public. Many prospective stateside customers are scared off by how the tiny 500 will fare on American roads and freeways when surrounded by much larger SUVs and pickup trucks. Those who recall the last time Fiats were available to the North American public 40 years ago can also remember the poor service record that came along with the Italian brand.
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The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth (pronounced "uh-BART") doesn't stray too far from its calmer sibling, but it's different enough to possibly sway the public's opinion about Fiat's return to America. The Fiat Abarth packs enough of a punch under the hood to make it get up and go in a hurry. Its interior also receives a more luxurious treatment than the normal 500. Then there's the racing pedigree that comes along with the Abarth nameplate, adding a dose of nostalgia for those familiar with the life and racing career of the Austrian-turned-Italian.
With the Fiat 500 Abarth's sporty styling and favorable fuel economy numbers, Fiat hopes it can appeal to a quietly growing market as fuel prices rise. Most subcompacts aren't known for their aggressive styling, or performance driving ability, but for those in the know, Abarth has a racing pedigree that dates back to before World War II. Karl Abarth [LINK] was an Austrian-Italian race car manufacturer and performance parts manufacturer who cut his teeth and gained notoriety racing motorcycles. After capitalizing on his success in racing, Abarth founded a race team of his own in 1949, while also producing custom exhausts and kits to make a Fiat Topolino go faster and look better. Abarth turned his brand into the equivalent of the Mercedes-Benz AMG line for Fiat as he helped build cars that were destined to dominate the track. Abarth was born under the Scorpio zodiac sign, and used a scorpion as the badge for every vehicle he had a hand in customizing. That tradition lives on today on the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, with scorpion badges prominently displayed all over the tiny hatchback.
To show off its racetrack pedigree, Fiat invited us out to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump Nevada to test out the Abarth in its natural habitat. And, to prove that the 500 Abarth wasn't a track-only special, we had the chance to experience it on surface streets as we navigated our way out of Las Vegas, into the desert to the race track, and back again.
At first sight, the aggressive exterior styling sets the scorpion apart from its dormant 500 sibling. Even those unfamiliar with the Fiat 500 Abarth can tell it's different than its run-of-the-mill stablemate. The Abarth separates itself from the rest of the 500 lineup with distinctive colors--it's only available in red, white, black, and gray--unique wheels, external mirrors, and of course the scorpion badges, which replace the "500" badges on the standard car. Red brake calipers also peak out from underneath the Abarth's wheels, giving the car another not-so-subtle aggressive cue. The exhaust system is also a dead giveaway the Abarth isn't your run-of-the-mill 500.
The regular 500 commands a starting price tag of $15,500 and can go all the up to $23,500. However, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth starts at $22,000. For that extra price, you get an engine that's ready to be abused, but willing to behave itself on a day-to-day basis. The Abarth also feels much more luxurious than its lower-priced sibling. The Abarth's 160-horsepower 1.4-liter Multi-Air engine connects to a standard five-speed manual transmission (no automatic is available), and the combination is enough to propel the 2,533-pound subcompact hatchback from 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds.
Unlike its house-broken sibling, the Fiat 500 Abarth has a thicker steering wheel covered in black leather and red-stitching accents, enabling the tiny hatchback to be manhandled while cruising your favorite windy road. There's leather on the shifter knob as well, and of course the front and rear seats are covered in cowhide. Red accented stitching and silver plastic inserts give the front seats a racing feel, and during our extensive driving route the Abarth's seats were comfortable and continued to be so throughout the drive, even on the racetrack. The Abarth's 64.1-inches of girth doesn't allow the center-stack to spread itself out, so several buttons skillfully play multiple roles. For example, the climate controls are commanded by a dial, which also doubles as a button to activate the air-conditioning. Every button clicks into place without feeling sloppy or loose.
The Abarth starts at $22,000, but the entertainment technology leaves a little to the imagination. When compared to other vehicles that command around the same price tag, things like XM radio are usually expected; the Abarth had a USB input, but it's hidden in the glovebox, not exactly the most user-friendly placement. The optional TomTom Navigation and BLUE&ME hands-free communication technology are integrated into one unit that's gracelessly mounted on top of the dash.
But the Fiat 500 Abarth isn't aimed at those looking for luxury. It's what lies underneath the hood that will drive sales figures. You'll notice the difference between the standard Fiat 500 and the Abarth the moment you press the clutch pedal. The Abarth's clutch is much smoother in its engagement. While the normal 500 fumbles through the gears, the Abarth is quick to run through first gear while pushing you back in your seat. The throaty sound from dual-exhaust pipes is a note that's as unique as the car, with a sharp bark that echoes back to the earliest performance exhausts made by Abarth himself. There is a little bit of a drop-off in power as the Abarth enters second gear but power quickly returns once third gear is summoned. While the gas pedal vibrates ever-so-slightly when accelerating quickly the Abarth still delivers a fun ride, whether driving in a straight line, or maneuvering roads that bend every which way.
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The all-new 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth comes stock with two notable features that help distinguish itself from its disciplined sibling. The first is an upshift light, but this one's aimed at maximizing acceleration, not fuel economy. It illuminates three-tenths of a second before you need to upshift to avoid hitting the engine's fuel cutoff at redline, and although it's a common feature in drag racers, it's an almost unheard of factory feature. This gauge is also responsible for showing the driver how much turbo boost has been called upon to hurl the Abarth down the road at a nippy pace. The second distinguishable feature that sets the Abarth apart from the rest of the 500 lineup is the use of its 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine [LINK]. MultiAir technology works by using small hydraulic pumps in partnership with a computer to control when air enters the engine to boost fuel economy figures. The end results give the Abarth 160 horsepower, 59 more than the standard 500.
When out on the track, the Abarth showed little fear as we threw it into sharp curves with abandon. It's hard not to drive like your hair is on fire all the time when behind the wheel of the Abarth, but it's comforting to know you can do so in the event of an emergency or when a stretch of unruly road crosses your path. We noticed immediately coming out of the first sharp turn on the track that the suspension felt firm. This was good news since we still had another 14 or so turns to get through. The seats however, did have trouble holding us in place while on the track, thanks to minimal side support, and we found ourselves hanging onto the steering wheel a little more than normal. Despite this, even when driving like we were late to see the birth of our first child, the Abarth showed no drama, entering and exiting turns predictably. We were convinced the Abarth wasn't fazed by our aggressive driving style and that it actually demanded to be knocked around even more. As speed increased the Abarth's bubbling exhaust note gargled even more loudly than usual, almost as if it was battling indigestion.
At its core, it's still a fuel-efficient subcompact, too. Fiat estimates the 2012 Abarth will achieve fuel economy figures of 34 mpg on the highway, 28 mpg in the city, and 31 mpg combined. If the EPA validates this claim those would be some pretty respectable numbers for a subcompact whose sole purpose in life is to be fast, loud and aggressive.
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is an all-new entrant into the performance subcompact segment currently ruled by the likes of the Mini Cooper S, and to a lesser extent, cars like the new Hyundai Veloster. With a base price of $22,000, Fiat wants the Abarth to be a major player in the sporty subcompact field when it goes on sale later this spring.
After getting behind the wheel of the Abarth for the first time, we came away impressed with some of the refinements made to the interior, but even more so with the improved driving experience. We'll have to wait a little longer to get some more wheel time with the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, but we look forward to prodding and poking the subcompact hatchback some more from our home office in Los Angeles. Stretching the Abarth's above-average sized wings on an open road in the middle of the Nevada desert is one thing, but a normal Southern California commute is something completely different. Seeing how it stacks up to other subcompacts as well as how many unsuspecting people at Automotive.com's headquarters can fit inside the Abarth is also on the agenda as well so stay tuned.
1.4-liter inline four-cylinder, 5-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive, 160-hp, $22,000, 28 mpg city/34 mph highway