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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Road Test

What It Is
A city car with an attitude best-fitted for the racetrack.
Best Thing
The sound of the exhaust note snarling, burbling, and crackling when at a lower speed.
Worst Thing
The positioning of the GPS is tough to see over.
Snap Judgment
If you don't have a large family to haul around and live in the city, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is a solid choice.


It's not often an automaker is given a second chance to make a good first impression, especially with a model that's already been on the market for a while. That makes the Fiat 500 all the more unique: The Italian automaker has had three chances to introduce the little car to the U.S. market, if you include the mid-century original. When the current Fiat 500 was reintroduced in 2010, the cute little subcompact didn't catch on. Yet here we are at Fiat's third reboot, and this time, Fiat's taking no prisoners with the turbocharged, high-performance Fiat 500 Abarth. Just like that, everyone sat up and noticed the entire Fiat 500 line.

Even though both the regular 500 and the Abarth both share a 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder engine, the Abarth variant gets a little extra kick: a turbocharger. Mate this engine set up to a five-speed manual transmission, and you have one fun little ride. This was good news for Fiat, because as gas prices continue to rise, those who live in the city have been looking to downsize their vehicles. Like the well-tempered 500, the Abarth offers all the same amenities (plus a few more) including city-friendly features like ease of parking, but the major difference is its performance. The grumbling exhaust note sounds like a racecar, making the Abarth appealing to both the weekend racer, and the city dwellers who just want to feel like they're part of that crowd. Thanks to the $22,000 Abarth, for the Fiat 500 the third time is a charm.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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What We Drove

The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth isn't big, but you'd be surprised how many modern features are stuffed inside. Our tester arrived for its week-long stay with us equipped with standard features that included an auxiliary audio input jack, a Bose audio system, and audio controls mounted on the steering wheel spokes. Other standard features included an instrument cluster brow, shifter, and steering wheel all wrapped in leather. Pedal caps, front floor mats with the Abarth logo, a tire pressure monitoring system, speed control, remote keyless entry, hill start assist, and electronic stability control are also included as standard features. Outside, the Abarth 17-inch aluminum wheels, a spoiler, daytime running lights, fog lamps, and dual exhaust tips. The tiny 10.5 gallon fuel tank is, unfortunately, the only one available; good economy or not, be ready for frequent fill ups. Our tester also came with a few optional features: performance leather trimmed high-back bucket seats ($1,000); automatic climate control, Sirius satellite radio, and a security alarm ($600); red mirror caps with side body stripes ($350); TomTom navigation with Fiat's BLUE&ME ($400); and 17-inch aluminum wheels wrapped in high-performance tires ($1,000). When all was said and done, our Abarth came with an additional $3,350 in optional, for a grand total of $26,050, including a $700 destination charge.

Fiat has gone to great lengths to ensure its little car is safe. In addition to front and side impact airbags, there's a driver-side knee airbag, plus driver and passenger curtain airbags.It's good enough for a "Good" rating and Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. On the other hand, although there are child-seat LATCH points in the backseat, when we tested it getting a child's seat hooked up properly required more space than the Abarth could offer. The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is not rated through the government's five-star safety tests.

The Commute

The Fiat 500 cut its teeth in bustling cities across the pond, so what better place than to throw it in the deep end here in North America. We received our Abarth tester and quickly took it out onto the freeway to see how it would hold up. It only took a few minutes, but it became clear that the Abarth was light years ahead of the subcompact competition. Surprisingly, the little Abarth felt and drove like a sedan twice its size. There was very little freeway chop, and tractor trailers rumbled by without knocking the Abarth out of the lane. The 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo engine had more than enough pull to fling the Abarth up the on-ramp reaching freeway speeds with ease.

Heavy Los Angeles traffic wasn't a problem for the Abarth. Passing time was easy as we listened to the exhaust note burbling and crackling loudly at lower speeds. It's most noticeable when climbing through first gear, and again when you hop into second gear. Even though our tester had the performance bucket seats, several staffers thought they felt cheap and lacked proper support. The silver plastic inserts and the headrest were two glaring examples of how the seats felt cheap.

Having an auxiliary audio jack and XM radio definitely made longer commutes pass by quickly but don't expect much from the GPS. While the TomTom navigation system is solid as an individual unit, Fiat's placement of it is questionable to say the least. The GPS comes with a place holder that slides into a connector on the dashboard just off to the driver's right side. For our taller drivers on staff, though it wasn't much of an issue to see over, it still did annoy them. As for the vertically challenged staffers at Automotive.com, the GPS presented a huge problem and most just stowed the unit in the glove box in favor of using the maps on their smartphones.

The Grocery Run

If you live in the city, you know how hard it is to find parking if your apartment doesn't have a parking garage. If you're one of the many unlucky souls who resort to street parking at the end of the day, the Abarth can speed up that process. At 144.4 inches long, the Abarth can fit into those too-small spots that usually go to waste because of your careless neighbor's parking. Seeing out the back of the cinquento is simple too, as you're almost facing the back window when you turn around to parallel park. The stubby front-end gives the driver confidence to creep right up another car's bumper to squeeze into a spot.

Living day to day with the Abarth can be fun, until you have to go grocery shopping. Physically fitting all of the grocery bags can quickly become an issue. The cargo compartment only yields 9.5 cubic feet of space, and that's as tiny as it sounds. To put it into perspective, that space is good for cramming in about five grocery bags, with a gallon of milk on top. If you're by yourself, you can fold the rear seatbacks down, expanding the cargo area to 26.8 cubic feet. That's still not a lot of real estate, but it will hold a few extra bags of groceries. If you do have a back seat passenger, be sure to bring some pity; there's enough room for shorter folks, but lanky teens aren't going to have enough space. Getting out of the back seat proves to be difficult too because of the smaller opening that the front seats yield.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

Around town, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth isn't much different from any other Fiat 500. But when the weekend rolls around, and you have a chance to stretch its legs, the racing heritage Karl Abarth established comes into play. Everywhere we went, people stopped and asked about the Abarth, some even took pictures with their phone when we stopped at a light. One guy driving a Ford Mustang pulled up and started yelling questions about the Abarth out the window. Another time, a guy asked if he could sit down and take a look inside.

Over the course of the weekend, we logged a solid amount of miles on our Abarth tester, most of which took place on the freeway going to and from a beach just over an hour north of the city. While freeway chop was no match for the gnarly little scorpion, the exhaust note (which we do love) became a little too much to handle over the course of an hour and fifteen minute ride. Even with the sound system turned up, it was hard to find a good balance of volume and dulled exhaust. Still, the ride itself was comfortable, and even with the seats the Abarth handled freeway duty like a vehicle twice its size.

But it's when you get a chance to drive out of the city to your favorite mountain road -- or possibly a weekend autocross event -- where the Abarth's performance upgrades shine. The turbocharged engine nearly doubles the standard 500's horsepower, and along with the quick-shifting five-speed manual, it's exactly what enthusiast drivers want. If you're buying an Abarth over a standard 500, you know that you're getting something a little noisier, a little stiffer, and maybe a little less practical than the standard car. But you also know that those things have a payoff, and when you push the little Fiat's limits on your favorite mountain road, the extra investment is worth it.

Summary

We've now had the chance to drive the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth on both the track and busy city streets. Our verdict on Fiat's scorpion is that it's a solid and fun vehicle to drive no matter the environment. The Abarth practically demands to be driven hard, and while day-to-day commuting is fine, it really comes alive when it's being pushed to the limits. Why, you may ask, would Fiat make a city car that's only worth driving when pushed to its limits? Answer: this combination is what makes the 500 Abarth the next up-and-comer. The Abarth is a more aggressive take on a city car that's gaining more sales momentum as each month passes. If you live in the city, and usually don't have more than your significant other or pet as a passenger, we highly recommend you giving the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth a serious look.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $26,050
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 28 mpg
EPA Highway: 34 mpg
EPA Combined: 31 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 325.5 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Low

Notebook Quotes

"I got a lot of looks. I even parked next to one of those regular 500's at breakfast one morning, and the old guy sitting in it watched me leave. Dude has no idea what he's missing."-Jason Davis, Associate Editor, Photographer
"Get past all the Abarthness of it, and you're left with a microcompact that's notably better than the Scion iQ or the Smart Fortwo. The back seat is actually usable by humans, and my kids fit OK, at least for a short trip; both complained about the intrusive circular head restraints though."-Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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