Hop in the new Fiat 500 Abarth, start the engine, stab the throttle and revel in the burbling growl of its exhaust. That subversively flatulent tailpipe emanation is an attention-getter, as bracing as a slap in the face, and proof that Abarth engineers have worked their mischief on the otherwise mild-mannered little Fiat.
In addition to some fancy stripes, attractive wheels and scorpion logos, the Abarth treatment gives the basic Fiat 500 a welcome jolt of performance enhancement: a 59 percent increase in horsepower, a 73 percent gain in torque, a track-worthy suspension, grippy Pirelli 195/45R16 performance tires and fade-resistant metallic brakes. A nicely bolstered sport seat keeps the driver well-positioned to preside over this little atomic bomblet of fun.
The Abarth name derives from a shop founded in 1949 by Carlo Abarth (pronounced ah-BART) that built racecars and tuned road cars for high performance, breathing new life into wheezing, underpowered Fiat engines. Eventually, it built its own engines and sports cars, using bodies from coachbuilders like Bertone and Pininfarina. Fiat bought Abarth in 1971 and turned it into the in-house racing operation. After Carlo died in 1979, the name faded out of use until it was revived in 2007 as a division of Fiat Automobiles.
The Abarth badge — the scorpion mascot alludes to Carlo's astrological sign — is now applied to Fiats that get the division's hot-rod treatment.
The dose of performance is so potent, and so potentially daunting to the unskilled, that Fiat throws in a day of performance-driving training, on a track, for Abarth buyers.
Abarth performance tuning also adds at least $6,500 to the $16,200 base price of a 500. The premium can be padded by $10,000 or more by checking every box on the order form; unfortunately, the offerings do not include a sunroof or a cabrio top.
A loaded 500 Abarth is priced in the same neighborhood as a Mini Cooper S, although it falls a few ponies short of the Mini on power. But for Fiat fanatics — and they are out there — every extra dollar is money well-spent.
My test drive in the Americanized Abarth, along several hundred miles of Southern California roads, came immediately after I took the European version through Italy. To my surprise, the stateside-spec Abarth significantly outperformed the European model. In my experience of testing Euro-spec offerings from most automakers, the reverse is almost always true.
Americans get a turbocharged 160-horsepower version of Fiat's 1.4-liter MultiAir 4-cylinder engine. This power output is comparable to a European Abarth special edition called the Essesse, although it has a different engine. The base Euro Abarth produces a noticeably less lively 135 horsepower. The performance of the Euro car I drove was further hampered by a wheezy Dualogic gearbox, a "robotized manual" that shifts automatically — but somnambulantly — without a clutch pedal.
The only transmission currently available for the American Abarth is a 5-speed manual. Extra bracing needed for U.S. crash-test standards created a packaging issue that precluded offering the automatic transmission, which is larger. The manual may limit the car's appeal, because so few Americans know how to drive a manual any longer.
But in speaking with the types of folks who might buy an Abarth, I found that they regarded the automatic as more of a deal-breaker than a dealmaker. The manual is essential, in my view, for wringing every ounce of performance potential out of this package.
All 160 horsepower is available, all of the time, but pressing the Sport button gives access the engine's full 170 pound feet of torque.
This tiered delivery of grunt — a sprint from zero to 60 mph happens in about seven seconds — keeps the Abarth a little more tractable in everyday driving. It also helps to deliver fuel economy ratings of 28 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway. (The basic 500 gets 30/38 with a manual and 27/34 with an automatic.) In conservative driving — not the reason one buys an Abarth, is it? — I found it possible to average as high as 40 mpg Premium 91-octane unleaded is recommended.
"A substantial amount of work went into making the U.S. version of the Abarth," said Joe Grace, the project's chief engineer. "We tried to create a track car. We wanted it to be real neutral."
Achieving that neutrality was a tall order in a front-drive car with nearly two-thirds of its weight up front. The ride height was lowered, the suspension was tightened, Koni shocks were added for high-speed damping, and torsional stiffness was maximized. The wheel-tugging known as torque steer, almost a given in powerful front-drive cars, has been nearly dialed out of the equation. On the track, the result is a hoot. The car dives into corners, its Pirelli tires grabbing tight and refusing to let go. It shoots out onto the straightaways as if it were bolted to rails.
But the quicker Sport steering rate, satisfyingly responsive in competition, seemed a bit too nervous for the average Interstate commute.
The enhanced brakes improve on the stock 500's but fall short of the stopping power of, say, the Cooper S.
Although so much of the Abarth is geared toward the enthusiast and potential track-day use, Grace said that "less than half, maybe as little as 25 percent of buyers" would use the cars in that manner.
"It's a little like the Jeep buyer demographic," he said. "They want that capability, whether they are going to use it that way or not."
He said that a sizable American community of Fiat enthusiasts exists and that the brand was planning to tap into that by offering performance driving opportunities.
Interest in the Abarth's recent North American introduction was also inflamed by a saucy, sassy Super Bowl ad featuring the Romanian supermodel Catrinel Menghia.
"That attracted a new level of interest and intrigue, to what we believe is a credible product," Grace said. "It helped make a performance statement about the fact this is a $22,000 Italian performance car. You just don't see anything else like that in North America."
Nor are you likely to hear anything else like it.