Monday, April 22, 2013

Fiat 500 Abarth - Small but Wicked

The 500 is the first Fiat sold in the U.S. for a long time. It's making its way onto American roads now courtesy of the Fiat acquisition of Chrysler back in the bad old days of late last decade. The cute little bug-like hatchbacks are fun, but not what anyone would consider a sports car.

That is, until the Fiat 500 Abarth came along.

Since the late 1950's, Karl Abarth and his company have turned modest little European cars into rockets and racecars. The 500 is based on a classic tiny 500 from those days, so bringing back the go-fast treatment for the new 500 makes a lot of sense. Thanks to turbocharging and intercooling, the little American-built 1.4-liter MultiAir engine under the pugnosed hood is good for 160 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque--big numbers when you're talking about one of the smallest cars on the road. Doing the math, that's 117 horsepower per liter!

To support all that extra oomph, the entire suspension is upgraded, with 40 percent stiffer springs and a lower ride height. Other suspension pieces make the car ride and perform unlike the garden variety models.

The Abarth comes with a five-speed manual transmission, built in Italy, that's already been proven in European racing. With its leather-wrapped knob, it sits in a little projection from the cute little dashboard. It definitely adds to the fun.

The dash itself features a leather hood over the instrument panel, with leather stitching. The fat steering wheel, an Abarth design, has grippy leather, a flat bottom, and a big Abarth logo in the center. Actually the word "Abarth" or the graphics are spread out all over the little car's small surface.

Besides the push forward you get when you step on the aluminum pedal cover, the exhaust note reminds you you're not in any ordinary Fiat. It reminded me of when my Honda Civic's muffler rusted off. They call the sound, "menacing." Really.

The accommodations are compact inside, of course, but not uncomfortable (at least in front). The sporty one-piece buckets are appropriately leather-covered and offer serious bolstering to hold you in place. They have racing harness pass-throughs, too, since it's not at all unlikely that you might race the little beast.

To keep you somewhat responsible, there's an upshift light on the left side of the dash. It tells you when to shift up to get maximum fuel economy. Amusingly, it sits in the middle of the turbo boost gauge, which encourages you to drive more aggressively. For more fun, push the Sport button, and the throttle opens up and the steering gets tauter. Also, the Sport button makes the shifting nanny disappear, replacing it with a redline reminder light.

You'd think a small car wouldn't be very practical, but as a hatchback, it's easy to stuff in a week's worth of groceries for the family--and even an upright bass. The tiny shelflet that keeps prying eyes out of the storage in back pops off in a split second, the seats fold, and you've got serious shlepping capacity.

The little 1.4 turbo gets a Smog rating of 5 and Greenhouse Gas number of 8. Fuel economy, per the EPA, is 31 Average (28 City, 34 Highway) -- I averaged 26.6 mpg.

There are cheaper cars of this size, including the 500 in its regular garb, which lists at $16,700. This one starts at $22,700, but with a few nice add-ons, such as automatic air conditioning and upgraded 17-inch white-painted alloy wheels,  the tab can hit $25,000 (my Rosso Red test car was $100 over). All prices include shipping charges.

But it's a pretty loaded vehicle. You get Satellite radio inside,an electronic vehicle information system, Alpine Premium audio, BLUE&ME handsfree communication system, a cool rear spoiler, fog lamps, and lots more. I got a nice thumbs up from a guy driving a "regular" 500 on the bridge. It was part solidarity and part admiration.

Not a silent cruiser, the Fiat 500 Abarth, built in Toluca, Mexico is in-your-face motoring, and if you order the 500c, you can roll back the top and get a better listen to the menacing sound while getting an old-fashioned racer suntan.


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