Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

It’s a strange, strange world out there. Image trumps reality, corporate positioning trumps national identity, the fake conquers the real. Want proof? Consider the Fiat 500 Abarth. The now-iconic television ad features some hapless beta male enduring a strangely erotic tongue-lashing at the hands of a beautiful Italian woman who then mysteriously turns into a chunky little Italian car. Makes perfect sense. Except the Italian girl (Catrinel Menghia) is Romanian, and Italian car which was supposedly tuned by an Austrian racer turns out to be a Mexican car with an American hot-rod engine tuned by Detroit racers. This makes slightly less sense.

Luckily the Abarth itself doesn’t require much in the way of context in order to be enjoyed. If you’d like some, feel free to check out our previous reviews of the naturally-aspirated 500. Finished? Fantastic. We’ve reviewed the little Fiat from an economy-car perspective in the past, but now it’s time to exchange the pocket protectors for my Impact! Carbon Air Draft. Buckle up: it’s racetrack time.

The first thing you need to understand about this 500 Abarth is that it isn’t really a 500 Abarth. In other words, it’s not the Euro-market performance 500 brought over and Americanized. Rather, it’s the North American 500 (charmingly referred to as the “NAFTA 500” by the PR folks) with a thorough performance makeover. The differences in weight and structure between the American and European base cars meant that the suspension calibrations had to be done again from scratch. Camber was increased to a very aggressive -1.5 degrees up front. Good for the driver, bad for tire lifetime. Those tires, by the way, are sixteen-inch Pirelli P7s stock, with seventeen-inch P Zero Neros as an option. Those of us who remember the days when the P7 was the performance tire will smile every time we see them. Koni FSD shocks are specified to hold up the front end. That’s a bit of a Mopar trick.

The Fiat MultiAir engine is turbocharged, retuned, and treated to a full SRT-4 upgrade kit’s worth of forged pistons and special rods. Your humble author had real deja vu listening to the engine guys talk about the changes made; it’s like going back in time to 2003 and hearing what was done to the Neon. The changes yield 160 horsepower from the 1.4-liter mill, which is assembled in Dundee, MI. A few years, I opined that the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 should be properly called the Ford Mustang SVT; this Fiat 500 could wear the SRT nameplate with equal pride. One part that does come from Fiat: the underwhelming five-speed manual, which features equal-length driveshafts in this application.

As with the old SRT-4 Neon, considerable effort has been expended to upgrade the “touch points” facing the driver. I grabbed a zero-options Abarth for the seventy-mile drive from the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas to Spring Mountain Raceway in Pahrump, NV, knowing that all the basic goodies were included. First impressions: the shifter and steering wheel feel positively exotic, dontcha know. It’s an upscale, enjoyable experience to snip through the Strip traffic, but there are a few bugs in this Italian wedding soup.

Problem Uno: the electronic throttle. The Abarth has two fuel/boost programs: regular, and Sport. The non-Sport mode limits torque and reduces the aggressiveness of intake openings, ostensibly for maximum economy. (34MPG highway, by the way.) In practice, selecting this mode hobbles the car with unacceptable throttle lag. Rev-matching on downshifts becomes almost impossible; the engine simply hangs on to revs like an early three-liter E46 Bimmer, which is to say in the most stubborn, miserable, EPA-test-conscious manner possible. There’s no reason for this other than to create a tangible gap between normal and Sport modes. It’s trickery, it’s fakery, and it’s unworthy of the car.

Also unworthy of the car: the dumb-assed instrument panel, which has concentric ring gauges for revs and road speed. Ray LaHood would burst his aorta watching the dull red needles move on a dark blah background. It’s almost unreadable and it’s a worse distraction from the road than playing Angry Birds for cash while driving. In recognition of this, the SRT guys threw a shift light in the Abarth. On cloudy days, or at night, and if the driver is positioned just so, the shift light is somewhat visible. After a few miles I resigned myself to operating the FIAT based on the audible cues from the megaphone-muffled exhaust, which snorts, snuffles, and backfires its way along at a volume somewhat beyond the capacity of the base stereo to cover. That’s another Neon SRT-4 trick.

Part of the drive to Spring Mountain is a forty-mile freeway drone, and here the Abarth acquits itself surprisingly well for a car with less wheelbase than a CJ-7 Jeep. Crosswinds don’t terrify and the relatively high seating position turns out to be a bit of an asset. While this never feels like an overpowered car — fifteen-second quarter-mile, remember — there’s enough thrust on tap to make merging and overtaking absolutely worry-free. A sixth gear wouldn’t go amiss, though, and it would certainly do something for that highway fuel economy.

I’m told that the Mopar FIAT team developed the Abarth at Nelson Ledges Road Course, where it turned a 1:23.6 pretty consistently. That’s about what Car and Driver extracted from a 1996 Boxster 2.5 back in the day, and it’s a competitive laptime for SCCA ITB racing, so it’s respectable. Nelson Ledges isn’t exactly a racetrack for the timid.

Spring Mountain, on the other hand, is a racetrack for the timid, or at least for the talentless and well-funded, so it’s here that we are given a chance to run some P Zero-equipped Abarths around for a few laps. The front straight of the 3.1 mile course is chicaned, making the top possible speed about 95mph on the back straight. In other words, we’re almost autocrossing. As you’d expect for a 160-horsepower car, the 500 feels almost sleepily slow on-track, although the constant mish-mash of mild off-camber turns helps keep the interest level up.

My concern regarding the 500 as a trackday car had been that the handling would be tamed to keep its very short wheelbase under control. Luckily, that’s not completely the case; the Abarth is free to wag its tail under braking, particularly trail-braking, and through every one of the artificial elevation changes. A few times during my short lapping session, I am caught out by mistaking one slow blind turn for another one, and every time this happens there’s plenty of chatter and slide from the back while I correct my mistake. It’s charming, and it’s fun.

The Abarth’s relatively aggressive camber does manifest itself in a rather numb-feeling wheel during hard acceleration. Nor is the “torque transfer system” a substitute for an actual limited-slip differential — a mistake the Chrysler guys rectified during the 2003-to-2004 model year changes to the Neon SRT-4. Full-throttle corner exits are slightly annoying thanks to the “tunnel vision” caused by the stiffening of the steering and the separate-but-equal brake-driven adjustments to front-wheel traction.

The overall on-track impression is that the FIAT feels bigger than it is. That’s fine, and it’s reassuring, but compared to cars like the current Jetta GLI which seem to shrink on the move, it’s not ideal. Still, you could do a lot worse for your first trackday car.

Among the ad hoc segment known (as of right now) as “Little Retro Cars That Feel Sporty”, the New 500 Abarth is clearly ahead of the VW New New Beetle Turbo but probably a touch behind the New New MINI Cooper S. I wouldn’t expect it to keep ahead of a MINI on a road course or frantic backroad. Consumer Reports occasionally recommends the MINI but has slapped “Not Recommended” ratings on the non-turbo 500 and Beetle. There’s little objective reason to choose the 500 over the MINI.

Luckily for the FIAT/Chrysler folks, this isn’t a segment which operates on rational thought. If it did, none of the entrants in said segment would exist. The pricing is competitive — $22,000 plus destination — and the little Abarth has plenty of virtues, from the way it looks to the way it feels to drive. It seems to be worthy of both the FIAT and Abarth labels. What track rats around the country really want, however, is a small car that is worthy of the SRT label. Something at least as fast as the old SRT-4 Neon, only with enough refinement and interior quality to silence the naysayers. More power than the Caliber SRT-4 in a platform that deserves that power. Something like the, ahem, Dodge Dart. This Abarth is a nice sign of life from the SRT guys, but we aren’t looking for a sign of life; we’re looking for absolute domination. Over to you, gentlemen…

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Njd Njd on May 13, 2012

    I think you'd have to be very thick to think that this is a "chick car". First off, the Abarth only comes in manual transmission. Most women (the hugely vast majority) in the US do not know how to drive stick. And those who do probably drive a pickup in the mid-west--not exactly the Fiat types. Secondly, ALL of the Abarth ads are targeted at males. Everything from the Superbowl ad which featured an Italian supermodel to the Charlie Sheen ad (throwing a party in a mansion full of beautiful women). Thirdly, as someone who works in marketing, I can tell you that branding something the "Abarth" would be suicide for the Fiat staff if they were actually targeting women. Abarth means nothing to women. It is a name that is held dear only to a very small group of men who know too much about cars or motorcycle racing. That's not to say that the Abarth is targeted towards racing enthusiasts--it isn't. Abarth is just a perfect branding tool to snag the city-dwelling 20-somethings who want something cool, unique, and with a European heritage.

  • GeneralMalaise GeneralMalaise on Jun 02, 2012

    I sold my '07 350Z and bought an Abarth three weeks ago this Sunday. I love this car! Driving it - always in Sport mode - puts a grin on my face, much like my '81 X1/9 still does. I bought a dark gray (grigio) one equipped with white accents/mirror caps, sunroof and opted for the red leather interior. I am lovin' it.

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
  • Milton Rented one for about a month. Very solid EV. Not as fun as my Polestar, but for a go to family car, solid. Practical EV ownership is only made possible with a home charger.
  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.