Test Drive: Fiat 500 Abarth

By Bill Schaffer

Automotive press introductions are a great place to listen to a bunch of self-proclaimed ?auto experts? expound and argue the merits of the last new car they drove, or the fastest, or perhaps the short coming of the car we are currently driving .

The only debate I heard about the Fiat 500 Abarth was more over the proper pronunciation of the name Abarth.? Is it ?ah-barth?, ?a-barth? or as the as one of the Chrysler public relation staff proclaimed ?ah-bart.?

Name aside, the consensus about the Fiat 500 Abarth among the ?auto experts? was ?That?s amore?, and I think that means they love it ? I know I do.

?????????? One of the biggest frustrations for people, like me, who write about cars, is to get a fast car to test, and then have to drive it sensibly at the posted speed limits.? Chrysler, the company that owns Fiat or vice versa, understands that frustration, so when they invited me and a few dozen other writers to sample the new Fiat 500 Abarth, they conveniently provided a track for us to drive the Abarth on, so we weren?t out doing stupid things on public roads.

After driving sensibly on a variety of low speed limit roads out of Las Vegas to the Spring Mountain Motor Resort in Pahrump, we all got a chance to experience what Abarth means.

Based on a tradition that started in the 1950s when Karl Abarth was developing racecars from small, lightweight, everyday driving cars like the original Fiat Cinquecento (500), the new Fiat 500 Abarth comes to America faithful to Abarth?s original dictum of ?small but wicked.?

?Bringing the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth to the U.S. enables us to reach out to driving enthusiasts who want Italian performance at an attainable price,? said Olivier Francois, Head of FIAT Brand and Chief Marketing Officer ? Chrysler Group LLC. ?With its lightweight, track-tuned handling and purpose-built design, the Fiat 500 Abarth brings to life the legendary racing heritage of the brand and becomes the Italian high-performance car for everyday driving.?

The all-new 1.4-liter MultiAir? Turbo engine with twin intercoolers develops 160-hp and 170-lb.ft. — that?s a 58 percent increase in horsepower and 73 percent increase in torque over the normal Fiat 500 engine.? It?s all hooked up to the front wheels through a high-performance five-speed transmission. ?The Abarth is quick ? one of the buff magazines says it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and a top speed electronically limited to 130 mph.

Beyond just being fast, the Abarth is engineered to handle the power with race-tuned suspension, brakes, tires, wheels and everything else that goes along with a well-built fast car.? Most notable of the Abarth modifications is the exhaust system, which is LOUD.? Someone driving this car won?t be sneaking around, you can hear it coming and going.

I?m not a racing driver, but I enjoy practicing driving fast on a track, like the full 3.4-mile course we used at Spring Mountain.? The Fiat runs fast down the straights, brakes quickly for corners and stays flat on the corners with the steering providing a good feel and going where it?s steered. ?During hard braking, when all the momentum shifted toward the front wheels, the car tended to feel a little light in the rear end and required a little added steering attention.

The Abarth is equipped with all the electronic protections and safety systems like stability control, all-speed traction control, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution and hill start assist.

A friend and fellow journalist has arranged to drive one of the Abarth?s back to Portland, Oregon from the Las Vegas introduction and asked me to join him.? Never one to pass up a road trip, I jumped at the opportunity and we left early the next morning.? Had we been more adventurous and not concerned about how the summer tires would handle snow, we would have gone through Nevada or Idaho, but with warnings of storms, we opted for the safer route through California.

Our luggage, briefcases and a few other things we picked up along the way easily fit into the trunk and the back seat, but I don?t think I would have wanted to ride in the back seat — it?s small.

We thought the performance modifications might create a harsh ride, but quickly discovered a smooth ride with very comfortable seats, and we didn?t feel cramped.? The only down side of the Abarth was the exhaust, which is loud and might have worn on us, if we didn?t have a good diversion like we had ? audio books.? I highly recommend them for any road trip.

We decided to go as far as we could the first day and stopped after 12 hours and 750 miles just over the Oregon border in Ashland to spend the night before driving the final 300 miles into Portland.? The highly bolstered sport seats were supportive and comfortable even for a 12-hour day.? The fuel economy was good; too, we averaged about 32 mpg, driving about 10 mph over the speed limit most of the way.? The EPA rates it at 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.

A Fiat 500 base model, the Pop, starts at $16,000, including the destination charge, and the top model the Lounge starts at $18,000.? The highly modified Abarth, available at dealers now, is just $22,000, and that?s a bargain. ??The Abarth is very civilized with all the features I think are necessities in a car: cruise control, Blue&Me? hands free communications, air conditioning, keyless entry, etc.? TomTom? navigation is a nice option, too.

After the trip, some of the people from Chrysler told us we had more seat time in the Fiat Abarth than anyone else in the country ? it?s fun having the most of something, even if its unofficial record seat time.

At the end of the trip, I can say several things about the Fiat 500 Abarth:

  • It could be a very nice everyday driving car, and for someone so inclined it?s almost track ready.
  • It?s comfortable and gets good fuel economy.
  • Between its distinctive Abarth look and the loud exhaust, it?s a head turner.
  • Attention motor home owners — it?s towable.

More from Our Auto Expert