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km : First Drive

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31 July 2012

Coming of driving age in the mid-‘80s, my bedroom walls were plastered with a mix of exotic European cars wearing body-colored wheels and questionable aero kits – tacky by today’s standards but symbolic of the times – and big-haired, well-endowed women wearing lace lingerie, for whom the same can generally be said. And they were usually on the same poster. Dream as I might about fast cars and faster women, I knew that in the short term I’d have to settle for something a little better matched to my developing skill set. That meant a hot hatch for wheels and, well, let’s just say some girlfriends that were more band camp than cheerleading squad.

The hot hatch formula is a pretty basic one, and it hasn’t changed much since my first efforts to deconstruct a bra: Take your basic, bred-for-cheapness hatchback, pop a hotter engine under its tiny hood, and then bolt some serious hardware to the chassis in the hopes of getting as much of that power to the road and keeping it there. It’s Hot Rodding:101 applied (typically) to front-drive econo-boxes.

Volkswagen’s Golf GTI may have put the hot hatch genre on the map and in the showrooms, but European tuners – no surprise – were at it well before the OE’s marketing departments exploited the niche. Among the earliest was an Austrian ex-pat racer who breathed new life into Italy’s “people’s car,” the Fiat 500, starting all the way back in the early 1960s.

The original Fiat Abarth – pronounced like “apart” but with a “b” instead of the “p” – was the creation of Karl Abarth, who souped up the tiny air-cooled two-stroke twin that sat behind the rear wheels of the little Cinquecento and took it to victory in European hillclimbs and sports car races. His workshop in Turin turned customers’ Fiats into angry little imps by the thousands over the years and produced performance exhaust systems for a whole range of sports cars as well. The once-independent tuner is now the in-house performance division for Italy’s largest carmaker, just as AMG is now a part of Mercedes-Benz.

Enough of the history lesson and back to the opener. As an aging prodigy of the hot hatch era, my only concern when Fiat returned to the American market last year was whether or not the Abarth version would make it here as well. And like all good communications departments, Fiat USA would initially neither confirm nor deny plans for the performance model, but for months “remained hopeful that there would be a good business case for the 500 Abarth in the lineup.” Yeah, right.

So here it is now, summer of 2012, just a year after the launch of the regular Fiat 500 and the Abarth is finally in our hands. A quick glance at the spec sheet reveals numbers that would have been the envy of the pocket-rocket scene back in the day. Adding a turbocharger and redesigned air box to the 500’s 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder takes output from 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft to 160 horses backed by 170 lb-ft, serving up a 0-to-60-mph time of 6.7 seconds!

OK, reality check: 1986 was a long time ago and these figures actually sound pretty meek for a performance car in 2012. But if hot hatches taught us anything, it’s that the perception of speed is way more entertaining than speed itself. And in the Abarth’s defense, it does a great job of delivering all the sensations of going fast – just as long as you don’t actually try to quantify them.

Credit for this perceived speed certainly belongs in some part to the rorty exhaust system. When you consider that Abarth’s primary stock in trade was once performance exhausts, it’s no surprise that it’s so central to the character of the car. What is surprising, however, is that it somehow manages to pass modern noise regulations. Just barely, we’re told. It’s loud and deep and gets immediate attention; it’s also a solid reminder that performance cars need to excite more than just our backside.

Tire smoke further elicits hints of speed, and the 500 Abarth will gladly light ‘em up once the proper buttons have been pushed. Engage sport mode, deactivate the stability and traction control, pop the clutch and the Fiat will fill the air with clouds of rubber, easily overwhelming its sticky Pirellis. A good launch can be had with modulation, but a bad launch is far more fun.

Four-wheel disc brakes hide behind standard 16-inch alloys wearing 195/45 skins, that, when combined with the Abarth’s firmer – if no lower – sport-tuned suspension, allow the tall and narrow Fiat to round corners like a proverbial go-kart. Steering inputs deliver immediate response as the nose darts instantly in the direction of the flick. Comparisons to a Mini Cooper are justifiable, as few other contemporary front-drive cars are capable of such quick riposte.

The short wheelbase and taut setup make for enthusiastic sprints around town and when squirting through traffic. Winding back roads, too, are particularly entertaining, though long stretches of open highway are a different story as the little car hippity-hops over pavement undulations.

Of course, the best way to impersonate speed is to dress like a speedster. The 500 Abarth easily looks as fast as it is, if not faster. There’s the usual fascia treatments and skirts and spoilers to tame the wind, and optional 17-inch forged wheels finished in white look like they were gangestered from a rally car. Most of it’s actually more functional than faux, like the two nostrils that feed air to the twin intercoolers. It all works to convincing effect, giving the Abarth just enough of an attitude adjustment to be more charismatic, if not entirely obnoxious.

The same goes for the interior, which gets lots of iconic scorpion logos in various places, along with Abarth-specific sport seats trimmed in contrasting stitches, a sport steering wheel and aluminum pedals. All nice kit, enhancing the overall driving experience by a notch or two, though the 160-mph speedo seems like a bit of a tease. Taking cues from Mini, an add-on boost gauge hovers on the periphery of the steering wheel, its orange needle bouncing around constantly as a reminder of just how hard the little engine is working to deliver your jollies.

All in all, the Fiat 500 Abarth makes good on the promise of raucous – and at around $23,000, fairly cheap– thrills of the sort that have largely been designed out of the heavier, more luxurious compact hatches of late. Throw in fuel economy of around 28/34 mpg, and it’s hard not to like what the 500 Abarth is offering. The glory days of the hot hatch are a good twenty years behind us, but this little Fiat leaves us pining for those simpler times.

Many thanks to Mike and Diane Besic of Besic Motorsports for letting us invade their their work space to get these incredible pictures. Race-prepping Alfa Romeos is their specialty, but the Abarth somehow seemed right at home in their garage.


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