Fiat 500 Abarth review – the most exciting car in America under $25k

Reprinted from Torque News

The Fiat 500 Abarth might not be
the fastest or the most high tech sports car in America but with a
price starting just under $23,000, fuel economy measures in the 30-34
mile per gallon range and driving characteristics that make it just as
much fun to drive as far more power and far more expensive sports cars –
it is my belief that the Fiat 500 Abarth is not only the most engaging
compact car sold in America but it is also the most exciting car sold in
the US with a price tag under $25,000.

Our Fiat 500 Abarth test car

I should start this review by explaining that my 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
test car was fully loaded with every option that a buyer can opt for
and because of that, the MSRP of my test car was $27,050. Even at that
price, the Fiat 500 Abarth is one of the most exciting sports cars on
the market and regardless of price, there is just no compact car sold in
the USA that is as much fun to drive as the 500 Abarth. However, many
of the options that drive the price up away from the $22,700 based price
(including a $700 destination fee) are completely superficial and
removing them from my Abarth test car wouldn’t have made this sporty
Italian compact any less engaging or any less fun to drive. In other
words – a Fiat 500 Abarth fitted only with standard equipment is just as
much fun to drive as the fully loaded model that I tested and with a
car like this, it is all about “fun to drive” factor.

The Exterior
On the outside, the average car buyer might mistake the Fiat 500 Abarth
for the “normal” Fiat 500 that has significantly less power and less
goodies all around that makes the Abarth so much fun to drive. Across
the front end, the Fiat 500 Abarth wears a similar headlight, hood and
turn signal design along with a similar upper grille opening but above
that slim opening, the standard Fiat logo and “whiskers” are removed in
favor of the Abarth scorpion logo with the whiskers mounted directly
against this hood badge. Along the lower portion o fthe front end, the
500 Abarth is vastly different from the non-performance 500 with a large
central opening flanked by projection style driving lights along with
air intakes located both in the large central grille opening and further
out on the corners of the front end. On top of the revised fascia, the
500 Abarth features contrasting black filler in the lower fascia
openings to give this sporty compact a far more aggressive look than the
entry level Fiat 500. All of these features are standard on the Fiat
500 Abarth so even those units that cost only $22,700 sport this design.

Along the side, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is pretty much identical to
the other 500 models with the main exceptions being the Abarth scorpion
badge mounted just behind both doors along with the broken stripe
running along the bottom of the car and carrying the Abarth name. In
standard form, the 500 Abarth comes with body colored mirror caps and
black body stripes but for $350, you can opt for the white mirror caps
and the white Abarth stripes featured on my test vehicle. As appearance
upgrades go, I believe that this is $350 well spent as the white trim
really pops against the red body of the 500 Abarth. My test car also
fitted with optional 17” Abarth wheels finished in white and wrapped in
high performance tires rather than the standard 16” wheels wrapped in
all season tires – an upgrade that costs $1,000 but once again, this is
an option that I would choose if I was buying a new Abarth. These white
wheels are a hassle to keep clean as brake dust and normal road dirt
clings to them but much like the white stripes and mirror caps, the
white wheels look awesome on the bright Rosso (red) hatchback. These
17” optional wheels fill the fender openings beautifully and provide a
wide, sporty stance that I just absolutely love. If you prefer the look
of the standard 16” wheels, the body colored mirrors and the black body
stripes, you can remove the $1,350 upcharge that comes with these
changes but for my money – these are must-have accessories.

Out back, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth wears the same tail lights as the
non-performance models but the Abarth package adds a low profile rear
spoiler that extends straight out from the roofline to improve high
speed downforce along with a lower rear fascia that looks great and
serves as a fitting home to the Abarth dual exhaust system. This rear
fascia has vents on the outer edges and an integrated diffuser that
helps to improve the aerodynamics of the sport Italian hatchback during
stints of spirited driving. It looks great as well…and these features
are all included in the $22,700 base price.

While the basic design of the modern Fiat 500 might not please the
average American muscle car lover, the 500 Abarth exterior styling looks
fantastic and offers more attitude than any compact car on the market
today. Without compromising the bubbly, friendly styling on which the
entire Fiat 500 lineup is based, the Abarth package is clearly a model
that is designed to go fast and look great doing it. The simple
addition of the 17” wheel/tire package gives this sporty compact the
look of a car ready for a cross country road rally while the small
footprint makes this an awesome car for driving in the most cluttered
cities in America.

The Interior
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is based on a subcompact car often referred to
as a “city car” and that means that the Abarth has a very, very small
interior. While there is technically a back seat, it is very small and
will only really seat a small child or a small dog. If you move both
front seats far forward, you may be able to fit two very friendly adults
in the back seat but in doing so, you will more than likely have the
driver and front passenger jammed against the dash board. However, when
the car is set up for just two people with the front seats set all of
the way back – there is tons of leg, elbow and head room for the driver
and front passenger. In fact, there is far more interior space than I
had expected (as is the case with the entire Fiat 500 lineup) so whether
you are 6’4” or 4’10”, the 500 Abarth offers adjustability to make
driving comfortable.

Cloth sport seats are standard on the Fiat 500 Abarth but for $1,000,
you can upgrade to a set of leather covered high back buckets that have
deep back and hip bolsters to keep the driver and passenger firmly
rooted during hard cornering. For those trying to keep the purchase
price down, this is one of those options that can be avoided as these
seats don’t make THAT big of a difference but for someone who wants a
certain measure of Italian style in their compact Italian sports car,
the black leather buckets with red stripes and red stitching is a nice
touch for an extra grand. My only real complaint with these seats – or
with the interior as a whole – is that the passenger does not get an
inside arm rest while the driver does. This leaves the front passenger
with nowhere to put his or her left arm while seated in the 500 Abarth
but that is a minor complaint; one that will have little effect on the
driver as he or she is loving every second of being in the Fiat 500
Abarth.

In an effort to maximize interior space, the Fiat 500 Abarth has a
very wide open interior layout devoid of things that tend to clutter up
other small cars such as a plush center console but even with this in
mind – the 500 Abarth has everything that you could ask for in a compact
car. The floor space between the front seats has cup holders for both
the driver and passenger in a place where they do not interfere with the
shifting duties (a major problem with many modern sports cars including
the Ford Mustang and the Scion FR-S) while further storage capacity is
added with a small net mounted on the passenger’s side of the shift
console and roomy pockets in the doors. The stock sound system of the
Abarth provides excellent sound quality but I spent very little time
with the radio on so that I didn’t miss a single second of the sweet,
sweet Abarth exhaust tone that we will discuss later in this review.

The crown jewel of the Fiat 500 interior, both in standard and Abarth
trim, is the massive single pod gauge design mounted directly in front
of the driver. The outer ring displays the speed, the middle ring
handles the engine RPM and the inner circle includes information like
the outside temperature, the engine temperature, the fuel tank level,
the time and date and the odometer readings. Next to this large gauge
cluster is a boost gauge that is unique to the 500 Abarth with the boost
pressure heading up to 24psi – although it stays around the 18psi
range. This boost gauge also has a central indicator that lights when
the Abarth wants you to upshift which is another cool feature of the
sporty Abarth. Also, the 500 Abarth features a sporty flat bottomed
steering wheel which could pass for something straight out of the
Ferrari lineup.

Finally, one surprising feature of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is the
roomy rear cargo area. Considering that the back seat is not all that
useful for passengers, folding the split back seat down allows for a
much larger cargo area than you would expect from a subcompact car.

The Fiat 500 Abarth packs the level of quality that you would expect
from an Italian sports car into a tiny interior that still offers great
cargo space and seating for two taller adults. From a driver’s
standpoint, the interior is comfortable whether driving hard or cruising
along the highway while all of the controls are well within reach.
This is a tiny car but the design offers tons of interior space without
cutting those features that you would expect from a modern sports car –
all with a clear touch of Italian style.

The Drive
On paper, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth seems like a massive long shot in
trying to compete with the majority of the sports cars sold in the
American market with “only” 160 horsepower and 170lb-ft of torque but
this super light compact car makes very good use of that power. Mind
you, this is not a car that is going to beat up many modern muscle cars
on the quarter mile with stock quarter mile times in the low 15 second
range but based on the good ol’ ‘seat of the pants’ dyno – the 500
Abarth is a super quick, super nimble little car. The 500 Abarth
features a heavy duty close ratio 5-speed manual transmission that
allows you to come off the line hard and slam through the gears with a
great deal of confidence as the Abarth hits 60 from a dead stop in the
mid 6 second range. Again, this isn’t a blazing fast time but it
provides enough acceleration to put a smile on the face of any driver.
The Abarth turbo 4 also packs enough power to allow you to do a nice,
smokey front wheel drive burnout if you side step the clutch at even
midrange RPM.

When you launch hard with the Fiat 500 Abarth, you get an earful of
the incredible free flowing exhaust that makes the 1.4L turbocharged
4-cylinder one of the best sounding stock engine options on the market
today. You heard that right. While the Abarth might not pack the
mighty V8 roar of the Ford Mustang or the Chevrolet Corvette, there is
unquestionably no 4-cylinder engine sold in the US today that sounds
better with stock exhaust than the Fiat 500 Abarth. This exhaust was
why I spent so little time listening to the radio as the exhaust tone is
music in its own right. Whether launching hard, cruising down the
highway or just sitting at a stop light and revving the engine – the
Abarth is one of the best sounding exhaust systems that I have had the
pleasure of experiencing in years. I fully expect that Dodge Dart Turbo
buyers who want their compact sedan to have more sporty attitude hear
the Abarth, they will quickly work to get that same tone out of the
shared engine in the new Dart.

Where the Fiat 500 Abarth really shines is on the curves and having
had the immense pleasure of driving the Abarth on a road course, on a
higher speed autocross course and on the open road – I can honestly say
that there are few cars sold in the USA today that can be as much fun to
drive in stock form as the 500 Abarth. The Abarth isnt the fastest or
quickest car in America but the track tuned suspension allows the high
performance 500 to feel very confident in a variety of high performance
track scenarios. When coupled with the sport brakes of the Abarth
package, the 500 Abarth is a car that you can hurdle through turns so
hard that it feels like the Italian subcompact is on a rail. Even at
wide open throttle on an autocross course, the 500 Abarth handling
properties allow you to simply point the car where you want to go and
this awesome little car responds. More importantly to many, the 500
Abarth provides a comfortable ride on the open road. This is a sport
package with a track tuned suspension setup so it is rigid, allowing you
a great feel for the road, but it has enough “give” that every day
driving doesn’t beat up the driver and passenger. A key complaint with
many low priced sports cars that offer high quality handling is that
they achieve great handling by compromising ride quality but in the case
of the 500 Abarth – you can have track-proven handling properties
combined with a comfortable (albeit it sporty-stiff) ride.

The Fiat 500 Abarth is one of those cars that someone who loves to
drive will never want to park. I have driven a plethora of performance
cars over the last 10 years but I would rank the 500 Abarth as one of
the most entertaining cars that I have ever driven. Whether blasting
down the highway, ripping through the twisties of a country road or
hammering the turns and straights of a closed circuit race course – the
Fiat 500 Abarth is an affordable compact that offers uncompromised
driving excitement. The Abarth screams like a sports car with handling
properties that allow it to cut through the tight turns with the
greatest of ease while easily climbing over the century mark just as
easily.

The Final Word
After spending a few hours behind the wheel of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth,
I was convinced that this was one of the most entertaining cars that I
have ever driven while most certainly being the most exciting subcompact
I have ever experienced. In a segment where driving excitement is
rarely a consideration, the 500 Abarth offers as much “fun to drive”
factor as sports cars that are far more powerful and way more expensive.
Also, in a time where fuel prices are seemingly always on the rise,
this high performance hatchback offers a very real 34 miles per gallon
on the highway and 31mpg average – two figures that I found to be
accurate during my time in the Abarth.

If you love to drive and you want a car that will make for a great
track toy along with being an excellent daily driver, the Fiat 500
Abarth is a car that you have to drive before making your next new car
purchase. Regardless of what you have driven in the past, the Fiat 500
Abarth offers an incredible driving experience with a price nicely
equipped in the $25,000 range…or fully loaded with a sunroof, leather,
Beats sound system and all of the other goodies for under $30,000. All
of that driving excitement with the sharp, aggressive exterior design
and the styling Italian interior makes the 500 Abarth the most exciting
compact car available in the US today with a price that makes it the
most entertaining car in the US for under $25,000.

If you are shopping for a sporty car on a budget – make sure that the
Fiat 500 Abarth is on your list of new cars to test drive. This is one
of my favorite cars of the year and anyone who truly loves the simple
act of driving will enjoy the visceral experience behind the wheel of
the Fiat 500 Abarth.

The side profile of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
The back end of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
The optional leather seats of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

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