Strengths and weaknesses:
- powerful, efficient engine
- great performance
- cool design
- small size.
- slippery seating
- lacks rear leg room
- steering tilts but doesn't telescope
- cargo space
- small size.
Abarth is wicked quick
LAS VEGAS — I’m back at the Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada to drive the all-new 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth on the 5.0-km long road course where this pint-sized car is proving you don’t need a ton of horsepower to create a super-sized grin.
The Abarth is the high-performance version of Fiat’s 500 subcompact that is gaining popularity in North America and is outselling other small cars like the Mini Cooper, Honda Fit, and Scion xB and xD since launching in late 2011.
Although Canadians will pay two grand more than our American neighbours, as well as miss out on a full track day event learning to drive their new Abarths, $23,995 is still a fair price for such big performance in a small package.
Inside, the front seats are comfortable and there’s actually enough headroom for average height adults to sit in the rear, though legroom is scarcer. Up front, the dashboard isn’t over cluttered nor is it under-equipped for those more interested in tech. Bose premium audio and hands-free communication come standard.
The twin-intercooled 1.4-litre MultiAir Turbo four, for example, makes an impressive 115.3 hp per litre and the car weighs just 1,151 kg. Combine its 160 hp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque with a host of enhancements over and above the standard Fiat 500. Among them, a heavy-duty performance five-speed manual transmission, tuned suspension with Koni FSD twin-tube dampers and beefy sway bars, 17-inch alloy wheels, powerful ABS brakes and a nicely-balanced chassis, and it really is a track-ready every day car.
The small car moves through city traffic with little effort thanks to a 3.35 final drive and the single turbo spools up quickly to 18 psi max. The flat-bottom steering wheel and aggressive 15.1:1 steering ratio (both unique to the Abarth) is 10% quicker than the base Fiat 500 and equal to better in-town agility and mobility, parking for example. It even comes with a three-stage electronic stability control system that lets the driver have a taste of this feisty little creature’s adrenaline-filled venom.
The short (2,300 mm) wheelbase can’t prevent the 500 from getting pushed around by heavy winds or broken roads. Even still, it’s not a bad little highway car, with pretty decent fuel economy estimates all around (7.1 and 5.1 L/100 km, city/highway respectively).
The scorpion awakens when the driver presses the sport button and holds the ESC (electronic stability control) button for at least seven seconds. This basically tells the Abarth-tuned PCM module to increase the pedal and steering response, bump torque output by 20 lb.-ft. (default is 150 in normal mode) and sharpen the brake assist.
The remaining tale of the tape reveals even more; a 15.8 lb/hp power-to-weight ratio yields average zero-too-100 km/h times of 7.5 seconds, a stopping distance from 97 km/h less than 39.5 metres, 0.85 lateral Gs of cornering grip and a 208 km/h top speed.
Out on the race track, the hot hatch is quick and up to the task of repeated three- and four-lap enthusiastic lapping sessions. The solid 11-in. single piston brakes perform exceptional and resist fade well; however, future cross drilled and/or vented offerings from Mopar ought to be even better. While the 3,667 mm-long chassis does respond well to advanced manoeuvres, optional leather upholstery and inadequate side bolstering on the seats means you may also have to be an athlete to stay planted.
All in all, pound for pound, this is the real deal though. I’m certain the late Karl Abarth would be proud of this car for it can only add more lustre to the brand’s 60-plus years of performance and competition tuning experience that includes more than 10,000 individual race victories, no less than 10 world records and 133 international racing titles.
To those who think legendary Italian performance doesn’t exist in a car that costs less than a Ferrari California, it’s time you ate your shorts!