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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Road Test

Fiat 500 Abarth: Small car, big fun, overpriced Add to ...

Fiat’s cute and cheeky little Coupe and Cabrio Cinquecentos seem to make most people they pass happy, many revealing a little Mona Lisa half smile, some even going so far as to wave.

But the Darth-Vader-black, red-and-gold scorpion-badged Abarth version generates, in some road users at least, a surprising level of – let’s call it antipathy.

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Perhaps because they didn’t expect it to suddenly be “there” after a deft dart into a hole in traffic they hadn’t anticipated could accommodate an entire car, albeit in this case not a very big one.

Or maybe because it squirted away at a stoplight with a challenging little chirp of rubber and a snarling exhaust note that must subliminally translate from the Italian into something they found deeply offensive.

Or it blew by them on the highway when they thought they were going fast enough that being overtaken by such a micro-machine was a serious affront to their sense of self-worth or essential manliness. Women, sensibly being less sensitive to such perceived provocation, didn’t seem to find it offensive at all.

Admittedly, not every male road user reacted badly to this street-hooligan edition of Fiat’s little city car, either. But more than enough did, in a variety of ways, to be initially perplexing and, after I figured it out, amusing. Their reaction, it should be noted, wasn’t due to bad behaviour on my part (cross my heart), although the Fiat Abarth does encourage you to drive it con brio. No traffic laws were seriously harmed in the making of this road test.

In the days of the old Austin Mini, you could buy a rear window sticker that informed those who had just experienced any of the above that, “You’ve just been Mini’d.” After a week with this little killer-bumblebee-in-black, I’m thinking of running off a batch that reads, “You’ve just been Abarth’d.”

Of course, they’d probably have to include small print to explain what Abarth actually means in the Fiat context.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Carlo Abarth was to Italy and Fiat what John Cooper was to Britain and the Mini. Both produced tuning bits for racing and bad-boy street versions of their country’s respective econo-cars to such effect their names still retain strong marketing value. Abarth personally miled-out many years ago, but his name has been attached to some 50 car models over the years, most of them Fiats, with the 500 Abarth the latest.

Like the original Fiat 500s, Abarth made his name tweaking, this current version has benefited from mods that boost engine performance, handling and braking. And on the inside from some extra sweet filling that turns this bite-sized car into a tasty little boconnotti.

Creating the Abarth edition involved taking the Fiat 500 introduced here a year ago – that you can now buy for a discounted $13,495 (MSRP is $15,995) – and adding a bunch of these alterations. The test car, which had a base price of $23,995, also came with $4,100 in options: devilishly red and black leather, a power sunroof, automatic climate control, TomTom navigation and hands-free communication and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Size shouldn’t matter, but these additions raised the total (plus delivery charges) to a startlingly stiff, given this thing’s diminutive size, $29,705. Which seems a lot for what is still at heart a small two-door, four-seater hatchback designed to be cheap and cheerful urban transportation.

Most of that additional $8,000 was spent on a turbocharger for the single-overhead-cam, 1.4-litre engine, which is topped by Fiat’s clever MultiAir valve-actuation system. And strengthened internal components, to help it cope with output boosted from the standard 500’s 101 hp/98 lb-ft of torque to 160 hp/170 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is the only transmission available and drives the front wheels via uprated half-shafts.

This still left a bit over to spend on 40 per cent stiffer front springs and Koni shock absorbers, plus a beefed-up twist-beam, stiffer springs and a thicker anti-roll bar at the rear. Ride height was lowered a tad, the steering ratio quickened, bigger but still not super-serious front discs (with mandatory red-painted single-pot calipers) added and on the test car those 17-inch wheels shod with grippy, low-profile, 205/40R17 Pirelli P Zero Neros.

And what was left over went for a new front-end treatment with grille openings for the twin-turbo-intercoolers, an extended rear wing, twin chrome exhausts and that big Abarth badge in the grille and the smaller versions on each flank and the hatch.

On the inside, Abarth touches include the supportive sort-of-retro sport seats (with flimsy plastic height adjusters) and a neat flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped wheel. The driving position never seems to be just right, however. There are also alloy pedal covers, a leather-wrapped instrument binnacle and a largely irrelevant but I suppose mandatory turbo-boost gauge.

The performance increase is impressive, although with a 0-100 km/h time of just more than seven seconds – knocking about five off the standard 500’s best effort – it’s not super-quick. Top speed is limited to 210 km/h.

Power delivery, however, isn’t very linear. In just-driving-around-mode there isn’t much response – and then, all of a sudden, there is. The turbo boost arrives in a rush, accompanied by steering-wheel-twitching torque steer in the lower gears. It responds better to being driven like you mean it all the time. The turbo, as they do, makes it pleasantly flexible in the higher gears.

The gearshift is precise enough, the quick-ratio, electric assist steering is delightfully direct and the front Pirellis translate input into swift directional changes, despite a 64/36 front/rear weight distribution. The brakes feel strong, too.

No question it’s a fun car to drive, but it’s decidedly pricey for what you get. For about the same money as the test car I’d have a Mini Cooper S.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Type: Subcompact performance hatchback

Base Price: $23,995; as tested, $29,705

Engine: 1.4-litre, SOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/170 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.7 highway; premium recommended

Alternatives: Mini Cooper S, Mazdaspeed3, Nissan Sentra SPEC-V, Scion TC, Golf GTI, Honda Civic Si

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