2012 Fiat 500 Abarth road test: A Mighty Mite that’s feisty, fun and frugal

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

First to arrive in the United States last year was the Fiat 500, a tiny Italian cutie that is best suited for duty in crowded urban areas or as a suburban runabout. And, then, along came the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth.

Oh, what a difference!

Thanks to Abarth, the Italian manufacturer’s performance division, that  sluggish, mildly entertaining mini-car has blossomed into a raucous, fun-loving member of the Automotive Major Leagues, Mighty Mite Division.

The standard milquetoast four-cylinder engine, a meager 101 horsepower and 97 pound-feet of torque,, has been strengthened and outfitted with a turbocharger and two intercoolers. Power leaps by 60 percent to 160, and torque rises by more than 70 percent to 170 pound-feet.

No longer does this 2,500-pounder meander from a stop to 60 mph in “Yes I can,” it now squirts its way from a stop to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds.

Fiat instruments

Fiat instruments

Driven reasonably, it gets petty good gas mileage, too. Th EPA rates the Fiat 500 Abarth at 28 mpg city/34 mpg highway using recommended premium gasoline. Regular gasoline is acceptable with a slight power loss. I averaged between 26 and 32 mpg in reasonably restrained driving.

But acceleration, as enjoyable as it is to the enthusiast, does not make a complete car. The rest of the Fiat needed reinforcement to balance the package with its new-found aggressiveness. So . . .

•    The five-speed manual transmission was beefed up to handle the screaming demons under the hood. It’s a slick-shifting box, with gears properly spaced to take advantage of the engine’s new power.

•    An automatic transmission is simply not available.

•    The substantially upgraded suspension is stiffer by 40 percent up front and is 20 percent more rigid at the rear.

•    Torque steer, that tug on the steering wheel that is the bane of some front-wheel-drive cars, is nearly non-existent.

•    The Abarth sits .6 inches lower than its tamer counterpart.

•    The front brake discs have been enlarged to 11.1 inches.

The result of all this, and more, is a car with a whole new personality, one that has blossomed from wallflower to life of the party..

Give this Might Mite the whip and it will nip at the fenders of cars much larger and more powerful. And they will know you are coming. The raucous little exhaust system accents the Fiat’s feisty personality.

Fiat cargo space

Fiat cargo space

Head out onto a challenging back road and Abarth will reply to your commands with a quick “Yes, sir!”  At least up to a point. There is a always a time when a front-wheel-drive vehicle will begin to understeer and the body will begin to lean. The Fiat is no exception. But that’s no deterrent to a fun drive.
Nevertheless, the steering is nicely weighted and communicative and the disc brakes have no trouble bringing he Fiat to a quick stop.

Surprisingly, to me at least, the suspension tuning has not resulted in a lumpy ride on rough roads. Despite its diminutive dimensions, the Fiat Abarth mostly cruises  placidly on the interstates, seldom subjecting its passenger to harsh disruptions from uneven road surfaces.

And, speaking of passengers, you can squeeze four average-size adults into this small two-door car, but the two rear passengers will soon begin to revolt, or at least grimace.