2012 Fiat 500 Abarth review: What Carlo would have wanted

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

It doesn’t say Fiat anywhere on car. Not on the hood. Not on the hatch. Not on the steering wheel hub. Even the key fob has the Abarth logo on it. The car, of course, is the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, and we think that’s just the way Carlo Abarth would have wanted it.

Carlo Abarth was, for those who aren’t up on their history of quasi-obscure Italian hot rods from the ’50 and ‘60s, the premier go-to signore for getting more horsepower from and handling into assorted small Fiats. Born in 1908, he was a contemporary of Ferry Porsche and Enzo Ferrari, and if not quite the household name, Abarth became legend to thousands of Italian performance enthusiasts who couldn’t afford the more expensive labels.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth engine

The engine in the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is a 1.4-liter turbocharged four with Fiat’s “MultiAir” valve system. (Click to enlarge).

Abarth got his Big Break becoming technical director for Cisitalia, whose cars were beautiful and a competition success but the company short lived. So in 1949, Abarth went into business for himself, modifying Italian GT cars for increased power. But it was  performance exhaust systems where Carlo Abarth struck it rich, putting his scorpion logo—after his sign from the zodiac—on headers and exhaust for Fiats and other relatively mundane European sedans.

Abarth expanded the exhaust products into complete performance kits for inexpensive cars. The Abarth-equipped Fiat 600 became the terror of small-engine “Touring Competition” racing class, with its engine increased to 850cc. To meet homologation requirements—as proof that the model was a genuine production car—Abarth was supposed to build 1,000 of his Fiat Abarth 850TC model, thought it’s not known how many complete cars came from Abarth & Co’s shops or were put together as kits or the total that ever actually existed. The line was eventually increased to a full liter displacement, and the 1000s are highly prized today.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth interior

The optional performance leather high-back bucket seat option in the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. (Click to enlarge.)

Abarth became legend across Europe and wherever small cars were raced.

Times changed, however, and by the late 60s, Abarth & Co, as an independent entity, found it difficult to survive. Carlo Abarth, like Carroll Shelby who sold “Cobra” to Ford, traded his company and his good name to Fiat, and thereafter the “Abarth” name and scorpion logo have used on a variety of Fiat rally and performance cars.

We’re telling you this of course not only to explain the origin of the Abarth name but also its heritage and legacy. Abarth is not a name taken lightly at Fiat. When Fiat yields its own logo to that of Abarth, the car had better be special. And that’s exactly what the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is.

The 500 Abarth is a car very much in the Abarth tradition. It won’t run against mega or even medium-priced performance cars. Rather it’s the bad boy of sports sedans. Like Abarth-modified Fiats of yore, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth makes substantially more horsepower than its civilian alternative, the standard model rated at 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque. The 500 Abarth, however, raises that to 160 horsepower—that’s a 60 percent increase—and 170 lb-ft of torque, and the latter delivered as low as 2500 rpm.

Credit goes to the Fiat 1.4-liter SOHC 16-valve turbocharged “MultiAir” four cylinder engine. The turbo takes the bow for the more-than-100-horses-per-liter peak power, but it’s the MultiAir system that gets credit for the broad torque curve. MultiAir, in brief, is a hydraulically-controlled variable valve timing and lift system that can radically change the engine’s “cam profile” depending on the engine’s needs at the moment. It’s the same engine available in the 2012 Dodge Dart, but the Fiat 500 is significantly lighter than the Dart and therefore has significantly brighter performance.

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