By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The Fiat 500 is a nifty little thing — but how about if you want one that’s also zippy?
Enter the Abarth — the hot-shoe (and high-pressure turbocharged) version of the Italian micro-car.
Though not quite as all-out quick as the Mini Cooper S (its closest in-kind competition) the Abarth has its own charms — including the most politically incorrect exhaust belch this side of a straight-piped Harley, tire-skittering extremes of boost (18-plus psi, stone stock) and a price tag that’s $1,300 lower than the Mini’s.
The gnarly little Fiat also has the virtue of being as everyday drivable in a world of $4 gas as numerous not-fun econo-cars, since its gas mileage (28 city, 34 highway) is within spitting range of the best of them.
It’s economical to operate as well as economical to buy. Few performance cars can claim to be either — but this one is both.
All three, in fact.
And that’s a lot of mozzarella!
WHAT IT IS
The 500 Abarth is the high-performance version of the two-door, four-seat Fiat 500 micro-car.
Abarth — which is to Fiat what AMG is to Mercedes — takes the standard-issue 500 and adds a much-massaged version of the standard car’s 1.4 liter engine fitted with a turbocharger and a pair of intercoolers. This gooses the tiny engine’s output by almost 40 percent to 160 from the standard 500’s 101 — which in turn drops three full seconds off the tiny car’s 0-60 time.
The Abarth 500 also gets complementary suspension, brake and rolling stock upgrades — as well as interior trim and exterior bodywork unique to this variant.
For the moment, the 500 Abarth is sold only as a hardtop coupe — unlike the standard-issue 500, which is also available as a convertible. Also unlike the standard-issue 500, the Abarth is sold only with a manual transmission. If you need an automatic, you need a different car.
MSRP is $22,000 — vs. $23,300 for the Mini Cooper S.
The Abarth package is all-new (to the U.S. market).
500s are still new enough to be novel (unlike Minis, which are as everywhere today as IROC-Z Camaros were circa 1987).
Abarths are really new. Be first in your area to possess one.
Fits in even tighter spots than the Mini.
A bit more legroom for back seat passengers than in the Mini.
Hooligan exhaust note.
Everyday driver MPGs.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Might be a bit too small to swim with Tahoes.
A bit less leg room up front than in the Mini.
Harley straight pipe-esque exhaust braaaaappppp gets annoying after awhile.
Abarth-tuned ride is really firm. Be sure you can live with it before you buy it.
UNDER THE HOOD
Though the Abarth 500’s engine displaces the same 1.4 liters as the standard-issue 500’s engine, it produces much more horsepower: 160 vs. 101. Torque, too: 170 lbs.-ft. vs. the base car’s 98.
The nearly 40 percent uptick (wow!) is achieved by bolting on a turbo capable of 18 psi of boost, fed by a pair of intercoolers to drop the temperature (and so, increase the density) of the incoming air charge. The intercoolers are mounted low , just ahead of each front wheel — where you’ll see a grille/air opening not to be seen on the standard-issue 500.
Heavy boost requires heavy-duty internals to assure long life — and limit warranty claims. So the Abarth version of the 1.4 liter engine is blessed with a special forged steel crankshaft and hard-anodized case aluminum alloy pistons with oil cooling jets, among other improvements.
There is also a high-flow airbox and a low-restriction exhaust with sewer pipe-sized tips reminiscent of my high school buddy Stu Monster’s 1971 Plymouth GTX 440. Turn the key and everyone in the neighborhood will turn their heads. You’d swear — by the sound of it — that the Abarth is free of catalytic converters. Don’t worry, they’re there — the Abarth 500 is fully emissions legal and you won’t get in trouble with the smog police. (The noise police are another matter… .)
Everything is controlled by a performance-calibrated PCM, while you control the engine’s power delivery via the standard — and that’s it — five-speed manual transmission.
You cannot buy an automatic Abarth. It helps keep the poseurs away.
You wanted zippy? How about 0 to 60 in about 7 seconds flat vs. 10.5 for the non-Abarth 500 with manual transmission. The Mini S is slightly quicker (about 6.6 seconds to 60) but with the $1,300 you saved up front, probably you could buy an even more obnoxious exhaust system — or get the PCM reflashed to allow even more boost — and make things even Steven. A little birdie told me that an aftermarket “track day” (no cats for real) exhaust and a couple of extra pounds of boost are worth 200 hp out of the 1.4 Abarth.
Best part? The thing is still about as cheap to operate as most current econo-compacts. The Abarth clocks in at 28 city, 34 highway (vs. 30 city and 38 highway for the non-Abarth 500). For a little perspective as to just how good this is, consider that a new (2013) Toyota Corolla only manages 27 city, 34 highway — slightly less than the Abarth 500! (And the Corolla does not get to 60 in anywhere near 7 seconds.)
In addition to the engine upgrades, the Abarth 500 also comes with a lowered — and very firmed up — suspension, driver-selectable, performance- calibrated power steering, high-performance four-wheel disc brakes and a high-performance 16 inch wheel/tire package.
ON THE ROAD
Though the Mini S is a tick or two quicker, the Abarth feels more feral. For two reasons.
First, there’s that exhaust. It bellows, it roars — it snaps, crackles and pops. The only thing this small that makes this much noise is my two-stroke triple motorcycle. This is wonderful — and awful — all at the same time. The sound is part of the experience. A car that sounds fast always feels fast. Well, faster. It’s also an obvious way to let the world know you’re packing. But, like carrying a full-frame 1911 on your hip in plain view, this has its upside and its downside. Cops who might otherwise not notice you will be looking for you even before they see you. It’s that loud. Drive the Abarth down a fairly traffic-free street late at night and you will feel all eyes upon you. Because you’ve already alerted their ears. It’s arguably a bit overmuch for an everyday driver. My old Kawasaki two-stroke is lots of fun to occasionally take out and let ‘er rip — and annoy the neighbors. But I would not want to ride that animal everyday (something I’m sure pleases my neighbors).
Same issue with the Abarth. This is one of the very few production cars that could benefit from a set of quieter mufflers. Or perhaps a part-throttle baffle system that limits the racket unless you’re running WOT.
Then there’s the turbo boost — of which there is a lot. 18 psi is something rarely seen on this side of the world in a factory-stock, mass-produced car. The Mini S maxxes out at just under 12 psi. (The much more expensive and much lower production John Cooper Works version of the Mini is one of the few cars on the market that out-pressurizes the Abarth — and it only achieves 18.8 psi at full boost.)
Bear in mind also that the Abarth’s little engine is even littler than the Mini’s: 1.4 liters vs. 1.6 liters.
So, it’s a firecracker. Just like my two-stroke 250 cc bike — aka “Little Stinker.”
What’s most impressive, though, is that the Abarth’s heavy-breathing littler engine is also a good little street engine. Easygoing in stop-and-go traffic — and at low RPMs. You can rumble down to 30 MPH in fifth without bogging it — and while it’s fun to peg the rev limiter and dial up full boost in every gear, it’s not necessary. The turbo chuffs up the power (and more importantly, the torque) at just off idle — and by 2,500 RPMs, you’ve got plenty of pull for A to Be getting around. Anyone who has driven small-engined performance cars will know that most of them suck until the tach needle is south of 4,000 RPMs (one notorious example being the fun — but definitely not street-friendly — Honda S2000).
I should also mention that the car’s five-speed is not a liability for precisely the reason we’ve just been talking about. The 1.4 engine has generous low-end torque as well as high-RPM power, so it does fine with five speeds rather than the now-common six. In fact, a six-speed might be too “busy” for this engine — because there’s no need to constantly up and downshift to keep the engine on boost or in the sweet spot of its powerband. So, don’t look askance at the Abarth because it’s got five forward gears whereas most new cars — including the Mini — have six.
Ok, so how about the negatives?
It’s small. In relative — and real — terms.
In Europe, the Fiat’s homeplace, small cars are as commonplace as massive SUVs are here. You’re more likely to live, therefore, if you’re hit — simply by dint of the fact that the odds are better you’ll be hit by a car of roughly comparable mass. But over here? You can only do so much with a vehicle that is literally half the weight of an SmooooVeee driven by a sail fawn-addled soccer mom. It’s not the 500’s unsafe. It’s just physics. Same issue applies to the Mini.
The upside is that small — and agile — is its own defense. You present less of a target and you can Frogger your way around danger.
Still, it’s small. How small? How about almost seven inches less wheelbase than the very mini Mini?
That is small!
This smallness — and abbreviated wheelbase — also means extremely sharp turn-in (this is good) but also some dartiness at higher speed (not so good) which is exacerbated by the relatively tall roof profile (four inches taller than the Mini’s). Wind buffeting on the highway sometimes unsettles the car — and you must learn to be judicious with your steering inputs. Less being better than more. There is a lot of understeer built into the car, much of that probably a designed-in safety countermeasure to counteract what would otherwise tend to happen when a nose heavy (63 percent bias toward the front) short wheelbase and high-powered FWD car is pushed into a corner faster than the typical driver’s ability to see it through. A premature but controllable plow toward the inside of the corner is preferable to the whole thing coming unglued at an unrecoverable (for the average driver) speed.
You should also be very sure you can live with the Abarth’s girder-rigid ride quality. It is not adjustable. There is no “comfort” setting. It’s all-in all the time. Great for track days — and for hard driving on the street. But it might also be too hard on your back for everyday street driving.
AT THE CURB
Fiat — well, Abarth — had its work cut out, transforming a disarmingly cute bon-bon of a car into a car that radiates don’t mess with me. Those gaping slats for the intercoolers and gattling gun exhaust tips certainly project menace. The car is also lowered about two inches — and looks like it’s even further in the weeds than that courtesy of the body kit that wraps around its skirts.
Wagon-spoked, color-anodized 16×6.5-inch wheels (big for this car) are fitted with low aspect-ratio 45-series tires — another can’t-miss-it cue as to this car’s intended purpose. Prominently visible inside the spokes are the red powder-coated high-performance brake calipers.
And remember: Even the blind will hear this thing coming.
Inside, the Abarth is fitted with a boost gauge to the left of the main gauge cluster (it reads to 24 psi and then some, even though the factory setting is 18… hint, hint) with an integrated upshift light in the center. This is there for both performance and economy. It also helps you bang off timed-just-right shifts without visually referencing the tach — which is arranged in a concentric circle along with the speedometer. In the middle of the circle are LCD readouts for fuel remaining and temperature, along with a programmable screen for various other functions that can be scrolled through via the Menu button off to the right.
The fatty steering wheel, shifter and seats are done up in soft leather and velour, with contrast inserts and stitching — with some body-colored trim plates for additional accenting. The gear shifter is mounted toggle-style, on a center bulge rather than the more usual center console. It’s actually very ergonomic — and also frees up more space that would otherwise be eaten up by a conventionally laid-out center console.
Visibility to the sides is hampered somewhat by the fairly thick B pillars and tall seat headrests — an issue with many new cars, by the way, that arises as a result of federal roof crush standards. Forward visibility is excellent due to the comparatively huge windshield and the super-stubby nose, which drops off to the pavement not much more than two feet after A pillar.
I mentioned that the Abarth is tiny on the outside: 144 .4 inches, stem to stern — which is about two inches shorter overall than the Mini (146.8 inches). But surprisingly, the Fiat has substantially more cargo space behind the second row seats (9.5 cubic feet) than the Mini does (5.7 cubic feet) and when you fold the second row seats down, this expands to 30.2 cubic feet vs. 24 cubic feet for the Cooper.
Overall, the smaller-on-the-outside Fiat is roomier (and has more usable space) than the bigger-on-the-outside Mini. One of the few categories of real estate where the Mini comes out ahead is front seat legroom — where it bests the Fiat by about an inch (41.4 inches vs. 40.7 for the 500). The diminutive Fiat even has slightly more backseat legroom — 31.7 inches vs. 29.9 for the Mini. However, both cars’ back seats are more for cargo (or small kids) than adult-sized people.
I also dig the optionally available TomTom GPS unit, which pops in (or out of) a slot on top of the dash. The unit can thus be taken with you — and used elsewhere, besides just being useful inside the car. Probably, it will be less expensive to update the TomTom than it would be to update an in-dash GPS system say five or six years down the road from now.
Like the Mini, you can also select from a variety of dealer-available add-ons such as racing stripes and ambient “mood lighting” for the interior.
Sales of the 500 are reportedly up by four figures — which bodes well for Fiat’s future in North America if it can be sustained. This is good news for people who like the 500 — and perhaps lust after an Abarth 500 — but who may have held back up to now because of not-unreasonable concern that maybe Fiat wouldn’t stick it out — and leave them holding the keys to an “orphaned” car for which parts and service might be hard to come by or expensive to come by.
Well, so far, so good.
I think it’s going to be ok. The 500 (and Abarth) are ideally suited to the rapidly changing North American car market — which is on its way to becoming very much like Fiat’s home market back in Europe. Small, fuel-efficient cars are The Future. Bigger cars with bigger engines will still exist — but as exotics, the toys of the affluent. That certainly sucks for most of us — because most of us are not affluent.
But, if we’re still permitted (and can afford) cars like the Abarth 500 — well, it’s not all bad.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Size doesn’t always matter — or at least, not the way most people usually think it does.