2012 Fiat 500 Abarth: Motoramic Drives
About a dozen years ago, Chrysler hired a French psychologist Clotaire Rapaille to run focus groups with customers that involved getting in touch with their subconscious, what he calls "the reptilian brain." To do so, participants would talk about cars for a couple of hours, then lie on pillows in a dark room and write about the imagery that came to mind. This, claimed the psychologist, led to several hit Chrysler models including the PT Cruiser, that spoke to our buried Jurassic passions.
Today, Chrysler's paring with Fiat has brought us the Fiat 500, a car that codes for "prey" in the reptilian brain and wouldn't look more mammalian if the windshield washer nozzles expressed milk. Yet Fiat has a secret stinger waiting for those who think the 500 just sucks with this, the Fiat 500 Abarth.
The funny name comes from Karl Abarth, an Austrian-born motorcycle racer who survived long enough to stop doing insane stunts like racing the Orient Express 800 miles in a motorcycle sidecar. After his racing career ended, Abarth decided to spur others to speed by taking the 20-hp postwar Fiats and crafting bolt-on parts that would transform them into screaming track monsters, under the symbol of a scorpion, his zodiac sign.
For a corporate entity, Fiat has stuck closely to Abarth's gonzo-lieri blueprint of how to make its vehicles sporty. The 500 Abarth's motivation comes from a turbocharged version of the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine pumped to 160 hp and 170 lbs.-ft. of torque, a 60-hp gain on the everyday 500. The suspension gets lowered and toughened, the brakes upgraded, the interior redone and the dual exhaust tuned to buzz like an angry junebug on a string, just as Karl liked it. Fiat says 60 mph arrives in 7.5 seconds of pedal pushing, two seconds and change faster than the regular edition.
On the road, that exhaust buzz can get tiresome after a hundred miles or so, but in every other respect the 500 Abarth improves on the driving manners of the 500 without compromise. The 500's tall roof lessens the anxiety of driving a 12-foot-long vehicle around semi trailers, and the power from the MultiAir comes on at a low enough level that constant stirring of the five speed isn't required for hillclimbing. Top speed of 130 mph arrives with no drama, or so some guy from a semi-monthly motoring magazine told me.
Fiat execs maintain the 500 Abarth could do duty as a track-day race car, and to prove their point put dozens of writers on a Nevada race track to showcase its handling. It sounded ridiculous, like running the Iditarod with a pack of beagles, but the 500 Abarth makes a case for turning its wheels in anger.
Putting a typical subcompact car through a track day workout would result in a chorus of squealing tires, destroyed brakes and far less speed than the drama it produced. But the Abarth plays on the track like it belongs there, thanks the Fiat engineers who specified Pirelli P-Zero tires as an option, 11-inch brake calipers up front and equal-length halfshafts from the transmission to keep the engine's twist from turing the wheel on its own. Like most front-drivers, the Abarth eventually falls to understeer — but it does so gladly, and before it gets there can wiggle its wheels in a way that's enjoyable rather than uncontrollable.