Auto enthusiasts lusting for something new, exotic and fun to drive but relatively inexpensive have a new choice this year.
The four-seat, 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth hatchback arrived in the United States with the legendary sport personality of its forebears — a small body with a distinctly European look, throaty performance sound and an impressive engine for such a lightweight car.
In this 2012 rendition, the 500 Abarth is powered by a 160-horsepower, turbo, four-cylinder powerplant that generates 59 more horses and 72 more foot-pounds of torque than the base Fiat 500 four cylinder.
The three-door Abarth also attracts attention when dressed in eye-catching Rosso Red or Nero Black paint with accent striping proclaiming "Abarth" on the sides and wearing mirror caps and sinister-looking Hyper Black 17-inch wheels.
It's a small but wicked car that seems so different from milder Fiat 500s that one onlooker disputed that the Abarth test car was a Fiat at all.
There was a reason for her confusion. There wasn't a 500 badge on the exterior of the car anywhere — only Abarth badges and Abarth wording on all four sides.
And truthfully, she wasn't the target buyer. Fiat officials hope to lure more men to the 500 with the Abarth and its racing heritage.
In fact, every Abarth buyer gets one day of professional driver instruction at a local racetrack to hone skills and learn the capabilities of the car.
All the style, fun and power of the 2012 500 Abarth comes at a starting retail price of $22,700. Note that only a five-speed manual transmission is offered.
This starting Abarth price is $6,500 more than a base 2012 Fiat 500, which has a 101-horsepower four cylinder that's naturally aspirated.
But the Abarth's price is $2,750 less than the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of the 2012 Mini Cooper S that has 181-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. Also competing in the sporty hatchback segment is the 2013 Volkswagen GTI, which starts at $24,790 for a three-door model and has a 200-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder mated to a six-speed manual.
The Abarth beats the others in federal government fuel economy ratings. It is rated at 28 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway for a combined rating of 31 mpg. In comparison, the Mini Cooper S is rated at a combined 30 mpg and the GTI is rated at just 25 mpg in combined city/highway travel.
Abarth, pronounced eh-BART in Europe, is named after European racing great Karl Abarth, who established a race car company with his astrological sign, Scorpio, in its logo.
Fiat bought the company, and today, a scorpion remains in the Abarth badge that's on the new 500 Abarth. "Small but wicked" has long described Abarth cars.
This is a decidedly small car — it's a mere 12 feet long from bumper to bumper and weighs some 2,500 pounds, which is more than a base Fiat 500 but less than competitors. As an example, the three-door GTI weighs some 500-plus pounds more and is nearly 14 feet long.
But where lesser Fiat 500s look cute and Euro-fashionable, the Abarth, albeit with less than 32 inches of rear legroom, can look seriously sporty.
The Abarth sits 0.6 inch closer to the pavement than a regular 500, and the front fascia accommodates air intakes for the turbo's intercoolers. The rear spoiler, at the trailing edge of the roof, is bigger than in other 500s.
Inside, every Abarth comes with high-back, front bucket seats that immediately convey "sport". Pedals are covered by sporty aluminum plates. There's a turbo boost gauge on the dashboard, and the steering wheel is sporty-small in diameter, with a flat bottom and beefy spots for hands at the 10 o'clock and 3 o'clock positions.
The 1.4-liter, single overhead cam, MultiAir, turbocharged four cylinder is the most powerful in any Fiat 500 in the States. Its deep-throated sounds burst forth at startup and continue during acceleration. Torque peaks at a considerable 170 foot-pounds starting at a low 2,500 rpm and continuing to 4,000 rpm.
To get the maximum performance, a driver must push a "Sport" button on the dashboard each time the car is started. This causes an engine control unit to use different engine calibrations. It coaxes drivers, too, through a shift light that's attentive to the redline.
Zero to 60 miles an hour has been clocked at less than 7 seconds. This is not rocket speed, but it felt plenty fast in the little tester, where the grippy Pirelli tires communicated a lot of road surface feel to passengers.
The Abarth comes standard with a Torque Transfer Control system that all but eliminates torque steer in this front-wheel drive car.
The five-speed manual in the test car moved through the gears competently, and steering was precise and quick.
The Abarth features beefed-up brakes, and shock and other suspension tuning keeps the car in a tight rein.
Much safety equipment comes standard on the Abarth, including antilock brakes, hill start assist, electronic stability control, brake assist and seven air bags, one of which is for the driver's knee to keep the driver positioned behind the steering wheel during a frontal crash.
Still, the Abarth earned only three out of five stars in federal government side crash testing and four out of five stars in frontal crash testing.
The 2012 Fiat 500 has been the subject of one safety recall. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported some models came off the assembly line with contaminated brake fluid, which could degrade seals and result in reduced braking power.