Test Drive: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

You will hear people speaking Italian when you are driving the Fiat 500 Abarth.

Not the ones in your head, or Romanian supermodels, but the Florentine tourists literally hanging out of the taxi next to you che non può credere they’re seeing one on the streets of New York City.

It has that effect, even on English speakers.

For those less versed in the language of la dolce speeda, the 500 Abarth is the high performance version of that spunky little urban runabout that keeps stealing all of the parking spaces in your neighborhood. It's named after a racing team that used to collaborate with Fiat before the automaker bought it and starting using the moniker on its most track-focused models. This particular one is the incarnation of automotive enthusiasm and proof that no matter what the humble beginnings of a vehicle are there is someone out there that feels a duty to make it faster.

In this case that involved stuffing a turbocharger into the impossibly small space between the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and the radiator. The high-pressure blower cooled by a pair of appropriately tiny intercoolers tucked low into the corners behind the new front air dam, where a couple of small nooks were miraculously discovered. One look under the hood and you really don’t want to rear end anyone in this erstwhile economy car, it could get ugly and expensive.

The power provided by the effort is a massive 160 hp. Massive relative to the 101 hp in the run-of-the-mill 500, but it comes with only a 2 mpg hit on combined fuel economy, which drops from 33 mpg to 31 mpg. A five-speed manual is the only transmission on offer because, how ‘bout that, there isn’t space for a six-speed with all of the rest of the go-fast stuff filling the engine bay.

Read: Fiat's teeny-tiny topless car

Of course the suspension was requisitely lowered, had its springs and shocks stiffened and a pair of anti-roll bars added front and rear. The brakes are larger, more potent and, perhaps most important, have bright red calipers. They look quite striking through the 12 thin spokes of the optional 17-inch wheels wrapped in Pirelli P-Zero Nero tires -- the stickiest rings this small outside of a Krispy Kreme. (16-inch wheels with all-season-rubber are standard fare.)

Fiat is either very proud of its creation or mortified because it stripped the company’s name from the car, replacing it with a speed shop’s worth of Abarth badges and decals. It’s a rolling billboard for what is also a line of aftermarket parts sold in the United States through Chrysler’s Mopar division, and clearly an effective heritage move as my 80-year-old dad kind of recognized it.

“Don’t they make exhausts?”

Indeed, sweet sets of pipes were independent Abarth’s specialty, and the legacy remains fully intact. This little guy burbles like a Pantera and screams like a Piaggio – the airplane, not the scooter.

Inside, the car can be dressed in a snazzy set of optional leather buckets and comes with a thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel. The tacked-on turbo boost gauge behind it equipped with a not quite Formula One-style upshift light being the only other major alteration to the 500’s retro-chic cabin.

Unfortunately the sum of all these parts, along with being being $22,700, is a vehicle that is no longer ideal for its original inner city mission. The ride is now too stiff, the exhaust volume sure to infuriate your neighbors as much as it excites you. Time to head for the hills.

In my case, that meant the quaint little village of Monticello. The one in the Catskills, not outside Milan. This is fine, because the local version has some nice mountain rounds in and around it, plus a racetrack: the Monticello Motor Club.

It’s a long, fast circuit with an epic ¾-mile straight that makes the 500 Abarth look like a tumbleweed, along with a few technical twisty bits that do their best to trip up the most exotic of sports cars.

As with most very small turbocharged engines, there’s a good amount of waiting around in the 500 Abarth as things spool up. But when the power arrives, the payoff is more than acceptable. Along with the horses, the motor produces 150 lb-ft of torque, but hit the Sport button on the dashboard and the boost is cranked up to its full 18 psi, pushing that figure to 170 lb-ft. Doing this in the midst of full throttle acceleration doesn’t exactly have a “Knight Rider” effect, but it is grin-inducing.

Taking just over 7 seconds to reach 60 mph, the 500 Abarth may not be as quick as its giant rooftop spoiler would lead you to believe, but once you’re there it’s lively and responsive. The steering is fast, the car eager to turn in. Through the curves an electronic limited slip differential keeps the wheels from spinning any faster than they should.

Even with the three-stage traction control turned all the way off this is an incredibly predictable car, but heavy on the understeer. With the short wheelbase and so much weight up front, it’s a lot like driving a Segway. There’s rarely any tail-wagging because there is no tail to wag.

Nevertheless, the high and upright seating acts something like a speed limiter by exaggerating the slight pitching and rolling of the car and delivering thrills at a moderate pace. As tuned as the 500 Abarth is from the factory, anyone serious about using it for this type of activity on a regular basis will surely take it even further, and a racing buckets should be job one.

The only time the car gets a little skittish is under very heavy braking. You’ll want to be travelling in a perfectly straight line when you do that. Or you might not want to do it at all.

Several times when I came down hard from 110 mph or so and dove into a tight switchback the car switched to limp home mode, requiring a cycling of the ignition to clear. It was odd as nothing seemed to be amiss. Even the engine temperature gauge hadn’t moved a notch, despite spending a good amount of time at redline on a 95-degree day.

So, she’s a proper Fiat: fun, feisty and a bit fickle.

Apparently stereotypes don't get lost in translation.


2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Base Price: $22,700

Type: 3-door 4-passenger hatchback

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4-cylinder

Power: 160 hp, 170 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 5-speed manual

MPG: 28 city, 34 hwy