In the Hipster Apocalypse, This Is Perfect Bait It's smaller and lighter than a Mini Cooper S.
By Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor | Published Mar 22, 2012
Fiat's 500 Abarth is a surprising car — quick, balanced, fun, strikingly styled, even. It's such an improvement over the standard 500 that after a few laps around the road course at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch we all but forget the things we dislike about that car. Here's a genuinely lightweight car with reasonably sticky tires, a track-focused suspension, an extra 59 horsepower over the standard model and undeniable hipster appeal.
But performance models — especially this one — have a way of covering up flaws in the car on which they're based, and the Abarth is no exception. A huge increase in roll stiffness will help a tall car like this one corner. And producing enough power to shove a car this small around with authority is easy.
Problem is, none of that makes the competition disappear. So the biggest obstacle to the success of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth isn't its performance; it's the existence of the Mini Cooper S. Full Disclosure You'll never sneak up on anyone in the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth.
OK, let's get this out of the way immediately. The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth — with its 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbo engine and five-speed transmission — has a base price of $22,700, including destination fees. The test car you see here is optioned up to $26,900 with 17-inch forged aluminum wheels, leather seats, a power sunroof, the Safety and Convenience package, TomTom navigation and a few other amenities.
The Mini Cooper S starts at $23,800 with destination and can be had for $25,550 with 17-inch performance tires and the sport suspension. It packs 21 more horsepower, and 7 pound-feet more torque than the Abarth. It's also 87 pounds heavier and 6.5 inches longer.
And if you're willing to embrace something a little bigger, the comparisons become dramatic, silly even. The Mazdaspeed 3, which can be had almost fully optioned for $26,930, produces 103 more horsepower and 110 pound-feet more torque than the Abarth. Of course, it simply dwarfs the 500 with a full 13.3 inches more wheelbase and an additional 656 pounds. Too Cool Those Abarth decals will cost you $350.
Speaking of saucy blind love, it's possible that the most potent attraction to the Abarth is Catrinel Menghia, the towering Romanian supermodel who slapped that spineless wimp silly in the car's Super Bowl spot. Well, her and an exhaust note that says plenty about the level of detail Chrysler engineers indulged to make this car unique.
Then again, most Abarth buyers aren't likely going to be making the above comparisons. They're going to be dedicated Fiat people. Fiat people, you say? Yes, Fiat people.
Don't think they exist? Visit your local Hipster bicycle shop. You know, the kind where the kids ride fixed-gear road bikes with narrow handlebars and no brakes. Near as we can tell, those are Fiat people. All of them.
So that's exactly what we did. And after a few hours listening to unrehearsed Fiat love and one too many Dashboard Confessional albums, even we started to think the ironic mustache is a good idea. Leave it to these guys and Fiat will next resurrect the 900T. Back to Reality The boost gauge and integrated shift light are unique to the Abarth.
Then we took the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth to our test track where it flatulated through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 88.8 mph. This pass included a run to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds (6.7 seconds with 1-foot rollout like on a drag strip). The last Mini Cooper S we tested, way back in 2007 when the car produced 172 hp (today it makes 181), hit 60 in 6.9 seconds and tripped the quarter-mile traps in 15.0 seconds at 93.9 mph.
Then we did some turning, something the Abarth established itself quite capable of on the road course in Nevada. Circling the skid pad at 0.87g and slithering through the slalom cones at 68.8 mph proved the Abarth is capable of handling numbers nearly identical to the Mini Cooper S.
Stopping, though, is an Abarth weak point. Its best stop from 60 mph was 123 feet, but several stops were as long as 131 feet. It also exhibited directional challenges during full-ABS braking. It's not dangerous, but it will let you know you're riding on a 90-inch wheelbase if you need to stop quickly. The Mini managed the same stop in 115 feet. Powertrain Tech The Abarth's 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is good for 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque.
A good portion of the Fiat's personality comes from under its diminutive hood. That's where the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder resides. The engine is built with respectable parts like a forged crankshaft and oil squirters under each piston. Also, the MultiAir technology provides individual control of the intake valves' lift and timing. Together the bits produce EPA fuel economy ratings of 28 city/34 highway/31 combined mpg. Our apathy regarding oil prices produced 22.4 mpg over 600 miles of mixed driving.
At 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque the engine produces ample yank. Access to all 170 lb-ft of torque, however, is only available by pushing the Sport button on the dashboard, which also increases throttle response. In default mode only 150 pound-feet are available and then only in 3rd, 4th and 5th gears. Punch the button and 170 lb-ft are available in every gear.
Oddly, there's no mechanical limited-slip differential. Development engineers chose to rely instead on individual control of the Abarth's front brakes to redirect torque through its open differential. This technology, which Fiat calls Torque Transfer Control (TTC), is lighter and less costly than a mechanical limited-slip differential. What's more, Dan Fry, lead vehicle development engineer, prefers the tuning control it offers in both low- and high-speed operation. And, unlike a mechanical limited-slip, it doesn't increase torque steer.
We'll admit that the system is more effective than the similar system in Volkswagen's GTI — largely thanks to its calibration. Still, applying the brakes hardly feels like a good strategy when the goal is going faster. At this price, the car should have a real limited-slip differential.