2012 Fiat 500 Abarth Review

Not super quick but sports some nice design, we review the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Milan, Italy / Toronto, Canada / Phoenix, U.S.A. — It was an authentic Italian experience on par with sipping wine and eating pasta under a Tuscan sun: I was circumnavigating the shimmering beauty that is Lake Como from behind the wheel of a 2011 Fiat 500 Abarth, one of the higher-performing versions of the iconic little car that was reintroduced to the motoring public in 2007.

Under the hood

This test drive was arranged in anticipation of the 500’s debut in this country—which took place last year. The Italian Abarth was powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder that produced 135 horsepower and 133 lb-ft of torque; the Canadian 500 was, at that point, a “turbo-less” version of said engine that generates 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth ReviewDriving Impressions

This is a big difference to be sure, but the surprising thing about the naturally aspirated 500 is that it still felt peppy during a sweltering week driving in and around the GTA. The key to this engaging subcompact is that—while it’s significantly bigger than the original Cinquecento Nuova that was offered from 1957-77—it’s still a very small car that weighs in at less than 1,000 kg.

The Abarth is a genuine pocket rocket, to be sure. With sport mode engaged, engine torque jumps to 152 lb-ft and the car produces enough punch to spin the front wheels at stoplights. Top speed for the car is rated at 205 km/h, decent for a city car if somewhat unspectacular compared to just about anything else on the road these days. By and large, though, the experience of driving the Fiat 500 Abarth was fantastic.

Sure, the steering was a bit imprecise, the shifter on the 5-speed manual was somewhat slack, there was an annoying rattle in the back and the turning circle was disconcertingly large. But all of this mattered little because the little car was simply a blast to pilot around the tiny, twisty roads that encircled the lake. Even when the weather gods conspired against me for a few brief moments, the Fiat displayed surprising refinement in dealing with the slick conditions.

Earlier this year, I secured a return engagement with the Abarth: During a trip this spring to Arizona, I drove the U.S. spec version of the higher performing Fiat and it again proved to be a revelation. No, the Fiat is not an incredibly fast machine, but it offers spirited performance, a raspy exhaust note and acres of style. Che bella macchina!

The Abarth is a genuine pocket rocket, to be sure. With sport mode engaged, engine torque jumps to 152 lb-ft and the car produces enough punch to spin the front wheels at stoplights.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth ReviewBack home in Toronto, the 2012 Fiat 500 provoked more enjoyment. This car, built for the North American market in Mexico, had none of the quality control issues I experienced during my Italian renaissance. There were no rattles, the steering seemed more direct and, apart from some reluctance to go into reverse, the 5-speed manual was a distinct pleasure.

Interior

For all the modernization that has taken place, the new Fiat 500 remains a very small car. The back seat is roomy enough for children—or adults with inherent bendiness—so the car is better described as a 2+2 instead of a true 4-seater. Due to its pleasingly round shape, though, headroom for front-seat passengers is solid, and visibility is equally as good. The cargo area is tiny at only 185 litres, but the back seats fold down to create space for a shopping run or two.

As befits a modern car with a decidedly premium sheen, the Fiat comes equipped with the kind of technology that people could not even imagine when the original 500 first appeared, including ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution and stability control. But the appeal of the Fiat 500 does not derive from such mundane considerations as airbags or cargo hooks—it’s all about image.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth ReviewThe 500 Abarth has a funky cabin that includes sport seats, aluminum pedals with rubber inserts, a chunky steering wheel, and a leather-covered shifter and handbrake lever. The gauge set is impressive, too, with an analog turbo pressure dial the icing on what is a very tasty cake.

The 500 tested in Canada—the top-of-the-line Lounge edition—featured the same basic gauge set (minus the boost meter), a body-colour dashboard, and leather for the seats, steering wheel and shift knob. All in all, it was very slick as well.

Driving all three versions of the new Fiat 500 proved one thing: Despite a lingering affection for over-sized vehicles in certain parts, there will never be too many small, fun and fuel-efficient cars in this world—in fact, they’re needed more than ever right now. With fuel prices as uncertain as ever, the thought of 6.7 L/100 km in the city and 5.1L/100 km on the highway has a nice ring to it.

Pricing

The price of the Fiat 500 in Canada is also welcome news. The base edition—confusingly dubbed the “Pop” version—starts at $15,995, while the Lounge edition tester begins at $19,500 and the Abarth rings in at $23,995. That’s not much to pay for a whole lot of genuine Italian style—especially when there’s so much substance riding shotgun.

Learn more – Fiat 500

CONS:

  • Not super-quick
  • Big turning circle
  • Quality issues on some versions
Mark Hacking is an award-winning car, motorcycle and motorsports journalist whose work has appeared in Azure, enRoute, Intersection, NUVO and Toro, among many others. He is the former editor of Performance Racing News, the former managing editor of DRIVEN, and a member of both the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada and the Motor Press Guild of California. An avid racer, Mark is a three-time podium finisher at Targa Newfoundland and, this past season, raced in the VLN Series at the Nürburgring with the factory Aston Martin team. His motto in life: Drive fast, take chances.