2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. Click image to enlarge

First Drive: Fiat 500 Abarth
Test Drive: Fiat 500 Lounge
Comparison Test: Mazda MX-5 vs. Mini Cooper Roadster
Test Drive: Mini Cooper S JCW
Test Drive: Volkswagen Golf GTI

Manufacturer’s web site
Fiat Canada

Review and photos by Peter Bleakney

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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

In a reverse of the automotive norm, the Fiat 500 Abarth we get in North America is hotter than the Euro version. Our little scrapper gets a Michigan-built 160-hp turbo version of Fiat’s clever MultiAir 1.4L four, whereas the European cars make do with 135 hp and no MultiAir technology.

Is Karl Abarth turning in his grave? The Abarth nameplate dates back to 1949, when Austrian-born Abarth started tuning cars in Italy and applying his famed scorpion badge. Fittingly, one of his most notable cars was an Abarth version of the original Fiat 500 in the late ’50s.

And so we get our own hot-rod 500 a year after the diminutive Fiat four-seat, front-drive hatchback made its North American debut.

Does this hyper Italian with a starting price of $23,995 have what it takes to attract the Volkswagen GTI, Ford Focus ST, Mazdaspeed3, and most specifically, the Mini Cooper S crowd?

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. Click image to enlarge

The price certainly plays in its favour, although my optioned-up tester rang in at just over 28 large.

To become an Abarth, the Fiat 500 gets more than just a cursory makeover.

The big difference lies under the hood, where the regular 101-hp 1.4L four gets beefed-up internals necessary to handle the 18 psi blown into its cylinders by a single Garret turbo. Power swells to 160 hp at 5,500 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque is on tap from 2,500-4,000.

This is a terrific little engine. It makes an appropriate Italian snarl, and with the dash-mounted Sport button pushed, throttle response is sharp and all 170 lb-ft are there to play with (150 lb-ft otherwise). Unlike many turbo’d engines, this one has tons of character and is happy to sail to the 6,500 rpm redline. Very Italian.

A beefed-up five-speed manual with a stick sprouting from the lower dash is your connection to the proceedings. No auto is offered. Once above 2,500 rpm, the Abarth rockets ahead with unbridled enthusiasm. But keep a firm grip on the wheel. There’s a bit of torque steer and I found it prone to wandering over uneven pavement and under hard braking.

While 16-inch wheels are standard, this tester wore the optional 17-inch forged aluminum Hyper Black alloys with 205/40R17 performance tires ($995). The Abarth’s ride height is lowered, it gets stiffer springs, Koni dampers, thicker rear anti-roll bar, thicker half-shafts and increased front negative camber for more bite in the corners. Factor in a quicker steering ratio, and the Abarth distances itself from the “cooking” 500 by a wide margin.

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