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

Preview: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

Manufacturer’s web site
Fiat Canada

Review and photos by Jonathan Yarkony

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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

The first car I called dibs on at the Chrysler 2013 Preview, and ran to as soon as we got to Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds was the Fiat 500 Abarth. Even though it’s a 2012 model, we have yet to test it and I hold a soft spot for the quirky little Italian runabout. And there were no test drives of the Viper being offered. You see, I actually like the 500. It’s cute, it’s an oddball, and it’s fun to zip around city streets in even if the driving position is weird and the feel or handling isn’t as sharp as the Mini Cooper, which many journalists were expecting it to match.

The Abarth is more of everything. More power, more fun, and perhaps even more odd. I mean, really? Strapping a turbocharged engine (though a diminutive 1.4 litres) making 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque onto a tall, tippy little city car? Only the Italians or French would do such a thing… and now we get to enjoy the benefits of their scorpion-badged mini-car, when for so long us North Americans were denied the hot models suped up for the European market.

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

That Scorpion badge denotes Fiat’s tuning arm, Abarth, originally a ‘skunkworks’ tuner and racecar builder that started in Karl Abarth’s garage in the 1950s and grew to be such a formidable and reputable tuner, especially of the original Cinquecento, that Fiat adopted Abarth as their official tuning shop and performance brand.

The press release claims that this latest pint-sized pacer has all the hallmarks of an Abarth everyday performance car: “Track-ready capability, high horsepower-per-litre engine, combined with the quality, efficiency and refinement expected in a world-class small car.”

Now I don’t know what fantastic country includes daily track driving, unless it’s referring to Italy’s motorways, but we did get to test everything except the efficiency, since it was driven like a rental go-kart at said Chrysler test facility. Now, normally these events take us through scenic, winding country roads or on a world-class track, but the Chelsea proving grounds are a slightly different proposition; it is Chrysler’s engineering centre, so there is a small, tight track complemented by a longer road course with stretches of simulated city streets, which are copies of pretty much the worst city streets in Detroit, which easily match the worst city streets I’ve ever encountered in Toronto, including temporary gravel roads on road re-construction sites.

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

Now, going into it, I didn’t expect much in the refinement category from the Cinquecento, so it did indeed live up to my expectations. That refinement was beyond challenged as the short-wheelbase 500 (2,300 mm) was overmatched by the variety of heaving pavement on this test track, with my head almost making contact with the thankfully high roof (989 mm of headroom in a car 1,490 mm tall) whenever the car bucked over the rough trenches and humps of the post-apocalyptic stretch of asphalt. Refined? Not exactly…. Fun? Oh yeah! I even took a second trip around for kicks and further ‘research’, wrestling the steering wheel as the Abarth tried to eject me from the seat and launch me through the roof. However, the Abarth recovers quickly and without rebound bumps from such impact events and the more common types of road imperfections, as the firm, sport-tuned suspension collects itself and stabilizes the car quickly.

That suspension is significantly modified and upgraded for handling prowess. The front MacPherson struts are 15 mm shorter with 40 percent stiffer spring rate (over the 500 Sport), uprated lower control arms, increased negative camber, all meant to reduce body roll and improve handling and steering precision. The rear suspension gets a reinforced axle, 20-percent stiffer springs, sits 15 mm lower, and adds a stabilizer bar for increased cornering grip.

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