The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth performs two particular feats that can best be appreciated by those with a juvenile streak in their characters. I am, apparently, just that juvenile.
The first requires a start from a traffic light or stop sign, at pole position, and is enhanced by plenty of pedestrians on the sidewalks and maybe a BMW or Porsche at the same stop. Giving it some gas, I dropped the clutch in your basic jackrabbit start, let the tachometer push towards redline, and shifted up, the traction control lights flashing madly. Dropping the revs between shifts, the Abarth backfired, forcing little shotgun blasts of exhaust over the loud growl of the engine.
Meanwhile I'm grinning like a teenager as bystanders crank their heads around, not expecting this sort of noise from the more mild-mannered versions of the Fiat 500 that have previously whispered by.
The second feat requires a road with sharp turns, preferably with big yellow signs advising 15 to 25 mph. On a mountain road that fit the bill, I powered up to each corner, then got on the brakes to shave some speed off. Holding the brakes into the turn, trail-braking as it is called, I found the Abarth twirled neatly around the apex. The car's response to this technique was exhilarating, and I do not doubt that the Abarth would be competitive on autocross courses.
Obviously, I had fun with the Fiat 500 Abarth during my week with the car. As much as I wanted to give it some economical driving time, the Sport button on the dashboard was a constant temptation. The car proved very comfortable in everyday driving, but begged for fast starts and for choosing winding mountain roads over big, boring freeways.
A few aspects of the car mitigated the fun. The shifter could use a shorter throw, especially when dropping from third to second ahead of one of those sharp turns. The tires, wrapped around the maximum-17-inch wheels on CNET's car, lacked enough of a contact patch to allow really high-speed cornering. And the general shape of the 500 is more upright commuter vehicle than low-slung sports car, leading to a somewhat top-heavy feeling.
The Abarth edge
So what makes the Abarth so much more fun than the standard Fiat 500? The comparison is something like putting the standard Mini Cooper up against the Mini Cooper S. The Fiat 500 Abarth uses the same 1.4-liter engine as its less potent stablemates, but gets an 18 psi turbocharger, pumping up the horsepower from 101 to 160, and the torque from a measly 98 foot-pounds to a whopping 170.
The Abarth also gets a rear stabilizer bar and suspension tuning that keep it under control in the turns. The gear ratios on its five-speed manual transmission are closer than in the standard Fiat 500's manual, letting it maintain higher revs. And the six-speed automatic is not an option in the Abarth. Fiat lowered the steering ratio for the Abarth, making it more responsive but at the same time making for a larger turning radius.
As an interesting note, the U.S. Fiat 500 Abarth is a very different beast than the European version, which has been out for a few years. Chrysler's performance division was given the task of creating the U.S. Abarth, and ended up choosing a different turbocharger than the European version uses. Chrysler says the U.S. version has a louder, more aggressive exhaust note.
The extra power and lower gear ratios, not mention a few extra pounds, mean a hit to the fuel economy. Where the Fiat 500 is rated at 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, the Abarth version is down to 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. Although that estimate still puts the Abarth in a frugal set, antics such as described above put the average for CNET's car, over a week of driving, at only 24.7 mpg.
The 1.4-liter engine under the Abarth's hood uses the same MultiAir variable valve timing technology as the Fiat 500, although most likely with different programming. MultiAir means the intake valves do not rely on a camshaft to actuate them. Instead, Fiat uses hydraulic actuators, allowing for precisely customized timing not reliant on the engine's revolutions.
The case for TomTom
The Abarth has a few interior touches to differentiate it from the standard Fiat 500, but the dashboard is covered with the same hard plastic. The cabin electronics offerings are also the same. CNET's car had the navigation option, which consists of a portable TomTom Go with dashboard mounting bracket.