2012 Fiat 500 Review

2012 Fiat 500 - Racy new 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth differs considerably from standard Fiat 500 models


Price: $22,000

The sexiest cars arguably long have come from Italy, and the new Abarth version of the 2012 Fiat 500 is such a car.

The 500 Abarth follows the colorful tradition of the very small, low-volume race-winning "Double Bubble" Fiat Abarths of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Those cars are valued at $135,000-if you can find one that wasn't thrashed in races. (They had nifty twin roof humps-or "bubbles"-to clear race driver helmets.)

The early Abarths were standard Fiats cleverly modified by Karl Abarth, who made a fortune selling hot rod exhaust systems, mainly for sports cars. If you wanted the greatest sports car sound around and higher performance, it seemed mandatory that you get an Abarth catalog-available exhaust system.

Abarth became part of Fiat in the 1970s, and the retained Abarth logo is a scorpion because Karl Abarth's astrological sign was Scorpio.

The new 500 Abarth has a $22,000 list price and adds sexiness to the Fiat 500 front-drive, two-door hatchback line. The standard Fiat 500 is cute, but just marginally fast. It hasn't been an especially good seller during its first year on the U.S. market, but the Abarth is making quite a sales and image splash since its debut in the spring of 2012. 

Why the sexiness? For starters, the Abarth has a 160-horsepower turbocharged and twin intercooled version of the 500's 1.4-liter four-cylinder 101-horsepower engine-not to mention far more torque that allows much less shifting. It has a great snarling sound during hard acceleration-like the early Abarths.

The 0-60 mph time is a quick 7.2 seconds, partly because the small 500 Abarth only weighs about 2,500 pounds. The fastest passing on highways in done in third gear, although fourth gear will do in many cases.  

The high-performance engine and performance gearing allows just 28 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on highways despite this car's size and weight. . 

A driver can press the "Sport" button on the dash to get the engine's full 170 pound-feet of torque (up from 150 pound-feet). However, the Sport setting makes the ride too bouncy for comfort on long drives.

The engine works with an easy shifting five-speed manual transmission and a clutch that has a long throw but good takeup for smooth starts.  However, the Abarth could use a six-speed manual because the engine is turning over at pretty high rpms above 65 mph.

No automatic transmission is offered-you must opt for a standard Fiat 500 if you want an automatic because  the 500 Abarth is designed to be a serious  "driver's car."  

The Abarth version of the 500  gets electric power steering that's quick, although the car's turning circle is too large for tight spots, considering its size. Also standard are a stiffer "Abarth Performance Tuned" suspension that provides a smoother ride when not in Sport mode,  performance tires on wider 16-inch wheels and larger front brake rotors with more aggressive pads.

Handling is sharp, assisted by electronic stability control, but my test car's brakes were rather grabby in town until warmed up.

The Abarth turns heads. It sits lower than the standard Fiat 500 and has a lower front fascia, larger front air intakes for the engine's twin turbochargers, a larger rear roof spoiler and a new rear diffuser with chromed dual exhaust tips. Abarth's Scorpio signs are found at various places on the car.

My white Abarth test car had red bodyside striping and $1,000 17-inch forged aluminum gloss white wheels with wide 40-series tires. The wheels looked slick, but I stayed far from curbs to avoid scraping them. A driver also must keep the low front end in mind.

Other options include the $750 Safety and Convenience package, which contains automatic temperature control and an $850 power sunroof.

The Abarth has lots of standard equipment. It includes remote keyless entry with power door locks and windows, air conditioning, a manual driver height-adjustable seat, cruise control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio, steering wheel audio controls and a hefty Abarth perforated leather wrapped steering wheel, along with a vehicle information center.

Safety items include a driver-side knee air bag and side-curtain front/rear air bags.

Long, wide-opening doors made it easy to enter my test car's $1,000 front perforated leather trimmed high-back bucket seats. But, while those seats looked like they provide good side support, their soft side bolstering mostly vanished during fast cornering. Also, the small sun visors didn't swivel to the side.

The  combination speedometer and tachometer is very difficult to read during the day, so thank goodness there's also a small auxiliary digital speedometer that's easy to read.

The turbo boost gauge to the left of the steering wheel is virtually useless, but the small sound system and climate controls are fairly easy to use. Large shoes will cause drivers to occasionally touch the accelerator pedal when a foot is on the brake.

Doors have storage pockets, but front cupholders are at floor level and rear windows don't open. There's no left-hand armrest for the front passenger.

The tight back seat is almost strictly for small children and pets. Split rear seatbacks flip forward to enlarge the cargo area, which has a high hatch opening and holds a week's worth of family groceries.

The hood is held open with a prop rod, and the engine compartment looks overcrowded, although fluid-filler areas aren't hard to reach.

The Fiat 500 Abarth is a blast to drive. But, after all, Fiat also makes Ferraris, doesn't it?

Dan Jedlicka

Dan Jedlicka's Website

Dan Jedlicka joined the Chicago Sun-Times in February 1968 as a business news reporter and was named auto editor later that year. He has reviewed more than 4,000 new vehicles for the Sun-Times--far more than any newspaper auto writer in the country. Jedlicka also reviewed vehicles for Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Autos Internet site from January, 1996, to June, 2008.

Jedlicka remained auto editor at the Sun-Times until October, 2008, and continued writing for the newspaper's AutoTimes section, which he started in 1992, until February, 2009. While continuing his auto writings at the Sun-Times, he served as assistant financial editor of that newspaper from 1970 to 1973, when he began his automotive column.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NBC's "Today," ABC's "20/20" and "The CBS Evening News." He was a host, consultant and writer for Fox-TV Channel 32's 1991 New Car Preview show and that Chicago-based station's 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 Chicago Auto Show Previews.

Jedlicka's auto articles have been printed in national magazines, including Esquire and Harper's. His auto columns have been reprinted in U.S. government publications and economic textbooks and he is profiled in the "World's Greatest Auto Show" history book about the Chicago Auto Show. In late 1975, Jedlicka was host and technical advisor for three one-hour television specials, "Auto Test 76," which aired nationally on PBS and were the first nationally televised auto road test shows.

In 1995, Jedlicka was the recipient of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois Inc.'s Consumer Education Award, given annually to a person who has gained distinction in the field of consumer education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Media category and inducted into the Legends of Motorsports Guild at the Carquest World of wheels custom car show in Chicago in January, 2006.

Jedlicka was a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, composed of a select number of auto journalists from throughout the country, from 1995 until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, he was a member of Consumer Digest magazine's auto experts panel that gave Best Buy new vehicle recommendations.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Bob Bondurant Race Drivers School and later of the BMW "M" and Skip Barber Advanced Driving schools. He was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 1987 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race/rally in Italy and has been a race winner at the Chicago area's Santa Fe Speedway.

Jedlicka has owned 25 classic cars, including 1950s and 1960s Ferraris and 1950s and 1960s Porsches, a 1965 Corvette, a 1967 Maserati and a 1957 Studebaker supercharged Golden Hawk. Jedlicka resides with his wife, Suzanne, in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park. They have two children, James and Michele.

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