Lake Como, Italy — 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.
The Abarth is powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged, 4-cylinder MultiAir engine that produces anywhere from 130 to 160 horsepower, depending on the specification and the market. Rumour has it that the North American version, arriving later this year, will be the full-boost edition. Based on my experience with the 135-horsepower model, the Abarth will be a very welcome addition to our burgeoning subcompact scene.
The key to the Fiat 500 car 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, weighing in at less than 1,000 kg. Even the base model, with its non-turbocharged 110 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque, offers some performance due to its decent power-to-weight ratio.
The Abarth tested, on the other hand, was a genuine pocket rocket. With the sport mode engaged, the engine torque jumped from 133 lb-ft to 152 lb-ft and the car produced enough scratch to spin the front wheels at stoplights. Top speed 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, the experience of driving the Fiat 500 Abarth was fantastic; even when the weather conspired against me for a few brief moments, the car displayed surprising refinement in dealing with rain-slicked conditions. Sure, the steering was a bit imprecise, the shifter on the 5-speed manual was somewhat slack, and there was an annoying rattle in the back somewhere.
But the one key disappointment was the turning circle. By and large, European roads are the reason why small cars exist—their size comes in handy when encountering a bus on a narrow side street or finding a parking space at a Zucchero concert. But the turning circle on the Abarth was surprisingly large—so large, I had to reverse out of a 180-degree hairpin on more than one occasion. Argh.
Side note: In Toronto, I had a chance to test the base model 2012 Fiat 500 and this provoked even 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.
As mentioned, the 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.
The 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 North American version of the Abarth will come standard with dual chrome-tipped exhaust, a rear spoiler, side skirts and a rear fascia diffuser. Under the skin, you will find the 5-speed manual transmission, upgraded brakes, a sport suspension system and 16-inch aluminum wheels fitted with Pirelli tires. All in all, then, it will be a nice little package that doesn’t stray too far from the Euro-spec edition.
Driving both 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 a fun driving experience that still generates decent fuel efficiency has a very nice ring to it.
If there’s one great unknown about the Fiat 500 Abarth, it’s this: How much will the little car cost when it finally hits our shores? The version tested in Italy had a converted sticker price in the area of $27,000. That’s a lot of money for a subcompact, even if it does have plenty of style, quality and cachet baked right in.
But judging by the pricing model for the less pumped-up versions, the folks at Fiat North America have a good head on their collective shoulders. The starting price for the base Fiat 500 in Canada—confusingly dubbed the “Pop”—is $15,995, an extremely competitive figure for a car loaded to the teeth with genuine Italian brio. Following this line of thinking, it seems plausible that the starting point for the Abarth might be less than $10K more, but we’ll have to wait and see.
One final note: In Ferrari-mad Italy, it was very interesting to see how many locals stopped and stared whenever the dull grey Fiat 500 Abarth with the racing stripes and blazing scorpion symbols roared past. Their admiration was clear to see, as was the sense of nationalistic pride; this speaks to the potential of the car to become an Italian ambassador for free-wheeling fun.