So what could they do to totally redefine the loveable but somewhat underwhelming micro-import that is the Fiat 500? Besides align forces with Charlie Sheen and an exotic Romanian supermodel?
The answer’s the Abarth, the Fiat 500 on anabolic steroids. A genuinely impressive, sports-oriented redux of the literally pint-sized Fiat, the Abarth version radically transforms the little car into a fire-breathing monster. Albeit a microscopic, fire-breathing monster.
You also get a $26,000 remake (options included) of a $13,000 car, but I’ll try to make the case that it’s totally worth it. It’s a car that might even appeal to the weirder members of the racer-boy set, versus a much pricier WRX STI or an Evo.
The motoring attributes of the standard 500, which I dubbed Luigi when I got to drive a couple versions in the past year, turned out to be a little disappointing.
That’s not just because of the meager 101 horses which rather noisily and incredibly slowly developed under the hood – the tippy handling and mousy brakes were also part of the problem, though it’s a fine enough city car.
Abarth – named after a noted Austrian-Italian tuner who took the 500’s predecessors and tuned them and turned them into speedy, rally winning machines – soundly manages to massage the Toluca, Mexico-assembled new-generation 500 into a more fearsome machine.
Most important is the addition of a twin-intercooled turbo so large that it sticks out from beneath the engine cover, when you lift the hood. The 1.4-liter inline four only gets 59 extra horses but in a car that weighs just over 2,500 pounds, it’s a massive adjustment, for the better.
Torque also nearly doubles to 170 lb.-ft. and … as you might guess, the Abarth is subsequently capable of quite impressive, front-tire-roasting acceleration, which totally blows the mind of anyone who’s sitting by you at a traffic light. I took great joy in doing this to as many drivers of Suburbans and Tahoes as possible, who had no idea what had hit them.
Fiat practically re-did the 500’s entire suspension system for the Abarth version, with stiffer springs, a lowered ride height, improved front shocks and rear suspension, upgraded brakes (and their bright red calipers) and a more sporty steering ratio. You get a more combat-hardened five-speed manual, and on my test vehicle, 17-inch black aluminum wheels that would be right at home on an Audi.
There’s also a whole suite of cosmetic and aerodynamic tweaks, including side skirts and a spoiler on the hatch, as well as pinstriped leather on the seats and a cowl over the center stack. Black caps on the side mirrors are a nice touch.
But the most prominent change, at least as far as your neighbors are concerned, is the exhaust, which has been tuned to make it seem like the Abarth is about four times as large and powerful as it really is.
That rattly note can be a little abrasive, especially on start-up, but it’s delightfully ridiculous as you blow through the gears or fend off Mustangs on a canyon run. And it may also drive you crazy as it never quite goes away, even when driving like a productive member of society.
So I tried to do as little of the latter as possible and did indeed relish in all of the Abarth’s athletic upgrades. Admittedly, with a 90-inch wheelbase, there are still certain constraints (the laws of physics, for instance) when driving in a particularly cavalier fashion, but the intensity of the handling, the cornering and the braking control does improve markedly.
It’s not the all-time fastest car in the world and top speed is reached at a reasonably safe limit, but as the more aggressive and thoroughly Sheen-worthy alternate personality for the 500, Abarth is certainly pretty cool.
Yes, it’s still pretty small on the inside, though I managed to cram skis and a cooler and bags into the little beast for a weekend trip back in the spring; full-sized humans could technically ride in the back, but they’re not going to be happy very long.
Behind the wheel, it’s not so bad, with a large and comfortably bolstered seat, a chunky racing wheel and gauges that now dance with delight as you rev the hell out of the car. Shifting is much more precise than the standard model; the Bose audio system is also pretty impressive, even if to help mask the braaaaaaaping of the exhaust when/if you grow tired of the noise.
Converting prudency to power does mean a slight drop in mileage, with about 31 MPG combined, but all of that extra oomph and bravado makes it a totally different experience.