Italian for “pocket rocket”
The Fiat 500, an Italian icon that first appeared on the continent in 1957 and was resurrected to great acclaim in 2007 has become a global success story. With people around the world paying closer attention to fuel economy and emissions than ever before, a small and fun car with a tiny footprint is just the ticket.
The 2010 Fiat 500 Abarth, one of the many high-performance models produced in conjunction with independent tuning company Abarth, is an even more exciting prospect. A tiny, turbocharged car with no small amount of style? What’s not to like?
The Abarth is powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that cranks out 99 kW and 180 Nm of torque at 2500 rpm. When the car’s sport mode is engaged, this latter figure jumps to 206 Nm at 3000 rpm. While these numbers aren’t exactly mind-blowing in this day and age, the Fiat is a very small car, weighing in at less than 1000 kg.
The top speed for the Abarth hovers around the 205-km/h mark, decent for a city car if somewhat unspectacular. Fiat also estimates that this version of the 500 while accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 7.9 seconds. Again: reasonable, if not exactly blood-pumping. (It’s worth noting that the frugal Fiat is also rated at consuming just 5.4 L/100 km of petrol in combined driving.)
But compact size and sufficient power translate into some honest grins behind the wheel. During a breakneck tour of Lake Como, the Fiat proved its worth, darting around like a rabbit (the animal, not the car) and offering enough performance off the line to keep things interesting. Even in rainy weather, the little car displayed refined road manners—a little bit of wheel spin in slick conditions from the front-wheel drive Abarth, but that was to be expected. The car clearly benefits from its torque transfer control system, a type of limited-slip differential for the driven wheels that keeps things in check even when the stability control system is switched off.
The Abarth also comes equipped with ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist and a hill holder system for starting on an incline. In the damp conditions, the brakes proved eminently capable of hauling the 500 down to zero in fine order. In other news, the steering on the car was a bit imprecise and the shifter on the 5-speed manual was a bit slack, but the clutch had a nice progressive feel to it.
From an engineering standpoint, there was one key disappointment though: the turning circle. By and large, European roads are the reason why small cars exist—their size comes in handy when confronting a large bus on a narrow side street or finding a parking space at a Zucchero concert. But the turning circle on the 500 was so surprisingly unmanageable, I had to reverse out of a tight 180-degree hairpin on more than one occasion.
When it comes to the interior environment, the Fiat plays the style card in much the same way as the MINI Cooper, so the intent is, no doubt, to market the car as an entry-level premium offering. This is a fine approach, as long as the vehicle in question has the proper amount of cachet and quality built right in. In the Abarth tested, the cachet was there, but the quality left a little to be desired.
First off, a consistent and mysterious rattle plagued the back seat area. The audio system seemed incapable of picking up radio stations with any clarity, even on the outskirts of Milan. The instrument panel menu switched between displaying all potential readouts and showing none, which made setting up the readouts a major challenge. And despite my best efforts, I could never locate a trip odometer, which made following my printed Google Maps directions a major pain.
As noted, the Abarth is a small car, so interior space is at a premium. The back seat is roomy enough for children, so the car should perhaps be classified as a 2+2 rather than a 4-seater. Due to the car’s round shape, though, headroom is decent for front-seat passengers and the visibility forward and to the sides is very good. The cargo area is also tiny at only 185 litres, but the back seats fold down to create enough space for a big run to the grocery store.
On the other side of the ledger, the Abarth does have a funky interior 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 analogue turbo pressure the icing on what is a very tasty cake. If the car-builders at Fiat can resolve the quality issues, they’ll have a very engaging little car to offer the world.
One thing is sure: The 2010 Fiat 500 Abarth has enough appeal to make it an interesting addition to the commuter car scene. There will never be too many small, fun, efficient cars in this world—in fact, they’re needed more than ever. There is some question about how it will be priced, though.
The version tested had a sticker price of 20,000 euro—a lot of money for a commuter car, to be sure. In order to prove successful in markets outside of Europe, the Abarth needs to be priced according to its true worth—and its true worth is something less than that of a MINI Cooper, from a quality and dynamics standpoint.
One final note, though: In Ferrari-mad Italy, it was interesting to see how many locals stopped and stared whenever the dull grey Fiat with the blazing scorpion symbols roared past. This alone speaks volumes for the potential impact the 500 Abarth can have outside of Italy.