Today they are called tuners, but years ago they were often termed wizards and every European country had them. Men like Amédée Gordini in France, Walter Glocker in Germany and, among many others in Italy, Carlo Abarth.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Abarth made Fiats go much faster than it seemed they should. Since 1971, Abarth has been a part of Fiat and we finally get a result of that partnership in the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. This is a good thing.
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Appropriate for wizardry, let's begin with the engine, the 1.4-liter MultiAir four with its trick, shall we say, oil-induced intake valve system. There's a lot to like inside the Abarth engine, like a crankshaft and connecting rods of forged steel. What really sets the Abarth apart, and kicks horsepower from 101 to 160 at 5500 rpm, is an 18.0-psi turbocharger a pair of intercoolers set low in front behind outboard grille vents. Torque gets a similar boost (ouch, bad pun) from 98 lb.-ft. to 150 in Normal mode or 170 after you punch the Sport button. Just as important from the fun side of things, that torque is on hand from 2600-4100 rpm.
Engineers also opened up both the intake and exhaust systems for better breathing, though what you'll love most about it is the thrumpy exhaust note.
Matched to the turbo four is a 5-speed manual gearbox and beefier halfshafts.
Suspension changes include lowering the ride height 0.6 in., stiffening the springs and rear torsion beam axle, and using Abarth-specific front lower control arms as part of a general firming. Brakes are now 11.1-in. discs at the front and 9.4-in. rear discs. Standard wheels are 16s with Pirelli Cinturato P7 all-seasons, the step up being 17s with Pirelli P-Zero Nero tires at 205/40-R17.
Fiat wants to emphasize the Abarth's dual fun-on-weekends, off-to-work week nature and gives its electronic stability control three modes: On, Partial Off and Full Off.
Then comes what some consider the really important differences versus the stock 500, mainly a more aggressive appearance with added vents up front for cooling, side skirts, red brake calipers and a spoiler at the top of the liftback. Add a new lower rear design with a diffuser look and a pair of Abarth exhaust outlets to go with the new sound. Plus, of course, plenty of Abarth badging.
So what does all that-- pricing between $22,700 and about $27,000--get you?
The 0-60 time drops (by Fiat's testing) to 7.2 seconds, the quarter-mile now in 15.5 sec. They claim 0.85g on the skidpad and a 129-mph top speed we can confirm.
To use a non-Italian term from Carlo Abarth's era, driving the Fiat 500 Abarth is a hoot and a holler. You can smoke the front tires off the line (check the video) and that great exhaust note follows you right up to triple digits on the speedo.
We drove the Abarth to and then around Spring Mountain's circuit. We must again say how much fun it is, but it's a different sort of fun than you might expect. Many small tuner cars' suspensions have been stiffened to the molar-cracking level. Not the Abarth, which leans more than expected when you crank it into a corner. It's actually quite fun, though you must be sure to brake in a straight line or it can be a bit darty under heavy braking. It would be nice if the shifter were more precise. And if I didn't have size 13 shoes. If your feet are as big as mine, get a pair of thin driving shoes when you buy your Abarth.
So is the Abarth better than a Mini Cooper S? Or is it worse? We'd just say it's different and just as much fun.