When I found out that Fiat was returning to American shores, I was thrilled. While the 500 is a decent steer at a good price, that wasn't really why I was getting all fidgety and impatiently scratching at my desk. I was really just happy that Fiat was laying the road for two things: Alfa Romeo and Abarth.
Alfa Romeo's release strategy, if it can be called that, has left me jaded and cynical. We're getting the distinct feeling that the workers at Alfa get to work around 11:00am, brew some espresso, chat with their friends, do 45 minutes of work, take a 90 minute lunch break, brew some more espresso, chat some more, do another hour of work, and then go home at around 2:45pm. Everything is filed under "we'll get to it."
Abarth, on the other hand, is Fiat's in-house tuner, not unlike AMG is to Mercedes or M is to BMW. Abarth takes civilian models like the 500 and magically transforms them into sportscars for people who refer to "roundabouts" as "skid-pads."
The Fiat 500 Abarth has about as much in common with the subcompact that J-Lo shilled for as it does with a Dualit Toaster: the Abarth looks like a particularly angry version of the 500/Dualit Toaster. The Abarth gets some racy graphics, added air intakes all over the place (even one in the badge), and other small aero effects. The interior is also revised with a racy flat-bottomed steering wheel and some very well bolstered seats. It looks like the toaster of doom.
Mechanically, the Abarth barely shares any parts with its stablemate. The engine, suspension, transmission, steering, brakes, exhaust, chassis, and traction control are all unique to the Abarth. The engine is even unique to the USA-spec Abarth and makes 160hp, which shames the Euro-spec 135hp unit.
I got to meet the Abarth at an autocross event in Chicago and had the chance to get a good number of laps in, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The first thing the Abarth does to grab one's attention is make noise. It burbled, spat, rumbled, sounded like a scaled down version of any Italian exotic, and gave me a trouser-tent. Fiat says they played around with 14 different exhaust set-ups before settling on this one. An empty muffler casing with a straight pipe running through it. For this alone, the Abarth is worth loving.
Whenever a hot-hatch is released, the engineers speak of neutral dynamics and curbed understeer, and this was no exception. What was an exception was that the engineers weren't spewing pure lies at me. For a vehicle with over 60% of its weight up front and a front wheel drive set up, understeer is minimal. On the slightly dusty parking lot, the Abarth even oversteered a bit. On the topic of oversteer, the Abarth proves that it was made for track day fun with traction control that can be turned all the way off. It's surprisingly agile.
While it's by no means a fast car, it's reasonably quick, doing the sprint to 60mph in 7.0 seconds. This doesn't really tell the story though; the real magic is in the crisp shifter, the linear and immediate throttle response, and the minimal turbo lag. This isn't a car that will get you around the track faster than the other guys, but you will be smiling more.
That's really the essence of this car. It's a thoroughbred sports car that can handle a closed course, but it's mostly focused on being an absolute blast to drive. In my years testing cars, I've driven a lot of them, but this was a surpisingly fun-filled treat. I'm willing to go on record saying that this car is more fun than almost any other vehicle. I'd rather take this Abarth to the track than a Mercedes SLS AMG. It feels like an Italian exotic and it sounds like one; it's just a bit slower and a bit cheaper.
It's a killer car. What makes it so great is that it doesn't feel dumbed down, or numb. It's a visceral experience, and I love it.