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Small But Wicked – Fiat 500 Abarth Driving Report

Report and photos by Jamie Doyle

Confession. I like light cars. My Lotus Elan S3 Coupe weighs roughly 1,500 pounds and, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind if it were lighter. I even get bent out of shape when I see new ‘sports cars’ tipping the scales at 4,000 pounds.

Yet, what I’ve come to realize is that I don’t care so much about the actual weight of the car, I only care that the car feels light and that I feel connected with it.

With those sentiments in mind, hopefully you’ll understand my enthusiasm for the Fiat 500 Abarth, a car that weighs in at 2,500 pounds and, more importantly, feels even lighter. Though, the car’s lightness wasn’t the only thing getting me excited about the Fiat 500 Abarth, the car also comes with a storied pedigree that lends itself to transcontinental success in both the salesroom and the race track.

Karl “Carlo” Abarth and the Fiat brand’s history of collaboration goes back to the early 1950s, resulting in multiple international records and too many race victories to count. Their partnership has run deep since Abarth’s company, Abarth and C., began tuning and redesigning the exhaust systems that have powered Fiats since the early 1950s — most notably, the Fiat Abarth 750.

The success that the Fiat 750 enjoyed saw Fiat expand its line of cars in 1958 with the introduction of the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento), a car perfectly designed to be the affordable, practical, urban alternative the public craved in a post-war world. This would be the car that would cement Abarth and Fiat’s name into automobile history.

The Fiat 500 enjoyed success in sales, but Carlo Abarth recognized that it lacked sporty edge and was ripe for mechanical improvements. With his erudite ability to maximize on a car’s potential, Abarth transformed the original Fiat 500 by altering its compression ratios and fuel and intake systems, in addition to including a Weber carburetor and a full Abarth sports exhaust system. The result? Horsepower doubled while the car’s handling drastically improved along with its speed, propelling the feisty Fiat — nicknamed “small but wicked” — to multiple class and outright race wins.

Following a re-launch of the Abarth brand in 2007, the renowned partnership between Fiat and Abarth was revived, and the Fiat 500 once again received the Abarth treatment. The car was revamped from an efficient compact commuter to a pocket-sized sport package car and exploded back onto the scene. Fresh on the heels of its introduction to the North American market, the Fiat 500 Abarth was able to take home a second place finish in the competitive Open division of the 2012 Targa Newfoundland — standing as a testament to the car’s abilities.

However, I wasn’t racing in a rally, nor was I on a track when I first got my hands on the Fiat 500 Abarth. I was in Monterey, California for the week of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, taking the petite and nimble car around town in the varying weather conditions of mid-August. Those who are familiar with the Monterey Classic Car Week know that it’s a paradise for vintage car aficionados; aside from offering throngs of events, historic car racing, and other car-related activities, the week is also known for bringing together enthusiasts from all over the world to share in their love for the automobile.

One of the first things I noticed about my Rosso Fiat 500 Abarth was that it, too, had the ability to attract enthusiasts from all walks of life. This car generated all kinds of buzz in my week with it; I couldn’t leave any restaurant or parking lot without finding a few people stealing away from their much more expensive mounts to both admire and inquire about the sleek little Abarth. From Ferrari 250 GT Lusso owners to Ford rat rod owners, they all wanted to know what it was like.

I’d tell each admirer the same thing — the Fiat 500 Abarth is a blast. Fun to drive, fun to listen to, fun to look at, and fun to experience.

Fiat 500 Abarth

Fiat 500 Abarth

Yet, before I go on about my experience with the car, first things first: how is the Abarth edition Fiat 500 different from the base model? The 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine is turbocharged, providing 160 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque, up from 101 and 98 on the base 500. Other engine upgrades include a fresh-air intake system with high-flow air filter and smooth-flowing plumbing for maximum power. And, keeping with tradition, the Abarth-designed concentric “double-tip” dual-exhaust system ensures that the engine is operating with minimal exhaust gas restriction.

The Abarth’s suspension is enhanced with KONI shock absorbers, 40% stiffer spring rates and lower ride height, while an increase in negative camber to -1.5 degrees helps to improve grip and steering precision. Brakes are larger 11.1-inch ventilated rotors and 16-inch cast-aluminum wheels are standard. My test vehicle had the optional 17-inch forged-aluminum wheels shod with sticky Pirelli P-Zero Nero 205/40 R17 tires.

On the road the Fiat 500 Abarth communicated in the way a self-proclaimed “light car enthusiast” yearned for it to. That is, with its well-balanced chassis, it was eminently tossable and the limits were easily defined. The steering was quick, positive, accurate and not twitchy, as I had expected. Despite being front wheel drive, I was also impressed by how little the Fiat 500 Abarth suffered from torque steer. To mitigate torque steer, the Abarth is equipped with an intermediate shaft with equal-length half shafts that are 23% larger than the base model. Larger CV joints with 53% greater torsional strength deliver added durability and refinement. While coming out of low-speed corners, there was little to no unwanted pull manifested all-too-often by front wheel-drive cars.

Fans of the Fiat-Abarth partnership and their spectators will also appreciate the crisp sound of the exhaust that emits from the car. In between the throaty growl, the Abarth emits a series of interesting gurgles, pops and chirps between shifts and on over-runs. It’s absolutely addicting. Upon hearing it for the first time, Auction Editor Rick Carey even exclaimed, “Boy! This sounds like a vintage Fiat 500 Abarth!” Indeed.


Click the “Sport” mode button and the exhaust note crackles and pops just a bit more, the steering and suspension firm up and the throttle response becomes instant. This is how enthusiasts want to experience the Abarth, and my only complaint is that this isn’t the default mode.

When Sport mode is not engaged, however, computers limit the torque in first and second gears to enhance fuel efficiency and minimize emissions. Importantly, buyers will appreciate the 28 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway the car gets, keeping drivers in their cars and on the roads instead of standing by the fuel pump. Our decidedly spirited time in the Abarth resulted in an average of 32 mpg.

The Fiat 500 Abarth’s spacious interior is yet another one of the car’s many fortes. The ample headroom and quality interior materials, including the optional leather trimmed high-back bucket seats, accent the sleek aesthetic of the car nicely, highlighting Fiat’s ergonomic approach to both comfort and appearance. An important nuance to me in each car I drive is the driving position, as such a small feature can have a dramatic impact on the driving experience as a whole. The Abarth’s driving position is superb; the gear shifter is positioned within inches of the steering wheel and comes from the dash rather than the floor, making it easily accessible. Better still, the pedals are positioned comfortably for heel-to-toe driving, which is often not a consideration in modern cars.

That week in Monterey, I found myself constantly making excuses to get behind the wheel of this car again and again. Trips to the grocery store, a mid-afternoon adventure for a snack, any sort of errand was reason enough to pick up the keys and go. The Fiat 500 Abarth induced a “little kid on Christmas morning” excitement for me day in and day out; it never became just utility.

Fiat 500 Abarth

Fiat 500 Abarth

When I later drove a Fiat 500 Abarth on New York’s Monticello Motor Club, my sentiments about the car from earlier in Monterey echoed on the racetrack. The Fiat held up well when pushed hard into turns, with any understeer quickly alleviated by modulating the throttle to rotate the chassis. The turbocharged, 114 horsepower-per-liter engine pulled nicely down the straights and out of the turns, and the brakes didn’t suffer from any fade in my time on the track.

The track did bring to light an imprecise and rubbery shifting experience — that is, it lacked that positive click and expected precision that is needed when things get busy at higher speeds. That said, on a day where I drove the latest and greatest from many car manufacturers, it was the light little Abarth that was the most fun on the track.

And, let there be no doubt, fun is what the Abarth edition Fiat 500 is all about.

2013 Fiat 500 Abarth

Base Price: $22,000
Options: Performance leather trimmed high-back bucket seats, $1,000; Customer Preferred Package 25X, $0; Safety and Convenience Package, $750; Mirror cap with body side strip, $350; TomTom Navigation, $400; 17-inch x 7-inch forged aluminum hyper black wheels, $1,000

As Tested Price : $26,200
Drivetrain: 1.4-Liter I4 16-valve MultiAir Turbo Engine; 5-speed transmission
Output: 160 hp (114 per liter)
Curb Weight: 2,512 lbs.
Performance: 0-60 6.7 seconds
Fuel Economy: 28 city, 34 highway

Included in the price is the opportunity for new owners to attend a driving experience at no additional charge. The Abarth Driving Experience is an entire day of full-throttle training, guided by professional instructors from the Richard Petty Driving Experience to ensure fun and top-level instruction in a safe and structured setting.

For more information, visit