Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review - 2012 Abarth 500 - In the Snow!

Abarth 500 - US Version
Story and Photos by Matthew Eddy

Abarth 500 Logo.

I got to drive the Abarth (pronounced ahh-bart, or ahh-bath depending on who you talk to) 500 for 235 miles over 4 days in both sun and snow.  During that time I had 2 people ask if it was a Porsche, which amused me because this doesn’t look anything like any Porsche that has ever existed.  At least 3 people give me the thumbs up, and one guy told me I am going to get a lot of chicks with this car.  To be honest, I am not sure this would be the most powerful chick magnet, but it is sharp looking; at least from the side.  The face of the car has a very distinct European style that will only appeal to a minority of drivers. 

Abarth 500

Abarth is a factory tuner for Fiat similar to Chrysler’s SRT or Ford’s SVT group and they took a Fiat 500 and made it a bit sportier.  Of course, when I hear “sport car” I want to see some numbers; 160hp, 170 ft/lbs of torque in a car that weights 2535 pounds.  That is a good start, and for once the US market is getting a European car is that is more powerful than its European counterpart which only has 133hp.  It’s easy to see that the car is going to be quick and with its small wheel base, it will be nimble.  Besides the extra horses, Abarth lowered the car 1”, stiffened up the suspension, tweaked the front facia a bit and slapped a bunch of scorpion badges all over.  Actually the car doesn’t say “Fiat” anywhere on it. 

Like most cars these days the Abarth has Electronic Stability Control and Sport mode. Both of which can be turned on and off. When in Sport mode, the throttle response is sharpened up and you can call upon all 160 horses.  The ESC, in my snow driving experience, was probably designed for the Fiat 500 and was easily overpowered by the extra power.    It won’t perform the magic that EVO’s or GTR’s traction control can achieve by helping the driver negotiate a turn that they had over driven.  I was able to get wheel spin in 1st or 2nd when with the ESC on and it didn’t seem to be able to rein it in when I was hard on the throttle.  Also, from a stop, there were times I thought the ESC would stall the car because it bogged down the car so much.  It probably didn’t help that I am used to driving a Subaru and was a bit to aggressive with the throttle from a stop so when I was a little lighter on the throttle and feathered the clutch a bit more the Abarth was able to take off from a stop a lot more gracefully.  Overall the ESC was handy to have in the snow when you are driving sensibly, but it’s not very sophisticated and really only seems to try and control throttle induced wheel spin.  So don’t expect it to save you if you tear into a corner to fast.  Here is a video of me driving in the snow and playing with the ESC:

Abarth 500 in the Snow at Night.

Abarth Wheel in Snow

In Sport Mode is activated by a button on the center console, and its pretty much just on or off.  When activated the throttle response is very noticeably sharper with the boost kicking in sooner and with more punch.  Perfect for when you are merging on to the freeway or need to pass some Sunday driver sleeping in the left lane.  Otherwise you can gust cruise around in normal mode to help conserve some fuel since that is probably part of the reason you would buy a small car.   

What is nice about the Abarth and the Fiat 500 in general is that if you are the Jolly Green Giant, you will find the car to be quite spacious.  Unless you are closer to seven feet tall you shouldn’t have any problems fitting into this car.  I am an even six feet tall and I had about 6” of head room.  So this car has plenty of room for you, a helmet and even a roll cage if you decide to race it. 

Besides being quick, my favorite feature of the car is the exhaust.  It sounds more like a muscle car than a little four banger with a turbo bolted to it.  I am now convinced that Italians inherently know how to tune an exhaust like no other.  It growls and gurgles like a V8; to bad it isn’t louder!  At freeway speeds it’s drowned out by road and wind noise because it’s just not that loud.  Here is a short video I shot so you can hear the exhaust note for yourself:

Abarth Engine Bay - the turbo can be seen at the bottom of the image, its under and to the left the the silver heat sheild.

On regular roads the car felt pretty good even though the suspension is significantly stiffer than the Fiat 500.  As to be expected with any short wheelbase car on uneven pavement like we have all over the Detroit area, the ride can be pretty bumpy.  If you are shopping for any subcompact car, you won’t be able to avoid this issue  and I didn’t find it to be a problem.  This car would make a fun and comfortable commuter.  

Abarth 500 - Sporty Pedals

Abarth 500 - Seats - nice red detailing.

Performance & Handling

I wouldn’t call the Abarth fast, that label is reserved for cars whose 0-60 times are sub 5 seconds but it is definitely quick.  Though I haven’t see any official figures I am estimating it in the high 6 second range; probably a little slower than the Mini S comparing the power to weight ratios.  At a stop, in first gear, you can very easily get the front wheels spinning.   Actually, for me it was kind of hard to resist not doing it every time but that’s probably because I am like a kid with a new toy when I was driving this car.

The steering effort is firm and communicative.  As expected the car will tend to understeer, but that is to be expected from a FWD and manufactures will tune that into the car since its considered safer.  I don’t think it will take much to get it to be a bit more oversteery; different alignment and a larger rear sway bar should do the trick.  A few practice slaloms I tried the car felt very responsive with slight understeer developing toward the end.  Under hard corning the car was well balanced front to back but I was worried that the narrow track of the car and its height may make it prone to tipping.  I did see a picture of a 500 on two wheels through a corner and I think that made me a bit overly paranoid.  Plus I know I would never hear the end of it if I rolled the car, so I was aggressive, but didn’t push it to the limit under hard cornering. 

Overall the driving experience was very enjoyable and is a fun car to drive.  The performance of the car is such that I think you could surprise a few people with how quick it is.  I know I surprised a friend of mine when I spun the wheels launching it from a stop. 

Though is possible to nit pick any car, especially at this price point, the car has, only one major flaw; seating position.  My first thought when I got into the car was that I felt like I was getting into a van with captains chairs.  It even has a fold down arm rest!  This is great for commuting, but I was expecting a sports car.  I want to feel like I am getting into the cockpit of a F-16.  It felt so tall that I was at eye level with other drivers in full sized cars.  Some people might like this since the car, from the driver’s seat, doesn’t feel small.  However, I was just imagining this car just tipping over under hard cornering.  So much so that I would lean well over the passenger seat if I was really ripping through a corner.  Also, with this very vertical seating position I found my left leg was getting a cramp in my shin.  Basically, it was comfortable, but it didn’t feel sports car like and I had a hard time imagining myself taking this to a track. 

Abarth 500 - Steering Wheel and Dash Detail.

Abarth 500 Interior.

My only other complaint is the transmission wasn’t very smooth.  Sometimes I had to find 5th, and I got a crunch from the transmission when I was putting the car into reverse.  It wasn’t horrible, but a smoother tranny would improve the driving experience. 

I should also note that the back seats are really only usable for children.  There isn’t enough leg room or headroom for adults to sit back there comfortably.  If you are buying a subcompact then you probably already know that the backseats are decorative, or at the very least a convenient padded shelf to place luggage and weren’t actually expecting to seat people back there except in emergencies.  The trunk, on the other hand, is actually larger than you would expect.  You can probably hold at least one body if packed properly.

Looking at the car in a vacuum (not comparing it to any other cars), it is fun, quick, agile, looks good, and the exhaust sounds great.  This would make a great commuter and at around $22,700, the price it’s a fair amount less than other available turbocharged cars.   The problem is that the Abarth isn’t the only car in its class and it’s direct competition is the Mini Cooper S and some might also say the Mazda MX-5 Miata.  Originally I though I should compare it to a Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Honda Fit and a few others but really none of them have a comparable model that comes close to the power of the Abarth.  So those cars aside, how does it compare to the Miata and the Mini? 

First off it beats them both in price.  The base MX-5 starts at about $23,500, and the Cooper S is at least $24,000, but you are probably looking at closer to $27,000 when comparably equipped for either car. In terms of fuel economy, the Abarth and the Cooper S are fairly similar.  I haven’t seen any official figures for the Abarth, but I am estimating that it will be approximately 30mpg on the highway compared to the Mini’s 32. Personally I got an average of 26mpg over 235 miles of combined city/highway driving but I was driving the least economical way possible so that doesn’t really is a fair assessment.  Where the Mini edges out the Abarth is the feel; the Mini feels sportier, the seating position is better and it has 181hp giving it a better power to weight ratio.   

If I had the money, I would buy a Mini over the Abarth especially if you plan to do some autoX or track days.  If you are serious about getting into motorsports than the MX5 would be the best choice since its rear wheel drive and has 167hp from a naturally aspirated engine.  But, if you like the looks of the Abarth and want a car that is kind of unique then take one for a test drive.  They are fun, sporty, comfortable, and would make a fun daily driver.

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