DUB Daily

First Drive – Fiat 500 Abarth

“We like to call it the right amount of wrong.”

That’s how Joe Grace, the Chief Engineer behind the Fiat 500 Abarth sums up his little creation.

It’s a sexy claim, but plenty of supposed “high performance” editions of inexpensive cars make sexy claims.  Few of them have the stones to back them up.

Fiat, however, wanted us to see for ourselves.   They invited DUB to an autocross event in the parking lot of the Redskins’ home, FedEx Field, to test out the performance-tuned version of the first Fiat to reach American shores in decades.  A racecourse built of cones, with tight corners and a tighter set of switchbacks, would either prove the Abarth worthy of the claim, or make a liar out of Grace.First, a little background – Abarth (pronounce it “ah-bart” and ignore the H on the end) is the in-house tuning shop of Italy’s Fiat group.  Named for Italian racing legend Karl Abarth, the company takes standard Fiat vehicles and tarts them up with race car parts, much like BMW’s M division, or Mercedes’ AMG shop.

In the states, of course, Fiat already owns an in-house tuner — the Dodge SRT division.  Grace tells us the two tuning shops worked together to turn the little Fiat 500 into something American performance enthusiasts could get behind.

“What did they change?” we ask him.

“Almost everything.”

The engine, for instance, is a turbocharged version of the Multi-Air inline four banger that comes standard in the 500.  It puts out 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque – more, even, than the European version of the Abarth gets.

The front springs are 40 percent stiffer than the standard 500 gets.  The rear suspension has been beefed up as well, and a reverse sway bar added to firm up the handling.

The car gets new brakes, provided by Bosch, including a larger set of front rotors with a semi-metallic lining to reduce brake fade.

It’s easy to tell the 500 Abarth apart from the standard car.  It gets a unique front fascia designed to feed that turbocharged engine – even the scorpion badge is an air cooler inlet.

Inside, sport seats with added bolstering (in cloth or leather, red or black) and a flat-bottomed race-style steering wheel set it apart.

At just $22,000 in the states, it’s an impressive package.

The real test of a performance model, though, comes on the track.

And here, we get a little cynical.  There are a lot of “sport models” of entry-level cars, and in our experience, few of them are worthy of the name.  Then again, Toyota doesn’t exactly set up autocross tracks for the press to test the Corolla S.

And the Abarth, barely long enough to take up half a parking spot, weighs in at 2,512 pounds.  It seems way too heavy to live up to Grace’s promises.

We drop the five-speed into first (no,  before you ask, they’re not going to build an automatic) and punch the throttle…and it becomes clear exactly why Fiat has set up those cones.

This little thing corners like a gazelle on the run from a lion.  Those Bosch brakes handle the weight easily, giving you the confidence to take the hard corners without backing off.

Sport mode, usually a joke in a car at this price point, is actually an effective addition to the experience.  It re-maps the throttle and kicks in 20 extra ft-lbs of torque you can feel.

And we haven’t even mentioned the best part – that glorious exhaust note.  Grace says engineers worked hard to get that “Abarth signature sound,” and he’s not wrong.  Every time an Abarth jumps out of the starting box, we have to stop to admire the sound.

Don’t get us wrong – you’re not going to outrun a 911 in the Abarth.  But that’s not the point.

This is about performance the average guy can use in a stoplight-to-stoplight environment.  That challenge, the Abarth engineers have nailed.

And they know it.  Fiat Head of Product Marketing Matt Davis tells DUB that each 500 Abarth sold will come with a track day.  Fiat dealerships will arrange for buyers to meet a racing professional at a nearby track for a lesson in how to push the car – and Fiat will provide the car, so you don’t use up your own brake pads learning.

We went in cynical, and left with a grin.  For $22k, it’s just…well…just the right amount of wrong.

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