With the lovable MINI Cooper, parent company BMW has shown that you can effectively market and sell a small, fun to drive, retro chic car in North America and find a captive, loyal audience. “Hold on”, you may be thinking, “isn’t this about a Fiat?” Of course it is. My point here is that Fiat is borrowing heavily from MINI’s marketing playbook. And how can you blame them? It worked. MINI showed that you can build a brand around one iconic car reborn as a modern conveyance, yet still full of character. Fiat started with the standard 500, then added the 500C with its clever peel back canvas roof. The third member of the Fiat 500 family is the Abarth, and trust me, if you have an enthusiast bent, this is the one you want.
When the Fiat 500 arrived here in 2011 as a 2012 model, hopes were high-50,000 cars sold in the US high. It didn’t happen. At the end of 2011, just under 20,000 500’s found homes in America. What happened? Well, blame history. See, the Mini Cooper was officially imported for a small period of time in North America, and poof, it was gone. Just a memory of an endearing car. And MINI returned to North America with parent BMW, so confidence was high. Fiat left North America in disgrace in 1980 with a horrible reputation for rust and reliability issues. In other words, the buying public just wasn’t sure what to expect-so they hesitated.
So along comes the Abarth-the high performance, and costliest Fiat 500 available. With a reality check from last year sales, Fiat went ultra-conservative on sales predictions, with maybe 1,000 takers for the year. When Fiat started taking orders in April, boom-1,000 orders. Fiat tripled to max capacity of the Abarth at its Mexico plant to 3,000 cars. And after a mere two months on the market, Fiat announced the 500 Abarth was sold out for 2012.
So, you may ask, what is the attraction? To the casual passer-by, you might not be able to distinguish the Abarth from lesser 500’s. The Abarth sits lower, and features its own unique front fascia (to make room for the intercoolers). Every inch a 500, Fiat has still managed to take out the cute chic retro car features. Note the lack of chrome, and ultra cool mod paint colors to choose from. The chrome is more subtle, and colors are restricted to white, grey, black or red. Our test car’s black 17″ alloys, offset by red brake calipers looked most proper here, and leaves no mistake this is not the cutesy Fiat 500 for twentysomething fashionistas.
Inside, the 500 Abarth appears similar to other 500’s, but closer inspection reveals some subtle, but noteworthy differences. The Abarth leather steering wheel is a joy to hold, and the red stitching on the wheel, shifter, e-brake handle and dash cap add a sporty and luxurious touch to the cabin of what started life as an economy car. In addition to the turbo boost gauge, you will also notice Fiat has ditched the retro font for the center gauge cluster in exchange for a more modern look. The gorgeous and supportive sport seats on our test car was icing on the cake. But as in all 500’s, you do have a high seating position, and sit fairly upright. I had no problem getting comfortable at the helm, however.
So we’ve confirmed the Abarth looks the part inside and out, but that’s nothing if the performance isn’t there to back up the promise the package offers. The Abarth is powered by a 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged four, rated at 160hp. A five-speed manual is the only available transmission, so if you can’t work three pedals, you don’t get to play. At 160hp, that may not sound like much, as cars like the MINI Cooper S and VW GTI easily surpassing that figure. Keep in mind the Abarth is smaller and lighter, and that makes up for a lack of horsepower. Fuel economy figures of 28/34 MPG city/highway are impressive for a hot hatch.
But talking about the numbers here misses the point completely. I make a terrific alfredo sauce, and I could show you the recipe. You would see the ingredients and measurements, yet never know how it tastes. And so it is with the Abarth. Turn the key and the car emits a glorious bark, settling into a tense idle. It is perhaps the greatest sounding four cylinder engine I have ever heard. In the Abarth, it is nearly impossible to resist blipping the throttle, downshifting when you don’t really need to, just to hear that exhaust note. Yes, the Abarth is quick off the line, offers plenty of grip and a firm, but hardly bone-jarring ride. Sure, the GTI will likely run circles around the Abarth, but in comparison, the execution is so clinical. The Abarth is not perfect, but is so full of soul and character it is impossible to resist its charm, and that seductive siren of an exhaust note.
So, what is the price of admission for this mini Italian hot hatch? A very reasonable $22,000USD, and well-equipped. Our test car added Performance Leather seats, the Safety & Convenience Package (auto climate control, XM satellite radio, alarm), red mirror caps, TomTom GPS navigation (skip this) and 17″ painted alloys. Including delivery, our Fiat 500 Abarth rang in at $26,200. If we’re comparing, a GTI and MINI Cooper S start at a good $2,000 more than the Abarth’s base price.
I feel the success of the Abarth in North America is a well-deserved boost of confidence to Fiat as it still is finding its way on the other side of the Atlantic. I understand this is the car the real Italian car fans were holding out for, us ex Fiat and Alfa Romeo drivers who appreciated that Italian driving goodness could be attained in an affordable package. Fiat was smart to recognize the Abarth name would only resonate with car geeks like myself in America, so why not hire bad-ass Charlie Sheen and Romanian supermodel Catrinel Menghia to promote their hottest ride? And, it worked. The 2013 Abarths will soon be available. My advice? Take your place in line, and you will thank me the moment you turn the key. It’s that good.