Fiat's reborn 500 has gone off like a bomb in Europe, definitely the next big small thing. It's retro-stylish as anything, and it's not just a show-pony, either. Real substance is lent by spirited engines, sharp handing, and an interior full of nicely made touches of jewelry.
But let's face it, there's only so much you can do with the standard 500's 1.4L and 100 hp. For full gearhead approval, Fiat needed to launch a hot version. And there was only one thing it could be called: Abarth.
Just as Minis historically were hopped up by John Cooper, 500s were given the treatment by Carlo Abarth. Little Fiat Abarths terrorized the Continent's racetracks in the 1960s, performing far beyond their size or displacement. There will be race versions of the new 500Abarth, too.
But for the moment it shows as a roadgoing 135-hp hottie, achieved by turbocharging and considerably modifying the 1.4L base engine. It serves up 152 lb-ft of torque, and the twin tailpipes play a fruity tune. You might be thinking these aren't colossal figures, but remember the Abarth weighs a scant 2200 lb (and still matching a Mini in the Euro NCAP crash tests), giving 0-62-mph acceleration of 7.9 sec via a five-speed tranny -- five is enough.
The gearshift emerges from the fascia, showing the platform's origins as a sort of space-efficient microvan, the Panda. So does the high seating position. And the suspension is a simple setup, with struts at the front and a torsion beam behind.
High or not, it doesn't sway much. On 205/40 17 tires and stiffened chassis settings over the regular 500, there's grip to burn. And it gets the torque down well, digging itself urgently out of tight curves. But that's not what makes the Abarth so special -- it's the way it gives you such abundant knowledge of the tire patches moving on the road, the squirming transition from power-on mild understeer to lift-off slight oversteer. The stability electronics are uncommonly well finessed.
Inside, there are huge race-style seats and a clever instrument pod with concentric speedo and tach needles. When you're in low gear, your speed chases the revs around the dial. In the higher gears, your revs chase the speed. It goads you on. Abarth has plundered its heritage as an add-on tuner: A boost gauge sprouts mushroom-like out of the main dial binnacle, the pedals get big aluminum pads, the gearknob is stitched leather. There isn't a Fiat badge on the car, but it's peppered with big red and yellow Abarth scorpions.
I love the Abarth. It's no thoroughbred racer: It remains underneath a small tall hatchback. And it won't be winning any drag races. These days, 500 hp has become the sports-car entry ticket. But when can you use that much? The Abarth reminds us there's a lot to be said for taking a small terrier of a car and driving the door handles off it.