2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

I try not to gush when writing a review of any car, but I can’t see me writing up the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth without going a little over the top.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

Not only is it impossible to have more fun driving for a sticker of only $22,000, but the 500 Abarth might be the perfect car for single urban dwellers.

This Fiat 500 variation comes out of the Abarth shop tuned up far beyond the standard car. This fun machine rolls out with 1.4 liter, 16 valve turbocharged 160-horsepower engine producing 170 lb. ft. of torque. While it’s true that a turbocharger adds one more thing to an engine that can go wrong, to hear that tell-tale, sucking “whoosh” of that turbocharger kicking on when you accelerate on such a small car is a genuine treat.

Abarth designed a power-train control module (PCM) providing specific engine calibrations to amp up horsepower when you activate the car’s "Sport" mode.

Before they’re done, Abarth tweaks the Fiat 500’s exhaust to give it that rally car sound. The tuners also slap on upgraded brakes, firmer handling and lighter, stronger wheels.

The drive is so tight and responsive, I’d estimate the 500 Abarth would save any owner significant minutes during a busy commute in any city or freeway traffic situation by allowing that invaluable zipping in and out of lanes in spaces a bigger car would have no chance of fitting into at speed.

With its unique blend of quickness, handling and tiny dimensions, I spent the weeklong test drive of the 500 Abarth blissfully avoiding Los Angeles traffic. I was fast enough to outrun 90% of cars on the road, and zip in and out of wolf packs with surgical efficiency.

But, I was also able to throw it around the hilly winds of Mulholland and the Angeles Crest with total confidence. There’s more than one lazy LA driver who was sick to death of seeing me flying up behind them while biting off an apex.

In that size department, the car approaches almost Smart Car dimensions – though I’m ashamed to mention that silly abomination of a vehicle in the same breath as the 500 Abarth. The Fiat has a back seat that you might be able to wedge a ventriloquist’s dummy into when two adults are up front, so it’s not a family car on any planet. But that’s what makes the 500 Abarth right for that single driver living in the city.

For its price, the only car I can think of that comes close to the 500 Abarth’s entertainment value is the new Scion FR-S, but even that affordable sports car will run you about $25,000. As much as I like the Volkswagen GTI, I think the 500 Abarth outperforms it on the streets – without costing you as much as its other natural rival, the Mini Cooper.

The only issue about the 500 Abarth is (though it wears that attractive price tag) the car is becoming so noteworthy and popular that it’s selling well around the world. Dealerships are marking up their Fiat Abarth inventory now with some selling north of $30,000. Fiat would be quick to tell you it’s not their plan, and they don’t control the individual dealerships. It’s a reality would-be buyers face.

Is it worth the mark-up? You’ll have to decide. But I will say I’ve test drove a Mustang GT, a Lexus IS F and other cars designed to generate a response by pedestrians and other drivers on the street. No car I’ve ever driven urged more people to go out of their way to tell me how much they liked my ride than the Fiat 500 Abarth.