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2013 Fiat 500 Abarth - First Drive

The 500 gets a serious testosterone injection.

Peter Tarach
Sep 19, 2012
Modp 1210 01+2013 fiat 500 abarth+cover Photo 1/4   |   2013 Fiat 500 Abarth - First Drive

Specs & Details
'13 Fiat 500 Abarth
Engine 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower 160
Torque 170
Transmission five-speed manual
Price Starting at $22,000

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but when it’s the Fiat 500 Abarth, it’s hard not to. At first glance the tiny little hatchback doesn’t look much different from its sibling, the base-model Fiat 500, but look past the bubbly silhouette and you begin to notice the wider wheels, a ground effects kit, dual exhaust and, of course, the Abarth badging. But, is its testosterone-infused exterior a legit indicator of its performance, or is the Abarth nothing more than a tick posing as a scorpion?

Size-wise, the Abarth is pretty much the same as the standard 500, though it does get a longer front fascia to accommodate the larger motor and twin intercoolers. It also sits about 15 mm lower with 16-inch alloy wheels on all-season 195/45R16 Pirelli tires. An optional 17-inch wheel package with 205-series wide high-performance Pirellis is available and would be the go-to choice for most enthusiasts. We’d love to have seen a wider track with bowed out fenders on the Abarth, as the one exterior complaint we have with it is that it looks a bit narrow.

However, the ride experience is what matters most, and that’s where the Abarth’s strong points come out. The tiny 1.4L turbocharged engine is rated at 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque, enough to give the car a fair amount of pep off the line. Admittedly, it begins to trail off near redline, but the powerband is long and decent enough to provide an excitement-filled forward thrust. The five-speed manual gearbox is a smooth shifter with relatively short and precise throws.

Modp 1210 02+2013 fiat 500 abarth+engine Photo 2/4   |   Since space was at a premium with the Abarth, twin intercoolers are employed to cool the pressured air from the turbocharged engine.

When driving the Abarth at its limits, its short wheelbase becomes very apparent. The twitchy nature of the hatchback makes for a thrilling ride, but along with that comes an uneasy feeling when, for example, the back end gets squirrelly under hard braking. It isn’t exactly confidence inspiring. This twitchiness is not too big a worry, though, because the rest of the handling is composed and well sorted. Any vehicle that can be manipulated mid-corner with throttle inputs gets a thumbs up from us. Add the Abarth’s sharp and precise steering response and it’s quite the terror on a racetrack. This is a car you have to learn to be patient with, though, because stab the throttle and crank the wheel too soon and it understeers with relative ease. But be patient with the inputs and it will reward you with a clean line.

The most entertaining aspect of the Abarth is that it’s a blast to drive hard. The go-kart-ness of the car makes for a good time around any track or winding road. Just remember to engage the Sport button, otherwise you’ll be short 20 lb-ft (the Abarth defaults to 150 lb-ft when you start it—primarily for what we assume are fuel economy reasons). Sport mode also tightens up steering and throttle response, so we recommend you drive with it on at all times.

Another glaring highlight of the Abarth is its exhaust system; it gurgles, growls, and pops with utter delight. It raises eyebrows at every stoplight when people are caught off guard by the angry deep note coming from the tiny little car. The exhaust tone is very reminiscent of the Dodge Neon SRT-4, and not surprisingly, Dodge’s SRT team had a hand in building this vehicle. In case you’re not aware, Fiat owns a majority share of Chrysler.

Modp 1210 04+2013 fiat 500 abarth+wheel Photo 3/4   |   2013 Fiat 500 Abarth - First Drive

There’s no doubt the aftermarket will be able to extract some more ponies out of the small, turbocharged four-cylinder, and some suspension tweaks with stickier rubber will give it extra bite in the corners. But the question that remains is whether enthusiasts will embrace the Abarth as the little performance hot hatch that it truly is, or is it destined to suffer the stigma of being a chick car with some go-fast goodies, thanks to the Jennifer Lopez ad campaign?

Modp 1210 03+2013 fiat 500 abarth+interior Photo 4/4   |   2013 Fiat 500 Abarth - First Drive
By Peter Tarach
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