Quickies: Riding the Scorpion

Who says that North Americans do not deserve some of the fruits of global excellence?

It took us nearly 30 years for Fiat to return to this market. The leverage was a stake in Chrysler toward enabling distribution and production of its vehicles for our market. The Cinquecento – er, 500 – arrived last year marking the brand’s return. Instead of the 500 being imported from Poland where they build them for the rest of the world, Chrysler supplanted their former retro product – the PT Cruiser – with the Cinquecento at their plant in Toluca, Mexico. Fiat even had Chrysler build their Multiair engines at a plant in the Detroit area.

So far, so good…yet, we are never satisfied. First off, understand that the 500 works primarily as an urban commuter for those who would live with just two doors and a hatchback. That is not really enough to bring in even the most curious of consumers. To spice things up, Fiat added a convertible with the top piece rolling down the side frames of the exterior. In addition, they added a Gucci special edition for the fashion conscious.

Still, Fiat's return did not start out as well as everyone liked. However things are turning around. The 500 is picking up steam, especially when fuel prices were scaling upwards in the first part of the year. The attraction to a retro-designed and fun little subcompact could be seen as a sign of where the brand will go as it sells at separate "studios" away from their American cousins.

Fiat needed a hook. They needed a halo to attract buyers to the showroom. The Cinquecento is a fine automobile, but it could use a little bit more…brio.

If one were to scour the interwebs a bit more, Fiat had an additional 500 on their books: The Abarth.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth 7

The story goes that Karl Abarth used to tune Fiats as far back as 1952 for racing purposes. In 1971, his company became part of Fiat as a high performance brand building pre-equipped models and supplying performance parts for unmodified vehicles. Though reconceived as a higher performance brand in 2007, Abarth models were seen as Fiat’s challenge to the likes of Renault Sport in terms of producing a slew of ultimate hot hatches for the European market.

North American enthusiasts knew that the 500 came in a version adorned by Abarth's scorpion badge. The question was asked whether it could be made available for this market. The answer arrived in pre-production form at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November. The production vehicles just arrived a few weeks ago.

Normally, I would simply jump in one, drive it and give you my impressions of it. There is one small problem: My left leg. To own a 500 Abarth in North America, Fiat offers them only in a five-speed manual transmission. Since it would requiring using a clutch to engage the gears, my left leg and the synapse connected to my brain is rendered too stupid to even drive the little scorpion.

Instead, I enlisted someone else to do the driving. Not the Stig (or any of his cousins), but someone else arranged by a contact at one of the local Fiat studios. Frankly, I'm glad he did the driving.

Abarth Power

To get things out of the way, the Abarth is powered by Fiat's Multiair 1.4litre turbocharged engine. Before anyone equates this one with the one in the upcoming Dodge Dart, there are some differences between the two applications. The Multiair turbo in the Dart is used for fuel efficiency and is timed accordingly. The Abarth's turbo is designed for performance, evidenced by its dual intercoolers, specific intake system allowing for a higher flow of air into the engine and a PCM chip for performance. Though the turbo is good for 160 horsepower, it only has 170 pound-feet of torque, compared to the Dart’s 185.

The Abarth also has a few more advantages than the similarly powered Dart. Despite the lack of a sixth gear in the transmission, the Multiair turbo has only 2,533 pounds to push around. The result is a very desirable hot hatch – on paper.

On the road, this little scorpion is nothing short of astounding. For starters, that Abarth-massaged 1.4litre Multiair turbo has a burble that you will always remember. It is a sound that is part-pulse, part-constant reminder. It’s not the noise that will grab you; it is the immediacy of the turbo that scores no lag whatsoever even from a standing start. You can see the boost gauge, melded onto the main instrument panel cluster with the outside speedometer, inside tachometer and a digital readout for fuel and temperature gauges and trip information, just react along with the revs.

Though you have to row only five speeds, it is recommended to keep the Sport mode on all the time in the Abarth. That way, you can let the engine run loose, the turbo spooling all the time and sharpen the steering reaction to a close-to-a-track experience as possible. Maybe you only need five ratios to row through? The shifter is light enough and easy to work for you to handle five cogs.

You'd expect the Abarth to handle unlike most mere automobiles. On curves, it is flat. Some banks, you do feel the lean – in healthy doses. The seats are perfectly bolstered, though firm. The bolsters do lock your torso to the high backs and rightfully shaped cushions. Both the steering and brakes are sharp to the point. You can feel the steering box exact curves and keep center on straights. You feel no drama in the braking whatsoever.

The biggest surprise is the ride. When you are not presented with imperfections, the Abarth is absolutely smooth. There is firmness, but it is dampened just right not to scare the living daylights out of you. When you do go through the bumps, the dampening works to balance out your body and the road itself. Again, you walk out of the vehicle refreshed and walking upright – a sign of a good sports car in my book.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth 12

As with most vehicles, there are a few downsides on the Abarth. Sadly, they are in the cabin where as a tall and somewhat wide person, I had a few challenges. The Abarth we demonstrated had a sunroof, cutting into my headroom – or, lack thereof. The 500 is normally a narrow car, so my shoulder room was exacting, my wingspan was not. As a passenger, my arms had to be folded, rather scrunched, into my torso.

Then, there are the seats themselves. Though I appreciated the bolstering and cushioning, I would appreciate a lower seating adjustment for the height to manage my height a bit better both behind the wheel and on the passenger side. As with the 500, do not expect to carry larger people or larger things in the cargo hold without sacrificing the rear seat.

Then again, would you actually carry anyone in the rear seat of a Fiat 500 Abarth?

Saving the best for last – Fiat did a fantastic job carrying over a lot of the European model’s design elements onto this version sold on this side of the globe. The front end, the wheels and the badging bring out a different personality out of the cutesy Fiat 500. You cannot mistake this one on the road –especially when one is gaining on your rearview mirror.

The Fiat 500 Abarth is one brilliant car. It is one for the few competent and in-tune drivers who can understand how to use 160 horses through five forward gears and push 2,500 pounds of hot hatch around the bend – and beyond. This is probably a good thing, because there are only a limited number of Abarths on sale this year. The dealer that I had the demo with already had their allotment spoken for – the demo model included.

However, I must address one thing – my not driving the Abarth. No more race driver excuses here as I’ve already stated for the umpteenth time the primary reason for not doing so. Acknowledging the debate on competency of an automotive journalist who cannot engage a clutch, if I could do so without feeling slow mentally – I would have. Then, I would have felt every nuance of this fantastic hot hatch.

The Abarth on I-35W Southbound

From the passenger side, I can feel everything. It takes a driver who is in tune with the vehicle to comprehend how it feels from every aspect. The ears, eyes and synapses (the ones that are sharper than the few already discussed on here) absorbed every aspect of the Abarth to arrive at the conclusion as stated before.

For a rare beauty such as the Abarth, being invited to experience it from the second best seat in the house was worth every moment. The Scorpion is for real – no matter where you sit.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Luther Fiat of Bloomington, Bloomington, MN. 

All photos by Randy Stern

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