By Steven Cole Smith, Special to Tribune Newspapers
June 5, 2012
Those of us who cover the automotive industry for a living smelled trouble early on for the U.S. launch of the Fiat 500, which was the initial Fiat model to migrate to America as part of the company's takeover of Chrysler It seemed as though there was a disconnect between the two companies, which translated to journalists having trouble getting even the most basic information with no dedicated press contact to call.
Fiat was also insisting that the Fiat 500 should be marketed as a separate brand, and that dealers who signed up to sell it — many of them Chrysler dealers reeling from the recession —- would be expected to provide a separate building for Fiat and a dedicated sales staff. Even with the plethora of vacant auto storefronts available for cheap, it was a commitment, and one that Fiat eased after meeting with initial kickback from dealers. Finally, Fiat could give those dealers no firm timeline for when additional Fiat models would arrive to fill that new showroom — beyond a couple of different models of the tiny 500.
Add to that the ill-advised TV campaign featuring Jennifer Lopez, and the initial launch of the Fiat 500 was a disaster.
Too bad, since the car is a pretty good one, especially at the base-model level. Load it with options, and the price rises quickly to the Mini Cooper neighborhood. Still, with new TV and print commercials, and some positive word-of-mouth buzz, Fiat 500 sales are beginning to gain traction.
Enter the Fiat 500 Abarth, a much-needed performance model that injects some genuine excitement into the brand. Karl Abarth was a longtime tuner who hot-rodded various Fiat models beginning in the 1950s, and though he died in 1979, his name still resonates with European-savvy auto enthusiasts.
The Fiat 500 Abarth has a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, but turbocharging pumps horsepower up to 160, not bad for a 2,515-pound car. The transmission is still a five-speed manual — a six-speed would have been nice, and might have boosted mileage a bit from the EPA-rated 28 mpg city, 34 mpg highway. Regular gas is fine, but premium is preferred, as with many turbos.
The Abarth package adds a stiffer suspension, better brakes, bigger 16-inch tires and aluminum wheels, some trim features such as a rear spoiler, and a much, much louder exhaust. It will be up to you whether the exhaust note is invigorating or annoying. To me, it sounds flatulent, like a Honda with a hole in the muffler.
You get all this, plus plenty of premium features, for $22,000, plus shipping. The test 500 Abarth also had a long list of options, including bigger 17-inch tires and wheels, leather upholstery, a sunroof, a TomTom navigation system and a few other features that, with shipping, raised the price to $26,900. That's a lot for a car that is just 144.4 inches long and barely seats four, but if you like the Italian flavor, perhaps it's worth it.
I say "flavor," because the Fiat is built in Toluca, Mexico, in the old PT Cruiser plant. The engine is made at a Chrysler plant in Dundee, Mich. The transmission, at least, is Italian. But inside and out, the well-constructed 500 Abarth has an eager, integrating personality. Front-seat passengers have adequate room, and two adults fit better than you'd expect in back. There's an acceptable 9.5 cubic feet of luggage space, or 26.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded.
Handling is crisp and go-kart-like, and the electric power steering has an appropriate road feel. The ride is a little rough and noisy, which made the 500 Abarth slightly tiresome on longer trips. It's fine around town or on rural backroads, but if you do a lot of expressway driving, be sure to test-drive the 500 Abarth under those conditions and make sure you find it suitable.
Otherwise, it's a fun and thrifty commuter. And with Charlie Sheen starring in its commercials, instead of Jennifer Lopez, even the advertising has the appropriate attitude.