About a dozen years ago, Chrysler hired French psychologist Clotaire Rapaille to run focus groups with customers that involved getting in touch with their subconscious, what he called "the reptilian brain." To do so, participants would talk about cars for a couple of hours, then lie on pillows in a dark room and write about the imagery that came to mind. This, claimed the psychologist, led to several hit Chrysler models including the PT Cruiser, that spoke to our buried Jurassic passions.
Today, Chrysler's paring with Fiat has brought us the Fiat 500, a car that codes for "prey" in the reptilian brain and wouldn't look more mammalian if the windshield washer nozzles expressed milk. Yet Fiat has a secret stinger waiting for those who think the 500 just sucks with this, the Fiat 500 Abarth.
The funny name comes from Karl Abarth, an Austrian-born motorcycle racer who survived long enough to stop doing insane stunts like racing the Orient Express 800 miles in a motorcycle sidecar. After his racing career ended, Abarth decided to spur others to speed by taking the 20-hp postwar Fiats and crafting bolt-on parts that would transform them into screaming track monsters, under the symbol of a scorpion, his zodiac sign.
For a corporate entity, Fiat has stuck closely to Abarth's gonzo-lieri blueprint of how to make its vehicles sporty. The 500 Abarth's motivation comes from a turbocharged version of the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine pumped to 160 hp and 170 lbs.-ft. of torque, a 60-hp gain on the everyday 500. The suspension gets lowered and toughened, the brakes upgraded, the interior redone and the dual exhaust tuned to buzz like an angry junebug on a string, just as Karl liked it. Fiat says 60 mph arrives in 7.5 seconds of pedal pushing, two seconds and change faster than the regular edition.
On the road, that exhaust buzz can get tiresome after a hundred miles or so, but in every other respect the 500 Abarth improves on the driving manners of the 500 without compromise. The 500's tall roof lessens the anxiety of driving a 12-foot-long vehicle around semi trailers, and the power from the MultiAir comes on at a low enough level that constant stirring of the five speed isn't required for hillclimbing. Top speed of 130 mph arrives with no drama, or so some guy from a semi-monthly motoring magazine told me.
Fiat execs maintain the 500 Abarth could do duty as a track-day race car, and to prove their point put dozens of writers on a Nevada race track to showcase its handling. It sounded ridiculous, like running the Iditarod with a pack of beagles, but the 500 Abarth makes a case for turning its wheels in anger.
Putting a typical subcompact car through a track day workout would result in a chorus of squealing tires, destroyed brakes and far less speed than the drama it produced. But the Abarth plays on the track like it belongs there, thanks the Fiat engineers who specified Pirelli P-Zero tires as an option, 11-inch brake calipers up front and equal-length halfshafts from the transmission to keep the engine's twist from turning the wheel on its own. Like most front-drivers, the Abarth eventually falls to understeer — but it does so gladly, and before it gets there can wiggle its wheels in a way that's enjoyable rather than uncontrollable.
At a base price of $22,000 before destination charges, the 500 Abarth plays in an interesting neighborhood. That price happens to be a few dollars away from the sticker on a Honda Civic Si, a larger car that isn't nearly so fun. There's no sport edition of direct competitors such as the Scion iQ, and you can't get the keys to a new Mini Cooper JCW for less than $30,000. It's also a little hard to balance dollars and value when Fiat has yet to release the fuel economy figures for the Abarth; the performance upgrades will put some pressure on the 33 mpg city/38 mpg highway the regular 500 achieves.
And even as it's going on sale, the Abarth's fame has spread thanks to the work of Catrinel Menghia, the model seen talking down a slack-jawed rubbernecker in Fiat's "Seduction" ad. During the press previews in Las Vegas, Fiat had Menghia as a surprise guest, in costume down to the scorpion tattoo on her neck. One over-eager photographer asked for a souvenir slap to the face, which Menghia graciously delivered. If you can't arrange a smack from a world-famous model, driving the 500 Abarth will serve as an acceptable substitute. There's more than one way to tickle our reptilian brains.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth specifications
|Class||Two-door subcompact hatchback|
|Capacity||Two adults, two smaller humans|
|Configuration||Front engine, front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||1.4-liter turbo Multiair|
|Top speed||130 mph|
|Zero to 60||7.5 seconds|
|Mileage||Not officially released|
|Base price (incl destination charges)||$22,675|
|Remarkable features||A real sting that makes the 500 fun|