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Fiat 500 Abarth review - the most exciting car in America under $25k

The Fiat 500 Abarth might not be the fastest or the most high tech sports car in America but with a price starting just under $23,000, fuel economy measures in the 30-34 mile per gallon range and driving characteristics that make it just as much fun to drive as far more power and far more expensive sports cars – it is my belief that the Fiat 500 Abarth is not only the most engaging compact car sold in America but it is also the most exciting car sold in the US with a price tag under $25,000.


I should start this review by explaining that my 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth test car was fully loaded with every option that a buyer can opt for and because of that, the MSRP of my test car was $27,050. Even at that price, the Fiat 500 Abarth is one of the most exciting sports cars on the market and regardless of price, there is just no compact car sold in the USA that is as much fun to drive as the 500 Abarth. However, many of the options that drive the price up away from the $22,700 based price (including a $700 destination fee) are completely superficial and removing them from my Abarth test car wouldn’t have made this sporty Italian compact any less engaging or any less fun to drive. In other words – a Fiat 500 Abarth fitted only with standard equipment is just as much fun to drive as the fully loaded model that I tested and with a car like this, it is all about “fun to drive” factor.

The Exterior
On the outside, the average car buyer might mistake the Fiat 500 Abarth for the “normal” Fiat 500 that has significantly less power and less goodies all around that makes the Abarth so much fun to drive. Across the front end, the Fiat 500 Abarth wears a similar headlight, hood and turn signal design along with a similar upper grille opening but above that slim opening, the standard Fiat logo and “whiskers” are removed in favor of the Abarth scorpion logo with the whiskers mounted directly against this hood badge. Along the lower portion o fthe front end, the 500 Abarth is vastly different from the non-performance 500 with a large central opening flanked by projection style driving lights along with air intakes located both in the large central grille opening and further out on the corners of the front end. On top of the revised fascia, the 500 Abarth features contrasting black filler in the lower fascia openings to give this sporty compact a far more aggressive look than the entry level Fiat 500. All of these features are standard on the Fiat 500 Abarth so even those units that cost only $22,700 sport this design.

Along the side, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is pretty much identical to the other 500 models with the main exceptions being the Abarth scorpion badge mounted just behind both doors along with the broken stripe running along the bottom of the car and carrying the Abarth name. In standard form, the 500 Abarth comes with body colored mirror caps and black body stripes but for $350, you can opt for the white mirror caps and the white Abarth stripes featured on my test vehicle. As appearance upgrades go, I believe that this is $350 well spent as the white trim really pops against the red body of the 500 Abarth. My test car also fitted with optional 17” Abarth wheels finished in white and wrapped in high performance tires rather than the standard 16” wheels wrapped in all season tires – an upgrade that costs $1,000 but once again, this is an option that I would choose if I was buying a new Abarth. These white wheels are a hassle to keep clean as brake dust and normal road dirt clings to them but much like the white stripes and mirror caps, the white wheels look awesome on the bright Rosso (red) hatchback. These 17” optional wheels fill the fender openings beautifully and provide a wide, sporty stance that I just absolutely love. If you prefer the look of the standard 16” wheels, the body colored mirrors and the black body stripes, you can remove the $1,350 upcharge that comes with these changes but for my money – these are must-have accessories.

Out back, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth wears the same tail lights as the non-performance models but the Abarth package adds a low profile rear spoiler that extends straight out from the roofline to improve high speed downforce along with a lower rear fascia that looks great and serves as a fitting home to the Abarth dual exhaust system. This rear fascia has vents on the outer edges and an integrated diffuser that helps to improve the aerodynamics of the sport Italian hatchback during stints of spirited driving. It looks great as well…and these features are all included in the $22,700 base price.

While the basic design of the modern Fiat 500 might not please the average American muscle car lover, the 500 Abarth exterior styling looks fantastic and offers more attitude than any compact car on the market today. Without compromising the bubbly, friendly styling on which the entire Fiat 500 lineup is based, the Abarth package is clearly a model that is designed to go fast and look great doing it. The simple addition of the 17” wheel/tire package gives this sporty compact the look of a car ready for a cross country road rally while the small footprint makes this an awesome car for driving in the most cluttered cities in America.

The Interior
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is based on a subcompact car often referred to as a “city car” and that means that the Abarth has a very, very small interior. While there is technically a back seat, it is very small and will only really seat a small child or a small dog. If you move both front seats far forward, you may be able to fit two very friendly adults in the back seat but in doing so, you will more than likely have the driver and front passenger jammed against the dash board. However, when the car is set up for just two people with the front seats set all of the way back – there is tons of leg, elbow and head room for the driver and front passenger. In fact, there is far more interior space than I had expected (as is the case with the entire Fiat 500 lineup) so whether you are 6’4” or 4’10”, the 500 Abarth offers adjustability to make driving comfortable.

Cloth sport seats are standard on the Fiat 500 Abarth but for $1,000, you can upgrade to a set of leather covered high back buckets that have deep back and hip bolsters to keep the driver and passenger firmly rooted during hard cornering. For those trying to keep the purchase price down, this is one of those options that can be avoided as these seats don’t make THAT big of a difference but for someone who wants a certain measure of Italian style in their compact Italian sports car, the black leather buckets with red stripes and red stitching is a nice touch for an extra grand. My only real complaint with these seats – or with the interior as a whole – is that the passenger does not get an inside arm rest while the driver does. This leaves the front passenger with nowhere to put his or her left arm while seated in the 500 Abarth but that is a minor complaint; one that will have little effect on the driver as he or she is loving every second of being in the Fiat 500 Abarth.

In an effort to maximize interior space, the Fiat 500 Abarth has a very wide open interior layout devoid of things that tend to clutter up other small cars such as a plush center console but even with this in mind – the 500 Abarth has everything that you could ask for in a compact car. The floor space between the front seats has cup holders for both the driver and passenger in a place where they do not interfere with the shifting duties (a major problem with many modern sports cars including the Ford Mustang and the Scion FR-S) while further storage capacity is added with a small net mounted on the passenger’s side of the shift console and roomy pockets in the doors. The stock sound system of the Abarth provides excellent sound quality but I spent very little time with the radio on so that I didn’t miss a single second of the sweet, sweet Abarth exhaust tone that we will discuss later in this review.

The crown jewel of the Fiat 500 interior, both in standard and Abarth trim, is the massive single pod gauge design mounted directly in front of the driver. The outer ring displays the speed, the middle ring handles the engine RPM and the inner circle includes information like the outside temperature, the engine temperature, the fuel tank level, the time and date and the odometer readings. Next to this large gauge cluster is a boost gauge that is unique to the 500 Abarth with the boost pressure heading up to 24psi – although it stays around the 18psi range. This boost gauge also has a central indicator that lights when the Abarth wants you to upshift which is another cool feature of the sporty Abarth. Also, the 500 Abarth features a sporty flat bottomed steering wheel which could pass for something straight out of the Ferrari lineup.

Finally, one surprising feature of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is the roomy rear cargo area. Considering that the back seat is not all that useful for passengers, folding the split back seat down allows for a much larger cargo area than you would expect from a subcompact car.

The Fiat 500 Abarth packs the level of quality that you would expect from an Italian sports car into a tiny interior that still offers great cargo space and seating for two taller adults. From a driver’s standpoint, the interior is comfortable whether driving hard or cruising along the highway while all of the controls are well within reach. This is a tiny car but the design offers tons of interior space without cutting those features that you would expect from a modern sports car – all with a clear touch of Italian style.

The Drive
On paper, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth seems like a massive long shot in trying to compete with the majority of the sports cars sold in the American market with “only” 160 horsepower and 170lb-ft of torque but this super light compact car makes very good use of that power. Mind you, this is not a car that is going to beat up many modern muscle cars on the quarter mile with stock quarter mile times in the low 15 second range but based on the good ol’ ‘seat of the pants’ dyno – the 500 Abarth is a super quick, super nimble little car. The 500 Abarth features a heavy duty close ratio 5-speed manual transmission that allows you to come off the line hard and slam through the gears with a great deal of confidence as the Abarth hits 60 from a dead stop in the mid 6 second range. Again, this isn’t a blazing fast time but it provides enough acceleration to put a smile on the face of any driver. The Abarth turbo 4 also packs enough power to allow you to do a nice, smokey front wheel drive burnout if you side step the clutch at even midrange RPM.

When you launch hard with the Fiat 500 Abarth, you get an earful of the incredible free flowing exhaust that makes the 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder one of the best sounding stock engine options on the market today. You heard that right. While the Abarth might not pack the mighty V8 roar of the Ford Mustang or the Chevrolet Corvette, there is unquestionably no 4-cylinder engine sold in the US today that sounds better with stock exhaust than the Fiat 500 Abarth. This exhaust was why I spent so little time listening to the radio as the exhaust tone is music in its own right. Whether launching hard, cruising down the highway or just sitting at a stop light and revving the engine – the Abarth is one of the best sounding exhaust systems that I have had the pleasure of experiencing in years. I fully expect that Dodge Dart Turbo buyers who want their compact sedan to have more sporty attitude hear the Abarth, they will quickly work to get that same tone out of the shared engine in the new Dart.

Where the Fiat 500 Abarth really shines is on the curves and having had the immense pleasure of driving the Abarth on a road course, on a higher speed autocross course and on the open road – I can honestly say that there are few cars sold in the USA today that can be as much fun to drive in stock form as the 500 Abarth. The Abarth isnt the fastest or quickest car in America but the track tuned suspension allows the high performance 500 to feel very confident in a variety of high performance track scenarios. When coupled with the sport brakes of the Abarth package, the 500 Abarth is a car that you can hurdle through turns so hard that it feels like the Italian subcompact is on a rail. Even at wide open throttle on an autocross course, the 500 Abarth handling properties allow you to simply point the car where you want to go and this awesome little car responds. More importantly to many, the 500 Abarth provides a comfortable ride on the open road. This is a sport package with a track tuned suspension setup so it is rigid, allowing you a great feel for the road, but it has enough “give” that every day driving doesn’t beat up the driver and passenger. A key complaint with many low priced sports cars that offer high quality handling is that they achieve great handling by compromising ride quality but in the case of the 500 Abarth – you can have track-proven handling properties combined with a comfortable (albeit it sporty-stiff) ride.

The Fiat 500 Abarth is one of those cars that someone who loves to drive will never want to park. I have driven a plethora of performance cars over the last 10 years but I would rank the 500 Abarth as one of the most entertaining cars that I have ever driven. Whether blasting down the highway, ripping through the twisties of a country road or hammering the turns and straights of a closed circuit race course – the Fiat 500 Abarth is an affordable compact that offers uncompromised driving excitement. The Abarth screams like a sports car with handling properties that allow it to cut through the tight turns with the greatest of ease while easily climbing over the century mark just as easily.

The Final Word
After spending a few hours behind the wheel of the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, I was convinced that this was one of the most entertaining cars that I have ever driven while most certainly being the most exciting subcompact I have ever experienced. In a segment where driving excitement is rarely a consideration, the 500 Abarth offers as much “fun to drive” factor as sports cars that are far more powerful and way more expensive. Also, in a time where fuel prices are seemingly always on the rise, this high performance hatchback offers a very real 34 miles per gallon on the highway and 31mpg average – two figures that I found to be accurate during my time in the Abarth.

If you love to drive and you want a car that will make for a great track toy along with being an excellent daily driver, the Fiat 500 Abarth is a car that you have to drive before making your next new car purchase. Regardless of what you have driven in the past, the Fiat 500 Abarth offers an incredible driving experience with a price nicely equipped in the $25,000 range…or fully loaded with a sunroof, leather, Beats sound system and all of the other goodies for under $30,000. All of that driving excitement with the sharp, aggressive exterior design and the styling Italian interior makes the 500 Abarth the most exciting compact car available in the US today with a price that makes it the most entertaining car in the US for under $25,000.

If you are shopping for a sporty car on a budget – make sure that the Fiat 500 Abarth is on your list of new cars to test drive. This is one of my favorite cars of the year and anyone who truly loves the simple act of driving will enjoy the visceral experience behind the wheel of the Fiat 500 Abarth.


Rod R (not verified)    December 29, 2012 - 1:50AM

I test drove one of these pretty much on a lark. I had just bought a car 6 months previously and really was not n the market for another car. A week later I went back and bought one. This is just a stupid fun car. It feels fast and handles great. It is a miracle that any new car made it to production with this exhaust system. Get the optional 17inch wheels with the Pirelli PZero Neros. Well worth the extra $1000 IMO. If you get a chance to drive one of these take it. This is a great review that really captures the reasons I spent my hard earned money on one of these.

mopartodd (not verified)    January 2, 2013 - 9:58AM

Nice review. Good to see you like something other than "big and loud" lol. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come from Fiat/Chrysler in the small car catagories.

Anonymous (not verified)    January 8, 2013 - 2:40AM

Great article. I've owned MANY cars over the years. Trans-am, Cobra Jet Ford, Corvette, Ferrari, M series BMW, V8 Benz, etc., etc. But on my first trip to Italy in the late 70's, I fell in love with the 500. When I heard it was coming to the US, I had high hopes. The new 500 met my expectations, but couldn't move me to rush into a purchase. Then came news of the Abarth.... The rise of gas prices into the $5 range gave me the perfect "excuse" to finally scratch that nagging itch. All I can say is bravissimo! It's not fast. It's not very quick. It's not particularly sexy. It's only somewhat practical. And it's the best car I've ever owned. Yes, the Ferrari made me smile. The Abarth makes me giggle. Winding it up to 6,000 in the city with a big grin on my face, I could never do that with the other cars. Driving a fast car at 30% is nowhere near as fun as getting 80% out of this little guy. The quality, fit, and finish are modern, something that I can't say about the Italian supercars of just a few years ago. 30mpg instead of 3? I'll take that, too. It has never failed to entertain. In fact, many times over the years, I have been the butt of the joke about "compensating"..... I wonder what those people say today? All I can say is, if you get a chance to test drive one, be very careful. You must either show a great deal of self control, or be prepared to make a purchase. It will make you feel 16 years old again every time you fire it up. Who can resist that?

Arthur J Haberland (not verified)    March 23, 2021 - 11:35AM

I just found this article. I might own the twin to the car tested, except mine has the 16 inch wheels. It has everything else, the white stripes and mirror caps, the leather seats with the very red seating area and stitching, and of course the glorious sound. Only 18,000 miles on my 2012, but it's not my main car, just my giggle machine. So far, in 9 years it has needed nothing but tyres, oil, and gas.