New Car Review: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

White 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth front 3/4 view on desert road
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth.

For a bit over a year now, Fiat 500s have been making us smile whenever we see one on the street (increasingly common near TireKicker World Headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, where they seem to be selling well). Regular TireKicker readers will recall that we liked the first 500 we drove...the 500C...last fall.

All well and good...but no preparation whatsoever for the ear-to-ear grin and maniacal laughter produced by the Fiat 500 Abarth.

What's an Abarth? Well, it's an Italian racing company founded by the late Karl Abarth in 1949, and which began building hot versions of Fiats in 1952. Fiat bought Abarth outright in 1971, but allowed the name to descend to trim level packages and not much else by the 90s.

But Abarth is back, and a great way to make a statement that Abarth means fast is to take a 2,533 pound Fiat 500 and swap the 101 horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder with a turbo version making 160 horsepower.

Or as Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson called the Abarth, "A small, cuddly pet mouse that can be used for killing burglars."

Fire up the engine and you'll hear the throatiest snarl on the market. I looked to see where it was coming from the first time...not quite able to believe that this $22,000 (base price) economy (EPA estimate 28 city/34 highway) car could be the source.

But it was.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth rear 3/4 view parked with mountains in background

And it's nothing but good news from that moment on. There's only one transmission...a manual (yes, more gears would be nice, but the 5-speed keeps the revs up on the 1.4 Turbo very nicely, never letting that snarl fade away. There are anti-lock four-wheel disc performance brakes with red calipers, 16-inch aluminum wheels, a spoiler, and dual exhausts. Not to mention an Abarth tuned suspension.

Given that the 500 is a short, narrow and tallish car, I was a bit concerned about taking corners too enthusiastically at first. Not to worry. The tweaks to the Abarth keep the car firm and planted. And the extra power is fun to use at just the right moments...like when the cretin in the half-ton pickup truck speeds up just to keep you from merging onto the freeway. A bit of pressure from your right Nike and he's wondering just what that furrin' car has under the hood.

Inside, you get airbags and curtains, hill start assist, remote keyless entry, speed control, power locks, tire pressure monitoring, intermittent wipers, a turbo boost gauge, air conditioning, driver seat memory, power windows, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 Bose Premium radio with Bluetooth and USB connection, leather-wrapped instrument cluster brow, steering wheel and shift knob, bright pedal covers and Abarth floormats.

And again, that's just what $22,000 buys you. Our tester added Performance leather-trimmed high-back bucket seats ($1,000), a safety and convenience package including automatic temperature control, SirusXM satellite radio and a security alarm ($750), a power sunroof ($850), red mirror caps and body side stripes ($350),  a TomTom navigation system that plugs into a port at the top of the instrument panel when you want it and stashes neatly in the glovebox when you don't ($400) and 17-inch gloss white wheels with 3-season tires ($1,000).

With $700 for destination charges, the final tally was $27,050. And you know what? It's still a bargain. The Abarth pegs the fun-meter like nothing else under...oh, say...$40,000. If $27,000 and a picture of Ulysses S. Grant seems too high, there's nothing on the options list of our car that affects performance. Ditch it all, take the car stock and you're at $22,000. Pop for the special seats and the wheels and tires and it's $24,000. And worth every penny.