2012 Fiat 500 Abarth first drive Page 2

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On the road again

After several track sessions thrashing the Abarth around this very technical course, we were left wondering just how we might be able to fit one into our budget, as it'd fit into the garage pretty easily. But then it was time to head back, on the open road, to Vegas.

Here, we were reminded of the car's econo-box origins once again. Sure, it's fun--perhaps the most fun of the current really small hatch set--but it's also a car you'll have to drive day to day, and here's where it might come up just a bit short.

While the Abarth 500 feels like it has some punch on track, on the street, it's a bit anemic until you engage the Sport mode (which enables full power), and get up to a few thousand rpms--which means you'll have to choose between fuel economy and fun, and even then, you won't be winning any stoplight drag races. The exhaust gets a bit blatty, just edging up to annoying, when taking off from a stop.

The high seating position comes back as a minor gripe, too, but one that you'll notice each time you get in the car. The back seats aren't any better; they're basically seat-shaped shelves, with very little room behind even middle-height front-seaters. The cargo area is useful, but not for much more than a week's grocery run for two, or a weekend's bags. But hey, it's a very compact car, so we can forgive it these faults--they aren't unique to the 500.

Even with this return to reality, at the end of my day with the Abarth 500, testing examples ranging in sticker price from $24,000 to nearly $27,000 (base price is $22,000), two key impressions remained: this is one fun little car on track, and it looks amazing.

Yes, this little bubble box looks fantastic. It screams performance from a block away, despite sharing nearly all of its exterior dimensions, angles, and details with the much less sporty-looking standard Fiat 500. How does it pull this off? With a nice set of Abarth badges, very comely multi-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels (definitely don't opt for the 16-inchers), and a bit of vinyl.

The wheels, especially when painted white--almost rally style--are probably the real key, setting off the Abarth red paint fantastically. They even look good with the white paint.

Inside, there's a bit more Chrysler (or is it Dodge?) than we'd like, with some funky and cheapish black plastics on the doors, dash, and controls. The controls themselves look dated and overly simple. There's a large plastic section on the dash available in either white or red, with a polished finish, that doesn't quite do the job of looking like painted metal that it seems to be attempting.

But even so, there's an atmosphere--a style--to the Abarth 500's interior that speaks of sport and fun even in the face of material cheapness. And that, perhaps, is the ultimate essence of the Abarth 500, and a fitting tribute to the tuner that originally gave his name to the brand.

Whatever else it is, the Fiat 500 Abarth is a car that doesn't just want to be driven--it rewards the driver for driving it.


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