It is very hard to imagine anyone in the advertising biz or even the auto industry ever being crazy enough to agree to such a potentially off-putting and intentionally quite schizophrenic car brand re-launch campaign like the one currently being undertaken by Italy’s Fiat. Other countries usually think of the United States as the land of the uptight New Puritans so being radical, prurient or in any way titillating with your sales approach is generally considered to be totally crazy or perhaps in this case just totally and utterly Italian. We kind of think it’s the latter in this case because, well, Fiat and the people of Italy just dance to the beat of their own much cooler drummer.
In Fiat’s latest round of rather unexpected North American TV spots for their all-new 2012 FIAT 500 Abarth hot hatch, they chose to utilize the outrageously narcissistic persona embodied by none other than the hopeless bad-boy Charlie Sheen who regularly appears in public accompanied by “strippers/goddesses” in a state that has at times implied he wasn’t just high on life.
But really, Charlie Sheen is an oddly lovable” bad boy” that no one is really afraid of because he never, ever denies exactly what kind of man he is. And with that fact, there are many out there who secretly wish they could be half as cool as Charlie Sheen. Thankfully for Fiat, Charlie also nailed the tone of his first ad which was intended to cast his unashamedly iconic “bad-ass” aura around the newly released 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth that we recently had a chance to take on an introductory first drive road test.
This new sporty 500 is so much more than just its more powerful turbocharged engine as Fiat went so far as to make changes to the brakes, suspension, transmission, exhaust and topped it all off with two gorgeously styled sport seats for driver and front passenger. The 2012 500 Abarth really is something special to be around, much like Mr. Sheen himself, while lesser versions are about as compelling as his half-brother Emilio Estevez (who reached his charismatic peak sometime in the 1980’s at a place called “The Breakfast Club”).
Prior to hiring Charlie as their Scorpion brand bad boy, Fiat went a bit safer with their celebrity choice when they hired J-Lo to do a series of music video style ads for the mainstream Fiat 500 and 500C convertible models. While many of Fiat’s competitors thought that using Jennifer Lopez in an ad was like dooming the brand to perpetual "chick car" status, the move caused a sharp increase in sales and brand awareness within just 60 days. Apparently she is not just “Jenny from the Block” but she is also “Jenny who can help you empty out your new car dealership parking lot.”
But is the use of two celebrities whose images are stronger than their actual talent really the best choices as spokespeople for the Fiat brand when gaining a quick and strong foothold in our market should be paramount to their survival here? Come on people, it’s time to drop the Mayflower bonnets and lighten up a little bit! Public image, celebrity and the ability to invent insane catchphrases at whim does not have anything to do with how good or bad a car is out on the open road. Using these two darlings of the tabloids was just a fun and clever way for the Fiat 500 to get some attention. Only now with the Abarth edition, we think Fiat is going to find its 500 will have no problem getting people who love the lost art of driving’s full and complete attention.
Exterior and Interior
Comparing a “de-caffeinated” 2012 Fiat 500 model visually with the Abarth is like seeing a living realization of the artistic difference between the notions of “cuteness” and “evil in its tiniest form.” Yes, the regular 500 always looks stylish, friendly and fun but thanks to a number of exterior and interior alterations, the 2012 Fiat Abarth will instead have you checking its roof for a tiny “666” logo for fear it may be Satan’s own lovechild. Yes, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth looks wicked, aggressive and just a tiny bit demonic.
Seriously, our 2012 Abarth tester looked like it wanted to either bite you or run you over with its comedic ally oversized optional 17-inch alloy wheels with P-Zero tires. The 500 Barth’s front end is 2.7 inches longer than normal as Fiat needed to make room for the totally overhauled turbocharged motor’s twin side mounted intercoolers and the necessary air intakes. Fiat also installed equal length half shafts up front to help keep the torque steer monster at bay. Torque steer is common with high powered, front drive vehicles and if you don’t know what we are talking about, it is that uncomfortable sensation MINI Cooper S owners feel when they floor the throttle and car is suddenly careening towards the neighbor’s perfectly trimmed shrubbery.
To our eyes, the Abarth actually looks cooler with the Barbra Streisand/Leah Michelle from “Glee” style full on nose extension and there is no doubt that the Scorpion logos standard with this sporting 500 variant make this hot hatch look that much tougher. (Note: In case you were wondering, the founder of the Abarth racing firm in Italy was born under the zodiac sign of the Scorpio which is represented by a (you guessed it) scorpion! Oddly, Mr. Abarth also died in 1979 during that same zodiac time period. Why Fiat shared this with us, no one will ever know but then to Americans all of this might sound coincidental while most Italians will think it was the end result of some Sicilian evil eye curse. )
We loved the changes Fiat made to the 500 Abarth’s interior what with the aforementioned sport seats which hold you firmly and comfortably in place no matter how crazy the driver gets, the gorgeous piano black-interior wood trim, alloy pedal covers and even the rather minute and wicked looking turbo-boost gauge located next to the space-age yet minimalist speedometer.
Power window switches are placed on top of the central console while most adults will find this car’s manual transmission a snap to reach in its prime location in the mid-center section of the dash. To Italian’s, ergonomics like this make perfect sense whereas an auto engineer from some other part of the world would just as likely let their head explode as soon as place a shift lever where the climate control switches should be.
Pricing, Features and Options
Even with the impressive power hike of 60 horsepower and 70 pound feet of torque when buyers opt for the Abarth variant, this particular 2012 Fiat 500 still gets 34 miles per gallon highway as opposed to the 38 miles per gallon estimate returned by lesser 500 models on the highway. Premium unleaded is preferred for performance reasons with the Abarth’s engine but using regular will not damage the motor in any way. This is very nice to know nowadays what with gas prices escalating faster than your average war of words between North and South Korea during a day of “war exercises” in the South China Sea.
The gas tank only holds 10.5 gallons but it makes sense given how small the Abarth actually is that it would not have a 30 gallon fuel tank like your current 14 mile per gallon SUV that you drive alone 95% of the time. But then again, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth starts at just $22,000 and comes standard with tight gripping suede-feel sport seats up front, power windows, locks, mirrors, air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, bi-halogen headlamps, Fiat’s Blue & ME system which connects drivers to Bluetooth for cell phones and iPods for music as well as a clear sounding Bose premium audio system. Leather seating is available optionally for $1,000 in addition to a variety of upgraded wheels and tire packages, a power moonroof ($800), a shoddily integrated Tom-Tom navigation unit ($400) and a “Safety and Convenience Group” for $600 that adds an alarm system, automatic climate control and XM satellite radio.
Beyond all of the exterior changes made to this particular 500, Fiat also equipped it with a unique Abarth performance tuned suspension (with a 15 millimeter lower ride height, a stiffened rear axle and a new anti-sway bar), performance brake pads with larger 11.1 inch front rotors, a 10% quicker steering rack lock to lock, a functional rear diffuser for increased downward force at high speeds and last but not least a Honeywell turbocharger with a max boost output of 18 psi. So the 2012 Fiat Abarth is designed to not just go fast in a straight line but also feel very sporty in places as mundane as the freeway on-ramp you use each morning during your morning commute.
Also be aware that all 2012 500 Abarth buyers get a complementary track day with Fiat Abarth driving instructors where they will demonstrate racing tricks, the Abarth’s handling limits at high speeds as well as ensure that you will never forget how much fun this thing is to drive ever again. A five-speed manual transmission is the only option available to Abarth buyers but it is strengthened for increased durability and during our time with the car it proved to be smooth, quick and a joy to use.
We shortly drove both a convertible automatic 500C Gucci Edition with the 1.4 liter 101 horsepower/98 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder engine and took a rather more extensive drive in the new Abarth Edition with its turbocharged 1.4 liter Multiair motor with twin side mounted intercoolers that pumps out 160 horsepower/170 lb. feet of torque. Suffice it to say, the difference in how both of these models accelerated, sounded, steered and handled was very, very noticeable.
Do realize that when equipped with the optional automatic transmission, the basic 500 feels more like a piece of highly stylized costume jewelry and much less a driver’s car. Admittedly, plenty of people will be perfectly content with a 500 or 500 C convertible with the automatic but in our opinion that would be missing out on this car’s true nature which is to envelop the driver as much as possible in the driving experience. In the hands of the Abarth tuning experts, the 500 finally becomes able to be the driver’s car and Mini competitor it was always meant to be.
The 500 Abarth is the most fully realized and downright addicting to drive version of this Italian hatchback to date and most definitely is worth every penny of its $22,000 asking price. And there’s absolutely no Mini-style torque steer to be found when accelerating in this little Fiat thanks to some clever electronics and a pair of equal length half shafts up front. So even though the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth feels sporty, quick and race track ready, you can still drive it comfortably yet quickly on public roads.
Admittedly, the 500 Abarth’s steering doesn’t have quite the go-kart like immediacy of a non-SUV Mini but it is less frenetic feeling on city streets meaning the driver can relax more and revel in the joys found in manipulating the excellent shifter and listening to the burbling, backfiring and gurgling from the glorious exhaust note that Fiat apparently spent a lot of development time perfecting. Well, to the guys at Fiat and the Abarth division you can rest easy because this car sounds just awesome. It’s fun to drive too and really do you need any other reason to buy a car like this?
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth may not the be the biggest, fastest or most intimidating new car on the road today but it quite frankly makes some of the most sense to driving enthusiasts who live in the real world. Although it does cry out for the occasional track day, the beauty of the Abarth is that you needn’t drive like you are participating in a high speed chase with an LA County police helicopter just to enjoy it. But you just might wind up driving it that way anyways as the Abarth can easily be a bit of a bad influence on anyone well known for not resisting urges to speed, pass slower cars on two lane roads and take the long and winding way home.
The interplay of the smooth manual shifter, the easy to modulate clutch and the rorty burble from the turbocharged motor at high revs all come together to create a car that offers up driving grins no matter what your speed. Even when stuck in traffic the 500 Abarth remains a driver’s friend thanks to its surprisingly absorbent ride and impressive mechanical refinement. So while it isn’t a Lexus defeater when commuting, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is impressively quiet and can easily do that job too.
Hopefully no one will see you in the driver’s seat cackling hysterically with a menacing grin when you are driving the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth aggressively or they might think you have lost your mind a little bit. But at least in that moment as you drive the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, you will know you are most definitely ‘winning.’ And in that sense you will then come as close as humanly possible to being Charlie Sheen who is pretty much happy 24 hours a day/7 days a week.
But as with anything Mr. Sheen does, don’t try it at home because you must remember one thing—you are merely human whereas he has “Tiger’s blood.” It’s funny but we think the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth just might have a little “Tiger’s Blood” pumping through its veins, as well.
What We Loved About the Fiat 500 Abarth
- The superbly magical engine and exhaust note when accelerating or downshifting.
- The very precise and milkshake smooth five-speed manual transmission is as good as a Mini self-shifter.
- Starts at only $22,000 very, very well equipped (a bargain compared to a MINI Cooper S)
- This is the Fiat 500 model that Americans will absolutely fall in love with!
- Hooray! The first affordable and fun to drive Italian car in the U.S.A. in years!
What We Loathed About the Fiat 500 Abarth
- It made us never want to drive the regular strength 500 with an automatic gearbox ever again!
- There is no cargo compartment under that rear hatch door with only 9.5 cubic feet of storage when the rear seats are up.
- The Abarth encourages anti-social driving behavior and bouts with hooliganism. Perhaps not a bad thing.