Fiat 500 Abarth – 2012

Dimensionally, the 500 Abarth is nearly the same as the Sport model on which it's based, save the fact that the front fascia has been pushed out by 2.7 inches (to make room for the larger engine) and that the whole car sits 15 millimeters lower to the ground. Cosmetic changes up front include a blacked-out grille with integrated fog lamps, as well as larger air intakes to better cool the turbocharged engine. Around back, a larger liftgate-mounted spoiler has been added to provide better downforce, and there's a new two-piece fascia with dual exhaust tips and a big ol' diffuser in the middle.

Standard rolling stock is a set of smoke-finished 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 195/45-series Pirelli Cinturato P7 all-season rubber, but if you're smart, you'll skip the standard wheel-and-tire package and upgrade to the 17-inch kit. Here you get decidedly more attractive 12-spoke wheels, rendered in either a dark alloy or bright white finish like the ones on our test car (which we really, really like, by the way) wrapped in stickier 205/40-series Pirelli P-Zero Nero three-season tires. We found these shoes provided plenty of grip while tossing the Abarth around Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas, but on the track, we'd really like some proper summer performance tires for maximum grip in the corners.

While we unabashedly love the Abarth's exterior, it's too bad we can't say the same thing about the interior, where the car is already showing signs of its age. Remember, the 500 may have been launched in the United States as a 2011 model, but the car has been around in Europe since 2007, as evidenced by the fact that a lot of the plastics and switchgear feel decidedly last-generation, or at least discount.

Specific interior changes for the Abarth include a turbo boost gauge in the instrument panel, as well as a thicker, leather-wrapped steering wheel with a flat bottom for better hand-to-helm interaction while tossing the hot hatch about. We wish the wheel were smaller in diameter, but our big gripe here are that there's no telescope function to the steering column, and in a sort of typical Italian fashion, the wheel itself is mounted on an inward slant so the top is further from the driver than the bottom.

It's hard to get a comfortable seating position because of this, and drivers with longer legs and shorter arms will feel like they're reaching too far while sitting too close to the pedals. What's more, the high-riding feeling of the standard 500 carries over, and while there's a manual vertical adjustment feature for the driver's seat, we kept trying to force the lever down past its lowest setting since we commonly felt like we were sitting way too high off the ground for a sporting car.

Abarth models come with cloth sport seats as standard kit, though leather seating surfaces are optional. There's no nifty infotainment/navigation screen to be had, but Fiat does offer an optional TomTom unit that can be mounted to the dash just to the right of the gauge cluster. The manual shift knob is also now wrapped in leather and there are aluminum pedal covers, but that aside, there isn't much to separate this car from the base 500. The plastics on the door and center console feel cheap, and little details like the chrome rings around the window switches and the general feel of the buttons aren't great. Strangely, even though the two companies have only recently partnered up, there's just so much in this Fiat that reminds us of the Old Chrysler. You know, Dodge Caliber Chrysler.

But we shouldn't be too hard on the interior. After all, the 500 Abarth's main competitor is the Mini Cooper S, which is an ergonomic mess inside, despite the fact that we've had many years to get used to all of the funny toggle switches and over-sized dinner plate speedometer. The Mini no doubt has a bit more space for passengers and cargo, but we're still torn as to which cabin we'd rather sit in, especially on longer trips. Hot hatches are all about dynamics, though, so we'll forgive the Fiat's lackluster interior and get down to what's really important: driving.

The 500 Abarth is powered by Fiat's 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, which delivers 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of maximum torque. You have to engage Sport mode to get the full 170, otherwise the car will default to only delivering 150 lb-ft of twist. Sport mode also alters the steering and throttle response, and trust us, you'll want to push this button each and every time you start the car.

Off the line in Sport mode there's a huge amount of power available right at initial throttle tip-in, though it quickly fades away as you keep your right foot down. More annoyingly, the clutch pedal offers very little feedback, and it's tough to accurately feel the engagement point for first gear when pulling away from a stop. In most cases, this means you'll be revving the hell out of the little four-banger before setting off, but in some cases, while you're getting used to it, you may just stall. A five-speed manual transmission is the only available cog-swapper, and while a sixth gear would be nice (engineers told us that there simply wasn't room to package an additional gear), performance and fuel economy don't really suffer as a result. Be nice, and you'll manage 28/34 miles per gallon (city/highway).

Fiat claims that the 500 Abarth will sprint to 60 miles per hour in 7.2 seconds, 0.6 seconds behind a Cooper S. Keep in mind, the Mini may have 21 more horsepower and seven more pound-feet of torque, but it's also 135 pounds heavier. A lot of this can be chalked up to the fact that while both the Fiat and the Mini deliver peak horsepower at 5,500 RPM, the Cooper's torque peaks from 1,700 to 4,500 RPM, while the 500's peak twist is only available from 2,600 to 4,100 RPM. You really need to dig into the Fiat to pull out the most power (hello, turbo lag), whereas with the Mini, it's ready to go more often.

Before we get into the actual handling dynamics, we have to talk about the most surprising part of the Abarth experience: its exhaust. The little hatch has a loud, deep, throaty growl that sounds classically Italian and even a bit Lamborghini-esque when you really wind it up. It grumbles and gargles at idle, with our co-driver pointing out that it almost sounds like a tractor at times – downright agricultural – and while cruising on the highway, it's quiet and reserved. If the styling is our favorite thing about the Abarth, the exhaust is easily our runner-up. Hear for yourself in our Short Cut video below.

Fiat engineers improved upon the 500 Sport's suspension by adding a unique front MacPherson setup with 40 percent stiffer springs and better lower control arms. Out back there's a twist-beam setup with a 40-percent more torsionally rigid rear axle, 20-percent stiffer springs and a 22-millimeter Abarth-specific solid stabilizer bar. All that technical mumbo-jumbo means the Fiat was impeccably well-behaved during our drive from the Las Vegas strip out to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada. Despite its small wheelbase, the suspension isn't overly crashy on city streets or broken pavement, and the ride quality is firm yet comfortable while cruising on the highway. Because the chassis isn't as rigid as other track-focused hatches, there's a bit of body roll in the bends, but we can live with that one caveat if it allows the suspension to be so smooth.

The steering setup, however, is a bit of an issue. In its standard mode, the Abarth's steering suffers from the same problem as the base 500: being slow to respond and not offering much feedback, especially on-center, despite having a 10-percent quicker steering ratio (15.1:1, up from 16.3:1 in the 500 Sport). You'd think that pressing the Sport button would solve this, but all it really does is make the steering feel artificially heavy, still lacking enough feedback to really make it engaging. It's not terrible, and the Abarth's small size and well-sorted suspension still made it tossable along the roads near Red Rock Canyon, but we know that a Cooper S wouldn't take nearly as much steering effort to drive enthusiastically while still returning a similar – if not higher – level of fun.

On the track, things get really interesting. For best results, we spent most of our laps in second and third gear, revving above 4,000 RPM, only shifting into fourth on the front and back straights. And while it's easy to drive the Abarth hard, the 64/36 front/rear weight distribution causes a couple of problems. We commonly hit speeds as high as 90 or 95 mph on the long back straight, and when hitting the brakes to prepare for the next turn, the front end would load up and the little Fiat's butt would wiggle a bit. That heavy front end also means there's noticeable understeer while cornering, and the twist-beam rear suspension will allow the back end to get squirrely at times, but it's all completely safe. You'd really have to try hard to lose control, and the overall experience is more along the lines of hooliganism than precision.

Once again, the natural comparison here is to that of the hot hatch stalwart Mini Cooper S, which Fiat had on hand for us to take on competitive drives. While we weren't able to drive the Mini on the track, our extensive experience with the Cooper S leads us to believe that we'd be able to pull off quicker lap times simply due to the better steering, better power delivery and more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension.

The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth goes on sale at the end of March, with first deliveries starting in early April. The cost of entry: $22,000, not including $700 for destination. Check every option box and you'll sit just below the $27,000 mark. That seems hefty at first glance, but consider that a similarly equipped Cooper S costs nearly $4,000 more, and the Mini's price can go even higher if you option for things like navigation and the cold weather package, not to mention the seemingly endless styling decisions. While that might make the Abarth seem like a bargain, consider also that the Mini's higher price accurately reflects how much better it is to drive. A base Acura TSX starts at $29,810 and a base BMW 3 Series costs about $5,000 more. Those are very different cars, but they're still entertaining, and not surprisingly, we'd take the BMW every single time.

But we still want the Abarth. So much. On the drive home from Spring Mountain that afternoon, we stopped at a gas station and spent the better part of ten minutes just staring at the thing, examining its lines, dissecting its design, and talking about what little tweaks we'd make once we plunked down our hard-earned cash for one. Does it make mistakes? Many. But then again, even Ms. Menghia must stumble in her high heels from time to time.