One only needs to have watched Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia to know that small doesn’t mean you lack power or drive. This week’s test car, the 2014 Fiat Abarth, like Pedroia, might be one car you first overlook but discover that over time it has the horses to run and stay with the big boys.
Fiat set out to boost the output of its 500 daily driver by tucking a turbo under its twin-scooped hood, stiffening the suspension, tweaking the exhaust note to a raucous blatting, and tossing Karl Abarth’s famed scorpion on the hood.
Thus the Abarth, sold in a hardtop and tested convertible offering, replaces the spiffy feeling of the 500 with spunk and a five-speed manual for more spirited interaction. For those who stare blankly at any driver’s foot well with a third pedal, relax: Fiat recently announced it would offer an automatic transmission in the 2015 Abarth.
The Fiat Abarth is indeed a hot hatchback that derives its boost from the 1.4-liter, 160 horse, turbocharged engine that generates 117 hp per liter, and 170 lb.-feet of torque; a testament to Karl Abarth who believed that race cars with some performance DNA could be derived from regular daily drivers.
What you have is a “Honey, I Shrunk the Car” edition of a sports car that dwarfs a Smart ForTwo or Scion iQ, never had its teenage growth spurt to play on the same field with the Mini Cooper S or Fiesta ST, but owns a nimble agility that belies its size and the legs to run fast for long distances with aplomb.
Everyone who rests an elbow on the roof for a look-see will want to sit inside, just because. There’s more room for six-foot adults up front than there appears to be at first blush and far less in the rear. Maneuvering to the back is best left to nieces and nephews or someone who lost a bet.
Once inside, the flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped steering wheel, red gauges, tall-back bucket seats, and five-speed shifter arising halfway up the dash indicate you’re ready for take off. After a push-button start, a jab at the pedal brings the engine to life, the famed Abarth exhaust blatts, spats, and fires up, alerting the neighbors to your departure or return from the night shift.
The quick shifts and take off, combined with exhaust cacophony, catapult your senses awake to the reality that this is not the stock Fiat 500 with the midlife motor. Pressing the sport button changes shift points and steering tensions while increasing exhaust output that’s its own auditory reward. A negative feature in “sport,” however, is an annoying upshift arrow that lights up well before you’d wring out your shift and the car’s momentum to match the tune with exhaust. The arrow is below the main gauges on the left so it’s easy to dismiss what might be a trouble light as a true idiot light.
Abarth’s small size and feature-rich packaging mean that space is at a premium inside the circular main dash gauge. The turbo boost and revs on the tac own the same color as the fuel gauge and other vital items, fighting for your attention. A posted end of 160 mph on the speedo, while admirable, is just silly, despite the car’s ability to hit triple digits.
It’s not hard to amass open road speed in the flow of traffic. The turbo assures a quick merge into traffic from a standstill and the small engine provides plenty of economy, 28/34, from the 10.5-gallon tank. During my test, I managed 26.57 mpg, while driven aggressively, as it was designed to be driven. Underway it’s obvious that most of the torque can arrive at 2,500 rpm and scoot you right up to highway speed if needed. On a dash from the New Hampshire border to Kennebunkport, Maine, and later to the south shore of Massachusetts, the Abarth easily held its own on I-95 and I-93, not to mention the roads of 101 and 125/155 in the Granite State. If you’re a lane darter in the Commonwealth who also desires to park on Newbury Street, this may be your car.
The short car with the pug face and short wheelbase benefits from electric power steering and a unique MacPherson suspension with stiffer front spring rates and a ride height lowered 0.6 of an inch. KONI twin-tube struts absorb the paved road well. However, the car’s short stature (90.6 in. wheelbase) means old New England roads can be jarring.
Given its short stature and high seating position, which I liked, the Abarth is taller than a typical, low, sports car, yet never felt tippy when pushed through sweeping curves. A road crown and crosswind algorithm automatically adjusts for situations were there is a push against the car to one side. Neat. Optional 17-inch tires that filled the aggressive arched wheel wells grabbed the road like a cat on a drape.
Sun worshipers will find they can lower the convertible at speeds up to 60 mph. A second press places it behind rear seat backs. Doing so, however obscures what little rear vantage point you had with the top up. To compensate, two large exterior mirrors offer a wider view of what’s alongside or hiding in the flank of the blind spot.
The Scorpion badge is Abarth’s astrological symbol and replaced the Fiat name on this edition. A scorpion is found at all four corners as well as on the engine cover under hood.
Purchasing an Abarth includes a day trackside for the Abarth Experience, showing off how it can be driven and the fun to be had. Anyone who enjoys stirring the gears will get that all on their own on a run down Route 128. But how bad can a day at any track be with a car like this?
2014 Fiat Abarth
Base price: $26,195. Options: $6,109. Destination: $800. As tested: $33,104. Globe observed mpg: 26.57 mpg.
Power: 160 hp @ 5,500 rpm. Torque: 170 lb.-ft. @2,500-4000 rpm. Wheelbase: 90.6 in. Length: 144.4 in. Height: 58.7 in. Width: 64.1 in. Curb weight: 2,512 lbs. Trunk volume, min/max: 9.5/26.8 cu. ft. Fuel tank: 10.5 gal.
Nicely styled, fun car that likes to run without getting tired, nimble in tight spaces, good economy, automatic due next year.
Only 5-speed manual; realistically, only two real-world adults will fit inside.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A surprising, fun car to drive that should not be overlooked.
Mini Cooper S, Smart ForTwo