Covering the automotive business is rife with surprises. Case in point: On a recent trip to the stunning Algarve region of Portugal to test Continental Tire's new ContiEcoContact 5 (verdict: they're very good), we had the chance to sample a bit of forbidden fruit.
In the process of learning about the German company's doughnut-making capabilities (which included a journeyman's seminar on velocity-excited short- and long-chain polymers, the CEC5's three-percent fuel economy bump and improved wet-braking capabilities), one test car fitted with Continental's new rubber was a EU-spec 2011 Fiat 500 Abarth.
Knowing that the factory-fettled 500 is headed our way in two year's time, we snagged the keys to see if Italy's hottest hatch was ready to bring the pain to the John Cooper Works-infused offerings from Mini. Continue reading...
The 500 Abarth (pronounced "aah-bart" by the cognoscenti) is to the 500 as the Mini Cooper S JCW is to the plain Cooper. The association between the tuner Abarth and Fiat began in 1952 and has resulted in dozens of high-performance variants that add guts to the Fiat line-up.
According to the North American PR people at Chrysler, we'll be getting an American version of the 500 Abarth at the end of 2012 as a 2013 model. And it can't come soon enough.
Before diving into the experience at the magnificent Autodromo Internacional do Algarve (a.k.a. the Portimao Circuit) in Faro, Portugal, note this important caveat: The Abarth you're looking at isn't exactly like America's Abarth.
Ours will be better.
Here's why: According to Chrysler and Fiat engineers, our built-in-Mexico 500 Abarth will meet tougher U.S. crash standards. The European Union doesn't require that vehicles meet a rear crash standard, and the U.S.-spec 500 Abarth will ride over a superior rear axle design based on the one developed for the so-called NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) 500 and run with a more powerful turbo engine featuring Fiat's Multiair valvetrain.
The NAFTA 500 Abarth's 1.4-liter turbo engine (to be produced by Chrysler in Trenton, Michigan) is expected to produce 175 horsepower; slightly more than the EU-produced 1.4-turbo with Multiair currently makes in the Alfa Romeo MiTo and Giulietta.
The Abarth we drove was pure EU, meaning its non-Multiair 1.4-liter turbo produced 160 hp at 5,750 rpm and peak torque of 170 pound-feet at three grand. With double overhead cams and standard fuel injection, the engine emits a fantastic growl.
The power comes on smoothly, and provided you keep the engine above 2,500 RPMs, acceleration is brisk. There is a bit of turbo lag, but nothing grievous.
There's a funny thing about driving on a racetrack, cars often feel slower than they do on the street. You'll note that there was no traffic on the circuit. The wide-open asphalt removes normal reference points that drivers unconsciously use to gauge speed. While the 500 Abarth felt okay-quick at Portimao (definitely not a track monster like a BMW M3 or a Ford Mustang Boss 302), we expect it to feel much quicker on the street as it squirts through traffic and blasts past familiar markers.
The Abarth's chassis is surprisingly well balanced. It tends to understeer at the limit, but not like a V6 Toyota Camry with 100,000 miles and worn-out soles. There is some push, but the 500 Abarth is basically neutral, carving through the curves smoothly and directly. Even with the stability control switched off, lifting throttle mid-corner couldn't instigate much rotation, a characteristic that we'd enjoy more of, as it would improve the car's tossability. Of course, lawyers hate this kind of handling because stupid drivers hang themselves with it (turn late, lift throttle, spin, crash, sue manufacturer), and if it isn't present in a European version, it's not likely to crop up in a model destined for the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave Flesh-Eating Lawyers.
The chassis does exhibit some roll, but it takes a quick set and responds well during side-to-side transitions. This is critical on a circuit where back-to-back corners can destabilize a car quickly with ugly results.
The 500 Abarth's electric power steering communicates constantly with easily intelligible signals. You know when the wheels are grappling for traction at wide open throttle or struggling with grip approaching an apex. The feeling is light, but never overboosted.
The cross-drilled front and rear discs were up to mild track duty. Driven in anger, the brakes did fade, but that's to be expected. There shouldn't be any issue on the streets, while the heavily bolstered, Alcantra-clad seats work well to keep the driver in place.
The gauges were the interior's lone low spot, looking cute and funky, but not designed for quick reads while flying at 9/10ths on a racetrack. Shifting by ear and feel became the tactic of the day.
Of course, the track's smooth surface told us nothing about how the stiffer suspension reacts to potholes. Non-Abarth NAFTA 500s have softer suspension calibrations than their EU cousins, and that tuning may carry over to the U.S. Abarth. We caught up with some Fiat representatives at the New York Auto Show, but they remained mum on potential suspension settings, noting that calibrations and specifications are still under development.
Even without final specifications, we can assume that our 500 Abarth should be quieter than the EU version, as the NAFTA 500 has more sound insulation designed into the structure. Lets hope they don't tune out too much of the engine note.
If you're curious about the differences between 500s on either side of the Atlantic, here's a quick crib sheet:
Front and Rear Fascias
Because European license plates are considerably wider and narrower than those in North America, NAFTA fascias are designed to meet our plate proportions. We also receive projector beam headlights and foglamps while the EU has simple halogen low beams (the big lenses) and separate high beams (below and outside of the low beams).
Front-Seat Folding Mechanism
The EU 500 is encumbered by a clumsy front seat lifted from the four-door Punto. Our 500 gets a seat designed for a two-door, so it folds more easily to allow better access to the rear seats.
Cup Holders and Glove Box
The U.S. get spots for Big Gulps and junk. EU vehicles don't.
The steering wheel on NAFTA 500s include cruise control buttons. No such buttons exist on EU vehicles.
Due to differences in crash standards, NAFTA 500s use a differently shaped A-Pillar trim than EU models. Foreheads everywhere can sigh in relief.
Side-curtain airbags in the NAFTA 500 extend protection rearward to the second-row. EU side bags do not.
For the moment, this is the intel that's available on the 500 Abarth. In the 18 months between now and the Abarth's introduction in the U.S., Fiat and Chrysler should have a good idea of whether Americans are open to the Fiat 500. If they are, the Abarth will be a welcomed expansion of the line. If not, it will be another footnote in Fiat's unsuccessful bid to reenter the North American market.
Given our wheel time, we wouldn't bet against them. The 500 is no Smart ForTwo.
As for how Continental factors into future Fiat 500 models, it's an Original Equipment supplier to Chrysler. As for whether the ContiEcoSport 5 will be standard fitment on the US 500 Abarth, the final contracts haven't been signed. But don't be surprised if they do...