Perfectly Imperfect Pint-Sized Pocket Rocket

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

You can learn a lot about a car by the way it sounds. Fire up a Lexus LS and you'll hear practically nothing. Rev the snot out of a BMW M3 and your ears will be beaten by high-pitched traces of Formula One; do the same with a Dodge Challenger SRT8 and you'll be taken back to 1970 with a low, burbling rumble.

Bear in mind that all of these machines mentioned are powered by V8 engines, long the bastion of beastly automotive soundtracks. Clearly, each car's designers tuned all eight cylinders, their assorted valves, camshafts and exhaust tracts, to produce a specific sound, and to good effect.

Imagine our surprise, then, when the ignition clicked in our tiny 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth and an aural symphony not unlike a Dremel shredding a Fender Stratocaster into tiny little specks of bass and treble emerged. And it makes all this sweet-sounding music with just 1.4-liters of displacement from its four turbocharged cylinders.

We had a feeling this was going to be fun.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth side view2012 Fiat 500 Abarth front view2012 Fiat 500 Abarth rear view

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's talk style. As befitting an icon from Italy – and nevermind that Catrinel Menghia, the ridiculously beautiful model forever linked to the 500, is from Romania – the Fiat 500 Abarth is a shapely beast. Where the standard 500 could best be described as cute, the Scorpion-badged Abarth model is significantly more menacing... though it's still a bit cute, sort of like an oddly cuddly miniature pitbull puppy.

While the standard 500 is available in a wide range of pastel hues, the Abarth is offered only in white, gray, black or red.

The Abarth sits 15 millimeters closer to the ground, and our tester's wheel arches were filled with 17-inch, 12-spoke wheels wrapped in 205/40-series Pirelli PZero Nero tires. This rolling stock gives the car an aggressive stance that's appropriate for a hot hatchback from Europe. The front fascia sits a few inches further into space than on lesser 500s, due to the turbocharged engine beating underhood. Large ducts feed air into the engine bay, and the sporty effect is carried through to the rear via a large spoiler.

While the standard 500 is available in a wide range of pastel hues, the Abarth is offered only in white, gray, black or red. Further customization is provided by optional gloss white or black wheels. Along that same limited color pallet, mirror caps and body-side stripes (the latter of which are optional) are offered in black, white or red. The somewhat monochromatic look is carried inside with either cloth or leather in – you guessed it – black and red.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth logo2012 Fiat 500 Abarth headlight2012 Fiat 500 Abarth wheel2012 Fiat 500 Abarth graphics

The seating position and relationship between the pedals, shifter and steering wheel is a little bit odd in the 500.

Inside, there's a combination digital/analog gauge cluster directly in front of the driver that includes a large circular speedometer in the center. Off to the driver's left is another round gauge that houses the tachometer. In comparison to the Mini Cooper, another small and stylish hatchback that will surely be cross-shopped with the Abarth, the 500's interior isn't nearly as stylized and unique, but it is at least ergonomically functional. Interior plastics and switchgear remind the driver that the Abarth is based on an inexpensive platform, though important touch points like the steering wheel and shifter lend a more upscale feel.

The seating position and relationship between the pedals, shifter and steering wheel is a little bit odd in the 500, putting the driver into a posture akin to that of a kitchen chair. The Abarth is no different. Some of our staff has found the interior positioning problematic; others cope with it easily. Your mileage may vary.

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It makes lovely music, as you can hear in our Short Cut video.

Now, finally, it's time to twist that key. Then turn it off. And then turn it back on again. Yep, sounds great. Blip the throttle; the little MultiAir engine sounds mean as it spits out 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, good for a 0-60 run of 7.2 seconds. And you'll only get the full 170 lb-ft if you remember to hit the Sport button, which, assuming you bought the Abarth on purpose and not just because you thought the Scorpion badges were cool, you'll want to do every time you drive the car. In Normal mode, the engine is tuned to put out 150 lb-ft. In either case, it makes lovely music, as you can hear in our Short Cut video above.

A 0-60 time of 7.2 seconds is not particularly quick these days, but at least it gives you some extra time to enjoy the sound. The four-wheel disc brakes easily stopped the 2,500-pound car in every situation we found ourselves in, with adequate control and easily modulated power.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth engine

It's more comfortable than we expected based on its overtly sporty intentions.

Putting the car in Sport mode further benefits the driver with tighter steering and throttle response. The Abarth's short wheelbase, somewhat stiff suspension and tiny tire sidewalls combine to make the car a bit twitchy whether in Sport mode or not, but we certainly prefer a little dartiness in place of any hint of wallow. We also love the fact that the Abarth is so easy to rotate using a little steering input along with the gas and brake pedals – sometimes it feels like the car is getting squirrely, but it's always controllable. And even better, it's fun.

But the Abarth's lively demeanor doesn't equal a harsh ride. Nobody outside of a tank operator would describe it as plush, but it's more comfortable than we expected based on its overtly sporty intentions.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth interior2012 Fiat 500 Abarth shift light2012 Fiat 500 Abarth navigation system2012 Fiat 500 Abarth sport button

One solid knock against the Abarth is its decidedly old-fashioned five-speed manual gearbox.

One solid knock against the Abarth is its decidedly old-fashioned five-speed manual gearbox. Not only is it missing the sixth gear that each and every one of its natural competitors boast, it also doesn't have particularly short throws (despite apparently being fitted with a short-throw kit) and doesn't slink into gear the way we'd like. It's not a difficult or malcontent shifter, it's just not crisp.

Similarly, the steering feel of the 500 Abarth could use some work. It's a bit numb and doesn't deliver much in the way of feedback to the driver. At 15.1:1, the Abarth has a 10-percent quicker steering ratio (16.3:1 in the 500 Sport) than lesser 500s, and the wheel itself is a nice piece, which is good, because we found ourselves making constant corrections to keep on our intended path.

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth rear 3/4 view

It's so full of character that the things it gets wrong sort of become endearing.

Fuel mileage is decent, as well. The EPA estimates that the 500 Abarth will manage 28 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on the highway. We found that it's not terribly difficult to achieve those figures, so long as you don't constantly blip the throttle and run the engine to redline. Of course, that's a good portion of the pleasure of driving the Abarth to begin with. And it really is a hoot – in fact, perhaps it's the most fun you can have for $22,000 (plus $700 for destination). That's about $4,000 less than a comparable Mini Cooper S, though it's very easy to push the price of both European hatchbacks considerably higher. Our test car wore a sticker of $26,700 and included a sunroof, leather seats and a tacky aftermarket TomTom GPS system that plugs into a receptacle in the dash. We'd pass on the navigation and opt for a smartphone.

Almost every aspect of the Abarth is flawed – from the steering to the shifting and everything in between – and yet running the Fiat 500 Abarth up through the gears is one of the more oddly pleasurable events in the automotive realm. It's quick and nimble, as you would expect, but it's also so full of character that the things it gets wrong sort of become endearing. If its offbeat seating position doesn't immediately knock it out of contention for your hard-earned dollars, the 500 Abarth is an extremely fun car to drive, almost in spite of itself. Plus, for the autophile audiophiles among us, it's price-per-decibel ratio is simply unmatched.