2012 Fiat Abarth 500
by Merkel Weiss 5/15/12
I had an opportunity to drive the new 2012 Fiat Abarth 500 the other day. I’d like to take a few words to explain why the name is magic to those who understand it. By now I’m confident that everyone knows that Karl Abarth was a Viennese entrepreneur who in his youth and prior to a racing injury that kept him from the war, was a motorcycle racing champion. He moved to Italy, and although he never really cared for Italians very much, one day during the war he found himself having lunch with Pierro Dusio, the financier behind Cisitalia (Cheese-i-tal-i-a) who appointed Karl who had by then become Carlo as his racing director. He managed to finagle himself into business with Porsche, having become their agent in Italy with as little as a letter from Ferry Porsche. It’s entirely possible that he had the bankruptcy and absorption of Cisitalia in mind when he set up a famous deal where for s large sum of money, Dusio purchased the plans for the Type 360 Grand Prix car from Porsche. Imagine the fantasy of building from scratch, a 4WD, twin-supercharged, flat 12-cylinder car in post war Italy! The money did help Ferry ransom his father, Ferdinand, from the French who were holding him prisoner, charged I believe inappropriately if not completely greedily with being a Nazi collaborator.
The car was built, never ran properly and promptly bankrupted Cisitalia. Abarth dutifully absorbed most of the company’s machine shop, and the very first Squadra Abarth cars were born around 1948 from crudely rebadged Cisitalia 204s. Many coachbuilt specials followed including one of my all time favorites, the 1956 Abarth 207A. Twelve of these asymmetric race cars were built by Boano. They are truly imaginative. The driver’s side of the car is a touch higher than the passenger’s side, separated by a bone line. If indeed the 12 cars constituted production, then the 207A may very well be the only truly asymmetrical car production ever.
With increased sales in mind, Abarth entered into an agreement with Fiat which provided him with chassis of various Fiats. Called Fiat-Abarths from then on, the shop became known as the most open and innovative in Italy and so drew upon some of the best and the brightest that Italy had to offer. The Fiat 600 was born in 1955 and shortly thereafter, the Fiat-Abarth 750 Berlina was released. Interestingly, one could purchase all the parts to create one’s own 750 from a regular 600 by buying a kit, generally referred to as an Abarth Derivation. It turned out that (no surprise here) there were a lot of car tweakers in Italy. The cars were insanely popular, comparatively very fast, and won races everywhere they competed as a result of the fact that the tracks were flooded with the little rascals. An aside here, on the later 850TC race cars you may notice the rear engine deck lid propped open. This wasn’t done for cooling as commonly speculated. The cars went faster down the straightaway with the deck open. Looking at the profile of the car with the open lid, it becomes extremely modern, with the high, bustle-back tail.
From 1956 to 1960, a volume of about 450 units of Fiat-Abarth 750GT Zagato (Double Bubble) cars followed, along with perhaps 250 Record Monza, 100 Monomille, and 15 Sestrierre production cars. The Abarth Simca cars were introduced, and Abarth the moved his coachworks from Zagato to Corna, then to Beccaris, and finally to Sibona and Bassano coachbuilders. There were a huge flurry of racing victories and a great many of the cars were indeed breathtaking to behold. Hence the We in America saw only a few as a result or our continued passion for large displacement vehicles. In all, there were about 269 different models of Abarth cars produced, or about 1 for each month that he was at work. To an extent then, Abarth cars are to Fiat as Shelby is to Ford. But while it’s true that there are stock bodied Abarths, there are many coachbuilt or purpose-built Abarths as well.
I had become familiar with the Fiat 500 through earlier drives. It’s a nice car, if not a bit too small. I’ve never understood how Fiat thought that the US would even recognize the iconic status of the 1957 Fiat Nuova 500, let alone embrace a one car family of this microscopic size. We tended to concentrate on Chevys and Fords, idolizing their pickup trucks Nomads, El Caminos, Rancheros, and such. Small good-looking cars just seemed to pass right by us. And the Abarth is exactly the same size as the 500, with the rear seat simply too cramped for real adults of almost any size, while the headroom in the two front seats is pretty scarce as well. Older Fiats didn’t have these interior restrictions in my experience. In fact, the Euro-model that I tested didn’t have these problems either. I suspect that Chrysler had a hand (or a foot) in this interior design, overstuffing the seats, cramming electronics under the right front passenger seat, and generally making a mess of what was a good sized interior for a small car. Once in, the front seats are comfortable, just not very spacious. Forget the rear seats entirely.
The engine and gearbox are very Italian. By this I mean that the car is lively and responsive in your hands. The shift quality is good, but not fabulous, and the brakes are still overly sensitive, feeling much like a 1967 Plymouth Fury with power brakes. Touch the middle pedal and your body lurches forward. It takes some getting used to.
I like the paint schemes and the stripes and all the accents. Most of the details appeal to me with the exception of the ovoid rear-view mirrors being painted a contrasting color, a la Mini Cooper. These big popsicles on stalks have no reason to stand out and only serve to make an otherwise tiny-looking car become even more toy like. The dash is kind of trendy and although it’s made of cheap stuff, it doesn’t look totally cheap, but I’d prefer something a bit less pop and a bit more down-to-earth.
The car is adorned with great looking wheels that offer a fantastic visual stance. The grip and handling of the car does not disappoint. It’s a great driving little car and for those who remember and have waited, at least this much serves to remind us where we’ve been. It takes some serious effort to break the car loose, and when there, it feels very stable, almost neutral. Amazing for a front driver.
The hatchback is useful, but there really isn’t a whole lot of room unless the rear seats are folded down. And why not? Nobody except small children fits back there anyway. But all this criticism of the interior is probably pointless. The car’s exhaust makes the most astoundingly lethal bark I’ve ever heard from a small car. It’s purely fabulous. So if you’re about 4/5 human scale, you like a beautifully raspy exhaust and go cart handling, I think you’ve found your ride.