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Fiat 500 Abarth: More thrills per pound

by: FIAT AUTO GROUP - The Fiat 500 Abarth is not subtle, coming  or going.Chrysler brought the new all-electric version of the Fiat 500 to town recently for an alternative vehicle expo. Like all 500s, it was cute, both inside and out. And it was a blast to drive, thanks to the 147 pound feet of torque generated by the electric motor that comes on all at once. That's a performance advantage of electric motors, and the 500e responded by leaping off the line with only the slightest encouragement because it's virtually direct-drive.

But it's unlikely a real automotive enthusiast would choose the 500e over the 500 Abarth. Although the electric version felt quicker from a dead stop, the Abarth is much more visceral to drive. The exhaust snaps and snarls, the turbo boosts the engine's power as the revs increase, and the five-speed manual transmission is a joy to shift.

The 500 Abarth also costs less than the 500e. Although the gas savings may eventually offset the price difference, the Abarth is still the version most likely to stir your passions.

The Abarth version is named after Carlo Abarth, a race car builder in Turin, Itlay, who forged a successful alliance with Fiat in the 1950s and 1960s. He modified various Fiats, including the original version of the 500, into winning rally cars. His logo was the stylized black scorpion on a yellow and red background that appears on the new 500 Abarth.

Abarth is perhaps even better known for the high-performance exhaust systems his company made and sold for a wide range of import cars. Most were — and are — covered with a heavy, weather-restistant black coating that ends at the chrome exhaust tips. They are also much louder than factory exhausts, a tradition than continues with the Fiat 500 Abnarth. In fact, if not an enthusiastic, the constant burbling and frequent barking might get a little tiring, especially on long trips.

The retro styling retains the basic shape of the original Fiat 500, with its blunt nose, high roofline and chopped off rear end. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the original and current versions, too. Although they are both very small, the new ones meet all current U.S. safety standards, meaning they come with a variety of traction control devices, air bags and impact beams. This makes them heavier but better at avoiding and surviving accidents.

The drivetrain is also much more sophisticated. Although the base 1.4-liter engine is underpowered at 110 horsepower, the turbocharged Abarth engine is pumped up to 160 ponies, which is more than enough for zipping through traffic, racing up steep hills and freeway passing. Special paint — red or black — and other trim features enhance its aggressive appearance. And for even more fun, a Sport mode increases throttle response.

New this year is turbocharged 135-horsepower edition that fits in between the base and Abarth versions. It lacks the sonic and visual panache of the Abarth but offers more performance than the base model, making it a good choice for those who want to have fun but not attract too much attention.

First-time Fiat 500 drivers are likely to be impressed by the large amount of interior space, at least in the front. The cabin feels very roomy for such a small car. Visibility out the front and side windows is also good. Our test model was the Cabriolet or convertible version, which compromises the visibility out the back. Unfortunately, it is not available with a rear view camera, which means backing up requires some care.

And, of course, the rear seats are not to be taken seriously for anyone over three feet tall. Even then, getting into them is a challenge. They exist, which is more than you can say for the SmartFortwo, but that's about it. The trunk is also ridiculously small, holding about two bags of groceries at most. But then again, the Fiat 500 is clearly aimed at young buyers, not parents running their children to soccer games between shopping trips to Costco.

But if you can live a small car and are looking for fun, the Fiat 500 Abarth is hard to beat. It will keep you smiling for a long, long time.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 500 Abarth.

• Manufacturer: Fiat.

• Class: Subcompact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Styles: Two-door hardtop and convertible.

• Engine: 1.4-liter inline 4 (101 hp, 98 ft-lbs); turbocharged 1.4-liter inline 4 (135 hp, 150 ft-lbs); turbocharged Abarth 1.4-liter inline 4 (160 hp, 170 ft-lbs);

• Transmission: 5-speed manual; 6-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 31/40/34 (1.4/manual); 27/34/30 (1.4/auto); 28/34/31 (1.4T/manual).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $16,000 ($29,600 as tested).