It is the motorized equivalent of a little dog with a big mouth — a cute toy pup that yap-yaps at everything bigger than itself, confident that it could outrun or outmaneuver the object of its taunts.
It is a confidence born of experience, possessed in ample measure by the subject of this week’s conversation, the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth.
With an overall length of 144.4 inches, the front-wheel-drive Abarth hatchback, along with its Fiat 500 siblings, is one of the smallest cars on sale in the United States. The Abarth is seven inches shorter and two inches narrower than the Mini Cooper, one of the most popular subcompact automobiles sold in this country.
The only car smaller is the Smart Fortwo coupe, which is 106.1 inches long.
You thus would expect the Abarth, distinguished by its red-and-yellow stylized astrological scorpion badge, to act its size. But it doesn’t. It has a pane-rattling exhaust note as loud as that of some large motorcycles. It is loud enough and reasonably fast enough — going from 0 to 60 mph in about seven seconds by the time you reach the third gear of its five-speed manual transmission — to attract unwelcome uniformed attention.
Thankfully, it’s so cute — with its huggable exterior styling and smartly designed two-tone interior — it affords you contrite wriggle room. You apologize for the car’s outsized decibel levels, saying that the noise is the product of history, the legacy of late car designer and racer Carlo Alberto Abarth (Karl Albert Abarth, for those of you who know he was a native Austrian and naturalized Italian).
As for the ticket-territory speed, you apologize even more, grovel and express shamed embarrassment that you somehow managed to go so fast in a car so small. It helps to have gray hair, be super-respectful and have an endearing smile. You promise to be more careful, and at the moment you actually mean it, especially when the law enforcement officer correctly points out that your tiny Fiat 500 Abarth is no match for a tree, a wall, a signpost, or even a subcompact Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Sonic or Mini Cooper.
It is the downside of Italian cute, and largely why I still don’t recommend that parents buy a Fiat 500 of any type for newbie drivers in the family. The Fiat 500 line comes with ample standard safety equipment — for example, ventilated front disc brakes and solid rear discs in the Abarth along with knee-bolster air bags for front passengers. But small has its limits. In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, the car gets three of five stars, a marginal-to-good rating, for overall crash safety. It gets a sorry two-star rating in side-impact collisions.
As a parent, I simply cannot recommend a car with such a crash-safety rating for younger drivers. I want to see at least four stars. But for the more experienced motorists among us, the Fiat 500 Abarth is a hoot.
That’s because there is more to automobile safety than crash safety. There’s also the matter of active safety — the ability, which usually comes with driving experience, to avoid a collision in the first place. The Abarth has lots of active safety.
Stirring is quick and nimble. The car comes with a sports-tuned suspension — McPherson struts up front, torsion beam in rear, with front and rear stabilizer bars. There is electronic stability and traction control to help keep you from skidding out of control or rolling over. Handling is remarkable. The Abarth knows its way around curves and in sharp turns. And it has a turning radius of 37.6 feet, small enough to make a U-turn on a suburban street without hitting a curb.
But the real fun is in its turbocharged 1.4-liter gasoline engine, which delivers a maximum 160 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque (compared with 101 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque in the base Fiat 500 Pop).
The Abarth scoots. It’s addictive. It moves so fast and well, you want to drive it the longest way home. I loved driving it so much, especially in congested urban traffic, I didn’t mind accepting the risks suggested by NHTSA’s so-so crash-test results.
The appearance of the Abarth caps the relaunch of the Fiat 500, line which went on sale in America earlier this year. Prediction: The fun-to-drive, cute, reasonably well-made Abarth will sell well.