The first iteration of the Fiat 500 was a cute and practical car that mobilized much of post-World War II Europe. Europeans loved the little car and Fiat built nearly four million of them in varying forms between 1957 and 1975. There was even a performance version of the car, the Abarth.

That was then, and unless you’ve been living in a cave in Appalachia for the last few years, you know there’s a new Fiat 500 and a new Abarth model. Fiat sent one to the Motor Press Guild Track Days event where we had the chance to sample it on the street and on Willow Springs International Raceway.

Let’s get right to the meat of the issue. If you’re looking for a car that can do double duty as a street car that can do the occasional HPDE or Time Trial event, there are better choices, but there is something to this little car.

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As a street car it’s fun and tossable, and you don’t get the feeling your in a “cop magnet” even if you are driving an Abarth. It has a back seat, but the front seats are located so far back that they are all but useless. Even young children will feel cramped, unless you opt for the cabrio model, which really opens up how the car feels.

As a track car, it’s, well, OK, although it’s probably safer to limit the treadwear rating of any tires you might put on it. In other words, don’t go too sticky with the tires. There was one on race rubber at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill that ended up on its roof during practice or qualifying. The incident likely was a combination of driver error, race rubber and the tricky Turn 5, but it’s worth mentioning because it was the only car that rolled. To its credit, it still started and finished the race.

At 160 horsepower it won’t overwhelm the 2,500-pound chassis. It’s fun, but it isn’t really fast. I was hoping for something more.

Inside, the materials were a little disappointing for an upper echelon model like the Abarth. The plastics were kind of, uh, plasticky, and the driving position wasn’t ideal for HPDE. The car also could use a telescoping steering wheel. As equipped it’s not easy to get a good track-oriented driving position going. Even with its minor shortcomings, it’s still a fun car to drive. Steering is quick, direct and linear when you push it hard, and the brakes are fantastic. Even NASA Director of Business Development Jeremy Croiset enjoyed his time behind the wheel.

For 2015, the high-performance Fiat 500 Abarth and Abarth Cabrio

“The Fiat 500 is a fun little car, light and nimble,” he said. “It has surprisingly heavy steering for a small car, though, and the electronic nannies kill any on-track fun, but you can turn them off when you need to.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the car is the engine. The 1.4-liter four cylinder is fitted with what FiatChrysler calls “MultiAir Technology,” which was recognized as the “Single Most Innovative Engine Technology” of 2010 by the International Engine of the Year Awards panel. Built in Dundee, Mich., the engine features a valvetrain that allows for infinite control over the intake valve timing.

Rather than a camshaft riding a rocker or tappet to actuate the intake valves, the MultiAir 1.4 intake cam lobe compresses a small, high-pressure oil pump which routes the oil pressure through a fast-response electronic solenoid to open and close the intake valve on command. The oil pressure is mechanically produced, but the valve actuation is controlled by four solenoids, which are controlled by the engine management system. There’s a neat video on YouTube showing how it works:

The system the system can open and close the intake valve multiple times during one cycle of the engine — thus the name “multi air” — and is good for a 10 percent increase in fuel economy. It’s pretty slick and Fiat was kind enough to fit the car with a muffler with a sporty-sounding exhaust note.

Some buyers are going to purchase a Fiat 500 Abarth regardless of what they read or hear and you will see these cars at NASA weekends. There is a lot to like about the Abarth. It is fun to drive and it’s a good looking little car. It has all the appeal of the original, but with all the advantages that new technology brings.

Specifications

Engine:

1.4-liter turbocharged I4

Horsepower:

160@ 5,500 rpm

Torque:

170 @ 2,500 to 4,000 rpm

Front suspension:

McPherson strut

Rear suspension:

Torsion beam

Transmission:

Five-speed manual or six-speed automatic

Rear axle ratio:

3.35:1

Curb Weight:

2,512 lbs. coupe, 2,545 convertible

Base MSRP:

$84,995, ($101,995 for TA 2.0 package)
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Image courtesy of Brett Becker