Small but wicked: That’s the well-worn saying applied to Karl Abarth’s race-tuned street cars of the 1950s and 60s, and it fits the Fiat 500 Abarth to a tee. Building on decades of refinement on European racetracks, the Fiat 500 Abarth melds Italian sensuality with brash, high-performance engineering. No wonder the Abarth–with its iconic, angular scorpion logo plastered all over—launched with commercials featuring a stunning Romanian supermodel and bad boy Charlie Sheen. Sexy but wicked.

The Abarth’s lineage traces back to Austrian racer Abarth, who began his career in the early 1900s racing motorcycles until nearly dying in an accident. Switching to after-market auto parts production and auto racing; Abarth modified a Fiat 1100 into his debut race car, the 204A Roadstar, in which he won the Italian 1100 and Formula 2 championships in 1949. Over the next decade, Abarth continued to modify and race automobiles, and in 1958, he broke six land speed records in the Fiat 595 Abarth - modified from a Fiat 500. That model race car notched nearly 900 victories in its seven-year run from 1958 to 1965. Along the way, numerous street vehicles with the Abarth badge appeared, coming from both Abarth’s own shop and other manufacturers, appearing sporadically on specialized editions over the decades.

Having re-launched the Abarth line in Europe in 2007, Fiat brought their race-tuned everyday driver to America for the 2012 model year. Built upon the Fiat 500 Sport model, the Abarth has a new 1.4-liter turbocharged, twin-intercooled engine mated to a smooth shifting five-speed manual on our test model, delivering 160 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque and a reported 0-60 sprint under 7 seconds. Compared to the 500 Sport, the Abarth boasts a stiffer McPherson suspension, lower ride height and race-tuned electronic power steering to provide the handling and steering feedback needed for performance driving; this venomous buggy is a blast to schuss through twists and turns. Like other undersized sports cars like the Mazda Miata and Mini Cooper S, the Abarth “feels” faster than its empirical numbers would suggest. It feels fast, nimble and responsive.. Even better, if you buy an Abarth, you’ll get that chance to take it trackside. Within a year of purchase, new owners can spend a day gratis at the traveling Abarth Experience testing the Abarth’s performance bona fides under the eyes of professional drivers. Not a bad perk for a car that comes loaded at under $28K.

We’re also fans of the styling, although our white Abarth with red trim got called “cute” at one point; not exactly the first adjective you might want applied to your new performance car, but it may have had more to do with the paint job. Maybe it’s the influence of Catrina Menghia’s dress in this commercial, but we’re partial to the aggressive vibe of the black-and-red color scheme. The low-stance, mean grille, dual exhaust tips and 17-inch forged aluminum wheels underline the Abarth’s bold mien. Inside, the racing-style cockpit boasts performance leather-trimmed bucket seats, aluminum pedal covers, a leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel and a well-designed instrument panel with a turbo gauge. The cabin is also surprisingly roomy and, for 2013, Beats by Dre integration provides ear-bending audio via six premium speakers and an 8-channel 368-watt amp; perfect for blasting your favorite tune. “Rock You Like a Hurricane” comes to mind.

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