DETROIT -- Maybe the fastest car -- that performance model -- should have been introduced first.
U.S. dealers have been struggling to sell that little Italian car, the Fiat 500.
Last year a mere 19,769 Fiat 500s were sold, and, through February, 5,138 have rolled out of showrooms this year.
This spring dealers finally receive the model that just might create a real buzz for the brand: the Fiat 500 Abarth.
First a bit of history: "Abarth" comes from Karl Abarth, the legendary gearhead who started tuning Fiats in the late 1950s. Abarth had a passion for racing, and he developed performance parts for the Fiat Cinquecento (500) that populated Europe's roads. Fiat purchased the company in the early '70s, and the Abarth name has continued as Fiat's performance brand.
Later this month and early next, dealers will start receiving the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth.
The car is equipped with Fiat's MultiAir turbocharged 160-hp 1.4-cylinder engine, up from 101 hp on the base car. The engine delivers 170 pounds-feet of torque, a 73 percent boost over the base car. This is the first application of that engine in the United States.
The shock absorbers and springs were stiffened for better handling, the brakes were enhanced for quicker stops and the steering is faster. Sticky tires and other performance enhancements were added. The car stickers for $22,700, including freight.
It's an enthusiast's car. And, judging from the reviews, the Fiat 500 Abarth is a credible competitor to the Volkswagen GTI and the Mini Cooper.
And that's good news for Fiat dealers.