There's plenty to criticize about the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth, but the little Italian runabout is irresistible.
The Abarth would be a guilty pleasure, if it weren't so hard to feel guilty about a sporty car with EPA ratings of 34 mpg on the highway, 28 in the city and 31 in combined driving.
Abarth - pronounced "Ah-barth" - is Fiat's performance-tuning brand. It was founded by Carlo Abarth, who specialized in turning inexpensive little Fiats into hotshot road racers.
The 500 is the first model to bear the enamel scorpion Abarth badge in the U.S. It adds power and an air of menace to the already delightful Fiat 500.
The main drawback is that the $26,200 Abarth I tested cost more than bigger, more powerful sporty cars like the Honda Civic Si and VW GTI.
"But I'd never drive those cars. I'd drive this," my friend Cathy, a stylish woman with exquisite taste in cars and clothes, announced after a giggle-inducing spin in the Abarth.
The car business is the fashion business. Automakers forget that at their peril. The 500 Abarth is tres chic, tres quick. That's its edge vs. more practical competitors.
Prices for the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth start at $22,000. All Abarths have a five-speed manual transmission and turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 160 horsepower.
I tested a nicely equipped Abarth with a power sunroof, leather seats; 17-inch aluminum wheels and a removable TomTom navigation unit. It stickered at $26,200. All prices exclude destination charges.
In addition to the Civic Si and GTI, the 500 Abarth competes with compacts and subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta hatchback, turbocharged Chevrolet Sonic and Mini Cooper S.
In addition to 58 percent more horsepower and 73 percent more torque from the base 500's naturally aspirated 1.4-liter engine, the Abarth has revised gear ratios and rear suspension, new front shocks, lowered ride height and wider tires.
The car I tested had excellent grip. The ride got a little choppy over closely spaced bumps, but that's not unusual in cars with short wheelbases like the 500's 90.6 inches.
The electric power steering is fast and responsive. The Abarth heads into turns quickly and holds them well. Its relatively tall height and narrow track lead to more body roll than lower, wider cars like the Mini Cooper S.
The Abarth darts through traffic, nipping in and out of small gaps thanks to its responsive handling and torquey, free-revving engine.
The 1.4-liter turbo has the sweetest note I've ever heard in a small engine, with an appealing back-pressure burble when you back off the throttle.
The engine's 170 pound-feet of torque available from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm provides plenty of muscle. The Abarth's EPA rating of 31 mpg in combined city and highway driving tops sporty competitors like the GTI, Civic Si and Cooper S. It approaches the 33 mpg rating of mainstream subcompacts like the Sonic, Fiesta and Hyundai Accent.
The transmission has short, precise throws and a light clutch. A six-speed manual would make the Abarth even more appealing by improving fuel economy and acceleration. Wind and road noise are noticeable.
The black Abarth I tested included a rear spoiler, red caps on its side mirrors, red side stripes and Abarth's scorpion badges. Lightning bolts in Italian tricolor - red, white and green - next to some of the badges struck me as overkill.
The interior offers plenty of front-seat head, leg and shoulder space. The back seat is best reserved for short trips and shorter people. There's a useful 9.5 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seats; 26.8 cubic feet with them folded flat.
The Abarth has a chunky, flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel and more black leather wrapping the shifter and the cowl over the gauges.
Attractive leather bucket seats are optional. The car had a good Bose stereo and Fiat's fine Blue & Me voice-recognition for phone calls and audio.
The Abarth could use more interior storage spaces. The glove box is useful, but the cupholders are inconveniently placed on the floor, and there's no good place for sunglasses and other gear.
Those shortcomings would be a problem in a car that was boring to look at and drive. They're an afterthought to the sheer pleasure of walking up to a Fiat 500 Abarth and hearing its powerful little engine spring to life.
JUST THE FACTS
2012 FIAT 500 ABARTH:
Front-wheel drive four-passenger two-door sporty subcompact
Base price, excluding destination charge: $22,000
Price as tested: $26,200
Rating: Three out of four stars
Reasons to buy: Performance, looks, exhaust note, fuel economy
Shortcomings: Price, interior storage, no six-speed transmission