Eight thousand miles ago, I picked up a Fiat 500 pop (base model). So far it has been a fun little car that sips gasoline, gets me around in reasonable comfort and has had no problems. At the time, I saw the car as a blank canvas. Something I wanted to drive, but tune into a trackable street machine.
I have been determined to take the little 101hp number and make it a tad sportier, a little more punch for the dollar, so to speak… Fiat’s turbocharged Abarth is becoming the 500 of choice with the faithful, but I wanted to stick with the base model and really explore what can be done. So far I have found myself critically disappointed with what little there is to do. Chrysler, who markets the Fiat in the US, has little to offer in the aftermarket. If an Abarth owner wants to add performance, he needs to go back to Fiat in Europe who have some goodies including exhaust, ignition and handling packages. Not much for the little base POP. That is until I met Robert Tallini of Road Race Motorsports at a recent Motor Press Guild lunch.
I pulled into the parking lot at the Proud Bird restaurant and saw a monstrous Abarth (watch for this badass in a future Carspotting Feature). This thing was dressed to the max… roll cage, wheels, body kit, exhaust– the damn thing looked like a race car–because it was…. Needless to say I parked next to it and immediately struck up a conversation with the owner.
Tallini has had a bright history in racing, both on road/street circuits and Rallying. He has been a winner and champion in a number of SCCA sanctioned series. As a whiz kid who tuned Mitsubishi cars for guys seeking to have something comparable to the top of the line Lancers, with their base models, Rob developed a successful business–outside of his duties teaching high school math and science to juvenile inmates– that has evolved into custom builds and, happily for me, the tuning of Fiat 500s.
He invited me to come out to his Santa Fe Springs, CA shop and take a look at some of the products he has developed– and a chance to drive the little Abarth racer. I came away less disappointed in what can be done to base 500’s and with a few more ponies under my own hood.
Sitting in a industrial park in the South LA area, walking into the big Road Race Motorsports garage door reveals a number of projects, old and new. There are Lancers, Eclipse, offroad desert cruisers and the Abarth racer that I spied a few weeks prior. The staff were an enthusiastic group of tuners who all had history with the place and were eyeing my 500 like a new project about to begin.
Tallini arrived a bit into my chats with the guys in the garage and we began talking about my disappointment in the lack of tuner options for the base model. I would soon find out there was little to be disappointed about.
Tuning the 101hp 500 will go in stages. Firstly, I wanted to add some speed and response. In the base Fiat 500, Pressing the “sport” button– a button that I find completely unnecessary it he car–increases throttle response and tightens up the steering. Honestly, two modes of sluggish to tight feel might have been an idea that came out of a focus group of neophyte drivers and women, but I would think that the “sport” mode should be the only mode. So naturally putting some additional ponies from bolt-ons might be the first way to go.
From there I want to make the car handle, increasing its agility and quickness through stiffening the suspension and chassis. Once all the sleeper/racer options are in place, it will be time to work on the overall appearance.
Adding some horsepower was fairly easy–I would leave Rob Tallini’s shop with another Dyno-ed 12-15 that day.
Rob is about efficiency in tuning: less is more so to speak. He seemed to get frustrated when talking about competing parts. His thought on cold air and exhaust–conventional wisdom for first steps to adding speed–was that most manufacturers are not designing the cold-air right and putting too much material into cat-back exhausts, when axle-back is all you need on these cars.
His cold air intake recently beat out a number of major branded units in a magazine comparo, making some of the magazine’s advertisers raise eyebrows and actually ask for the Dyno results. Apparently, no one could believe this independent could be making better stuff without all the big corporate resources of the other guys. On the Fiat 500, Road Race Motorsports’ cold air intake has dyno-ed 5-6 additional ponies.
Tallini has also developed a black box, a simple plug-in module, that advances the engine timing about 2-3 degrees. This box adds some 5hp and 5 lbs of torque at 3000 rpm. So between the cold air and black box, I was looking at a 10-12% increase in horsepower and torque and decided this would be a great starting point.
Installation was simple. Plug and play for the box–with a 60 mile break in. And a bolt on cold air–which made necessary removal of what seemed like a trunkful of plastic cowling and air intake. The engine compartment looks more racy without the plastic for sure. Having the red Corsa-dyno tuned pipe and big K&N filer popping up from the aluminum block looks as nice as it performs. While I still have to find a permanent mouthing position for the black box, it tucks away in a corner near the cold air filter for the time being.
The first 60 miles, after pulling out of Road Race, were of anticipation and impatience. Having to get on an airplane for Chicago/Road America at the end of the week, I wanted to get the necessary break-in miles and really feel the improvements. Of course, driving in LA, you get there eventually-and in most cases-rapidly. A couple of runs through the gears without overly cooking it was still on the docket and the improvements were noticeable.
Firstly, without ever changing the exhaust, the car had a much more racy sound. It sounded more eager and excitable As the note it made was the result of advancing the timing and filling the cylinders with more cool air. The car launched quicker and in the power band between 3-4500rpm, felt immensely torque-y.
While I have not documented the results in full, it is easy to believe that gas mileage has improved slightly as well. A trip to Palm Desert over the weekend on one 10 gallon tank of gas was what I felt to be an incredible feat.
By no means is a base FIAT 500 a fast car. By no means is it now a rocket with he add-ons. But the marked improvement put a smile on my face, now knowing that there was hope for my project. Road Race Motorsports and its patron, Robert Tallini has helped me realize there is potential for every machine out there.
Now I am stoked to build….