Abarth is a performance motoring name that has been around for more than 60 years, and which is now on the comeback trail.
It was founded by Carl Abarth in the Italian city of Turin in 1949, and two years later it began an association with Fiat when the company built the Abarth 1500 Biposto using Fiat mechanicals.
Almost 20 years later Fiat purchased Abarth and turned it into its own racing department - and it was from there that several famous models emerged, including the Fiat 124 Abarth and the 131 Abarth rally cars.
But then for a variety of reasons, many of them financial, the Abarth name and its logo of the stylised scorpion on a red and yellow background began to fade into the background, and for many years it wasn't used for anything more than a trim level on Fiat product.
The good news is that Abarth is on the rise again. New Abarth- fettled Fiats are beginning to roll off the production lines, and there is now an Abarth Europe Trophy series on the European motor racing calendar. This northern summer there will be Abarth races in France, Austria, Belgium and Italy in association with rounds of the World Touring Car Championship and European Touring Car Championship.
And in New Zealand? Well, while we aren't going to be hosting any Abarth races, there is now the opportunity to race to a motorsport event in an Abarth car - the Fiat Abarth 500 Essesse Cabriolet.
This is one of those cute little two-door Fiat 500C models that has been transformed into a scrappy performance hatch via a turbocharged 1.4-litre engine, upgraded suspension and bigger wheels, tyres and brakes. On the inside there are sports seats and a really nice sports-style steering wheel, and the entire package is set off by the use of the Abarth logo seemingly everywhere - body, wheels, carpets, seats and steering wheel.
The car is so much different to other members of the Fiat 500 Cabriolet range both in terms of performance and price.
Down at the bottom of the selection there is the 1.2-litre 51kW Pop that retails for $24,990 with auto, next up there's the 1.4-litre 74kW Sport that costs $26,990, and there's the 900cc 63kW Lounge that costs $32,990. And then there's the Abarth 500 Essesse that has entered the Kiwi market at $46,990, which frankly is a lot of money for a vehicle so small.
But what it loses in value for the money, it makes up for big- time in terms of sheer difference and its ability to turn into a stroppy little performance machine.
I must admit that when I first climbed into the Abarth for my few days road testing the vehicle, my first thought was how on earth I was supposed to drive it. There's no gearshift, you see - instead there's a key-pad with 1, N, R and A/M on it. So I gingerly pressed the 1, figuring it must be what we usually call Drive, and headed off. That was just the start of things. Yes, the 1 was the Drive, but the transmission was what is known as a robotised manual, which doesn't actually change gears automatically but facilitates a manual change without the driver needing to press a clutch.
Sound complicated? It was. Ponderous too, because I soon found that you had to second- guess when the gearshift would occur by lifting your foot off the accelerator just as you do when changing gear manually. And quite often that second-guessing was wrong.
I'd no sooner picked up the Fiat for road test when I had to head to Auckland to attend a media event, and while there I discussed the little car with other motoring journalists. One told me that he'd been advised to "drive the car like an Italian" - in other words, forget about normal motoring, put the car into a Sport mode and manually operate it using gearshift paddles on the steering wheel.
So on my return I promptly punched a dash-mounted Sport button, which not only sharpens the car's throttle response and makes the steering feel heavier, but which also makes the robotised manual more responsive. And then I pushed the A/M button on the transmission keypad and began using the car's big steering wheel-mounted paddles - the left one to change down, the right one to change up.
The Abarth transformed itself, going from a fairly clumsy little car because of that awkward transmission, to something really fun to drive. In the Sport mode the Fiat made full use of its turbocharged 118 kilowatts of power and up to 230 newton metres of torque as it pounded through the countryside, its 1.4-litre engine singing a very happy note.
If the weather is fine this rorty exhaust sound is best experienced by folding back the Fiat's canvas top, which concertinas to a position just above the car's little boot. The roof can be opened at any speed, but will only fully retract when the vehicle is travelling at less than 60kmh.
I suppose the way to describe the the Fiat Abarth 500 Essesse Cabriolet is that it can be a riot to drive, which makes it very appealing even for its high price. Less appealing is what happens when the car is supposed to be driven in its so-called normal mode - it's then that the robotised manual transmission is simply too cumbersome to be bothered with. Pity.
- Taranaki Daily News