Abarth? Am I right in thinking the last time I saw that name it was on a Fiat Stilo?
Wash your mouth out! We don’t talk about that. Abarth has now been launched as a new brand in the Fiat stable, alongside the likes of Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and Fiat. Fiat has owned Abarth outright since 1971, and the brand is one that can point to decades of racing and tuning heritage. Fiat believes it can be run profitably with marketing and merchandising to back it up. Abarth has recently had a successful presence in motorsport with a rally version of the Grande Punto so the marketing machine kicks into action with some current race DNA to draw on. This is the hot version of the Grande Punto, and will wear no Fiat badge. Instead it sports the yellow and red Abarth shield on its nose adorned with the traditional black scorpion. And it’s not a case of badge-engineering like the Stilo of recent years – there are significant changes under the skin to put the Abarth into contention against the best of the contemporary crop of hot hatches.
What sort of changes?
The hottest petrol version of the Fiat Grande Punto has 120bhp. The Abarth kicks off with a 155bhp version of the same 1.4-litre T-jet engine, and has 152lb ft at 5000 rpm. But in the centre of the dash there’s a button temptingly labelled ‘sport boost’, which liberates an extra 18-lb-ft of torque and makes it accessible lower down the rev range. Suspension is lowered by 10mm over the standard Grande Punto, with stiffer springs added, and 17-inch alloys are bolted on for good measure. Inside the Abarth benefits form bespoke sports seats and some different interior materials over its Fiat-badged twin.
Only 155bhp? Is that enough?
On paper it’s on a par with cars like the brilliant Ford Fiesta ST and the slightly lacklustre Peugeot 207 GT. And like the Peugeot the Abarth has a turbocharged engine, giving access to plenty of grunt low down the rev range, particularly with the ‘sport boost’ button pressed. The chassis modifications ensure the Abarth feels good to drive too. Although we didn’t get to drive on proper roads, we were able to take the Grande Punto round a billiard table-smooth circuit at Fiat’s testing facility in Balocco in the wet. It gripped very well in the tighter corners and showed excellent body control when changing direction. Although it has electric power steering, it’s one of the better systems and offers plenty of communication through the fingertips. The slick-shifting six-speed box is a delight to use and the brakes respond cleanly and progressively. However, some may be disappointed to find that the electronic stability control can’t be disabled. Ever.
That sounds like a cop out, and just when I was getting interested…
Fiat claims it’s for safety reasons, and you’ll never be able to travel as fast with the stability control disabled. However, you can make the Abarth more hardcore. Part of Abarth’s heritage also includes tuning, and customers who own an Abarth Grande Punto less than 12 months and with less than 12,000 miles on the clock can buy the ‘esseesse’ or Super Sport upgrade pack. This includes a round of further modifications to make the Abarth even more driver-focused. Suspension is lowered by a further 20mm, the brakes are upgraded, power is boosted to 180bhp and torque reaches 201lb ft, all of which sharpen the car’s behaviour on the road and makes it more responsive on the track. It also shaves half a second off the 0-62mph time hitting the benchmark in 7.7 seconds. We wonder about how this car might react on a poor quality British country road riding more than an inch lower than a standard Grande Punto, but we won’t pass judgement until we try it. Inside, pukka racing seats replace the sports items in the standard Abarth and body-coloured trim is fitted to the dashboard replacing the original soft-touch material. And there’s the exhaust. Fiat insists the ‘esseesse’ pack complies with emissions and noise legislation. However, the aural pleasure derived from blipping the throttle, listening to the exhaust’s throaty bark, and then the spits and bangs on the over-run makes you wonder how such indulgence could possibly be legal.
Sounds great. I’ll rush off to my Fiat dealer and get a deposit down…
Not so fast. The brand has just launched in Italy, and it’ll be a while before we have access in the UK. There will be 100 stand-alone Abarth sales outlets across Europe when the brand is rolled out, but expect no more than ten in the UK, with the first deliveries to customers in summer 2008. Details for the UK are yet to be finalised, but will follow the pattern of the set-up in Italy. You will only be able to buy an Abarth from one of these centres, which will most likely be built in the main cities in the UK, and customers will probably have to use these centres for the ‘esseesse’ upgrade pack. However, a number of existing Fiat dealers will be approved to carry out servicing of Abarth products. Expect to pay about £13,000 or so for a standard Abarth Grande Punto, with the ‘esseesse’ pack costing £3500-£4000 on top.
Can we expect more from Abarth?
Yes – we’ve already scooped the 500 Abarth and the ‘esseesse’ version. Fiat is also planning a car to fit between Panda and Grande Punto, expected to be called Uno, so don’t be surprised if that gets the Abarth treatment. There will be four models when the full range is launched and a diesel will almost certainly join the Abarth line-up – one of the brand’s current motorsport creations is a Grande Punto with a 1.9-litre oil burner.
As Renault, Vauxhall/Opel and Ford have successfully created sporty brands for hot versions of their cars, Fiat has gone a step further with the re-launch of the Abarth marque. The Grande Punto is already good drive, and after undergoing the scorpion treatment turns into a great-looking and thoroughly entertaining hot-hatch, particularly with the extra mods. With a limited retail network it will also remain exclusive.