Elon Musk merely dreamed of building rockets and electric cars, the front-passenger air bag wasn’t yet mandatory, and the euro currency didn’t exist when Americans last had Italian speed on the cheap. Long past its Graduate-fueled prime, the Alfa Romeo Spider bowed out in 1994, and that was it for reasonably accessible Italian driving pleasure. Fiat had made an ambivalent effort to vend its wares before abandoning these shores a decade earlier, and the truth was that its cars hardly kept up with the Alfas even when modified by exhaust systems and other speed parts from the Abarth performance division.
So from the land of extra-virgin olive oil and some of the most outrageous racing boats, airplanes, and automobiles ever conceived, only Ducati and Moto Guzzi, small manufacturers of motorcycles, consistently kept the spark going. Although Ducati sometimes flickered along the way, it ultimately produced a series of ever-more-sensational bikes that cost roughly the same as routine service on exotic Italian cars.
In early 2011, Fiat returned to America with the interesting but tepid 500, the Mexican-made retro tribute to the people’s car introduced in 1957. Having established this bivouac, Fiat now brings to the American automotive summit the 500 Abarth, a turbocharged entry in the minicompact field that recalls the MINI Cooper S but is full of puttanesca sauce with anchovies instead of mustard and herring. Compared with the 500 Sport, the Abarth is 2.7 inches longer in the naso in order to accommodate twin intercoolers and improve aerodynamics. It also rides on optional seventeen-inch forged-aluminum wheels and low-profile Pirelli tires, and its twin tailpipes mesmerizingly vociferate in honor of Karl Abarth, the Austrian motorcycle racer who moved to Italy, where he tuned and raced Fiats, among other marques.
Coincidentally, Ducati introduces the Streetfighter 848, the more civilized sibling of the Streetfighter S, king of naked bikes. An example of the design aesthetic that harks back to Brutalist architecture and Le Corbusier, the Streetfighter is all yellow pecs and delts: the trellis framework, engine casings, and wheels are blacked out. It has enough horsepower and torque to make the rider wish for neural implants to help his brain keep up.
At $12,995, the Ducati undercuts the Abarth by $9005. The Streetfighter is also more potent but less weatherproof than the Abarth. No right mind would call a Fiat versus a two-wheeler a fair fight. Rather, our challenge in bringing together these two very different animals was to delineate their ferocity. Reader advisory: You might want to insert earplugs for the remainder of this story.
The Tempest: Ducati Streetfighter 848
In the two-wheel world, the Ducati name is as magical as Ferrari’s in the four-wheel world. In the same way that Ferrari has long stuck with flat- and V-12 engines, Ducati has spent more than forty years developing and perfecting the oversquare 90-degree V-twins that give its bikes a narrow profile and a low center of gravity while also making noises that are among the most recognizable and agreeable in all of internal combustion, starting with the 750’s mellow sonority in 1972. The Streetfighter 848’s nearly vibration-free, DOHC, liquid-cooled, two-cylinder 849-cc unit (our question why the 848 has an 849-cc engine went unanswered) generates 132 hp at 10,000 rpm and 69 lb-ft of torque at 9500 rpm. Compare this efficient output of 155.5 hp per liter to the Ferrari 458 Italia‘s 124.9 hp per liter (not to mention the supercharged Chevrolet Corvette ZR1’s 103.5 hp per liter). At 373 pounds dry, the Streetfighter outweighs Ndamukong Suh by the equivalent of a bull terrier, and it might even be meaner than that combination. The engine’s primary balance and even pulses are hard to outclass; the Ducati thunder is not only heard but also, like ass-pinching Italian men, felt from a distance. Envious in defeat, rockslides have benchmarked this sound.
Climbing aboard the Streetfighter and assuming the pugnacious riding position — which is more or less shared with competitors in the Olympic skeleton and a frat boy worshipping the porcelain throne — you push the start button with your right thumb, disengage the clutch with your left hand, and feel the thwack, like a rotating turnstile, as your left foot selects first gear. Blooming before you are hydraulic reservoirs for the lightweight multiplate wet clutch and the disc brakes (two front, one rear, no ABS). You don’t see the front wheel at all, and the LCD instrument display is visible only if you tip your head down or scoot way back. Now twist open the elliptical throttles with your right hand, release the clutch, and fire away. The bike stutters and coughs until 2750 rpm, so you add revs. Zero to 60 mph is a matter of OMG! Then, instead of traffic, you see a banquet of prey: Harleys, two- and four-wheel BMWs, and Porsches just waiting to be culled from the herd. This is how the first motorcyclist felt more than a century ago when overtaking buggies.
If anything is surprising, it’s the comfortable seating position even at high speed and how little buffeting you endure: despite the lack of a fairing, your head stays still. Beyond 50 mph, though, the rushing racket around your helmet overcomes the howitzers of the exhaust; other travelers momentarily get to enjoy it as you disappear toward the horizon.
Everything about the Streetfighter — even the eight-stage traction control system — emphasizes rider involvement and command. Redirecting this missile, you look right or left and get ready to drop your shoulder. You brake, downshift, and become a human italic. The three-part treads of the seventeen-inch Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires have stickier outward sections, so you confidently hold this crazy akimbo position. Straightening up at the exit of the turn, you glance down at the speed display indicating yesterday’s lotto payoff; turning was the mere matter of waving a feather. You shoot ahead, and no matter what speed, the suspension keeps up, offering superb compliance and a firm but never miserable ride. One hundred miles go by, and you’re still in the thin saddle, still with feeling in all extremities. If there’s anything unpleasant about the Streetfighter, it’s the frightening way the mirrors, which vibrate somewhat, make any car that does happen to catch up look like a police cruiser.
While the 500 Abarth and the Streetfighter 848 differ greatly, they also have surprising commonalities.
- Karl Abarth raced motorcycles before devoting himself to tuning and racing automobiles. He formed his own speed-parts company in 1949 and sold it to Fiat in 1971.
- Ducati tradition was established during halcyon seasons of racing small single-cylinder bikes from 1947 to 1958. The 750 marked the arrival of the 90-degree V-twin when it won the 200 Miles of Imola in 1972.
- Through the 1950s and ’60s, Ducati was owned and managed by Italy’s Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale, a government holding group formed during the Great Depression.
- The Abarth’s American arrival was made possible by Chrysler’s government-managed bankruptcy in 2009, which gave Fiat management responsibilities, an initial 20 percent stake in the company, and a foothold in the U.S. market.
IMMEDIACY OF DRIVING POSITION
Streetfighter: Rider doesn’t see the front wheel
Abarth: Driver sees nothing of the car beyond the cowl
ROBUST EXHAUST SOUNDS
Streetfighter: Howitzers and melted caramel
Abarth: Brassy mellifluousness followed by battle cry
Streetfighter: Upper and lower radiators, the lower one cowled for aero efficiency
Abarth: Nose extended to house twin intercoolers
WHEELS AND TIRES
Streetfighter: 17-inch aluminum wheels & Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires
Abarth: 17-inch forged-aluminum wheels & Pirelli PZero Nero tires
NEARLY MATCHING DIMENSIONS
Streetfighter: Wheelbase, 58.1 in
Abarth: Height, 58.7 in
The Teapot: Fiat 500 Abarth
Alighting on the Abarth’s optional, redolent, red-leather upholstery is like sitting on the Rolling Stones’s Hot Licks logo but less squishy. (Unlike a Keith Richards guitar riff, the seats aren’t heated.) The dashboard finish sparkles. The 500 emblem glistens. Great taste and an optimistic outlook lie behind this interior. But the first thing you do is remove the optional TomTom navigation unit from the dash, where it’s taking up too much of the view, and stick it in the glove box. Even the beautifully stitched, leather-covered hood over the instruments rises a bit high. Looking into it, you can’t help but snicker: the speedometer forecasts 160 mph. Better to ride inside a shoe thrown at an indolent husband, you think.
Whatever the Abarth will really do — Fiat is reluctant to publish top speed, and there was no risking jail time for the sake of this test — the car quickly shows its character. The engine wakes with a brassy mellifluousness and then issues a battle cry when you crack open the throttle. Fiat claims eighteen iterations were needed to get this exhaust note just right. Bravissimo, Italian obsession! Whereas other 500 models make 101 hp and 98 lb-ft, the Abarth’s SOHC 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder cranks out 160 hp and 170 lb-ft. That’s 117.0 hp per liter, just below the 458 Italia but way ahead of the slovenly Corvette ZR1. This output is achieved with a high compression ratio of 9.8:1 (not quite as high as the normally aspirated Streetfighter’s amazing 13.2:1) and 18 psi of boost.
Pulling out, you quickly find the Abarth is dead serious about being a pint-size performance hero. Owing to strengthened, equal-length driveshafts, torque steer isn’t an issue. Wind noise also is subdued. Every driver interface is wonderfully well-wrought. The pedals are set just so and have the perfect amount of travel; the fat, leather-wrapped steering wheel feels ever so right; and steering response is highly pleasing. You find yourself liking the reinforced five-speed gearbox’s longish throws and welcoming gates. Soon, you’re playing the Abarth like an alto sax picked up by a Marshall amp. Shifting gears near the 6500-rpm redline, you stalk the freeway, eyes agleam. When a hole opens, you drop down a gear, or not — peak torque is on hand as low as 2500 rpm — and hurtle forward. Plenty of easily modulated braking power is there, too.
When it’s time to plant the 2512-pound Abarth and turn it — the simple suspension of MacPherson struts in front and a beam axle with coil springs to the rear has been augmented with stabilizer bars and sophisticated dampers — the car makes a crossover dribble and heads for the hoop, intending to throw one down over the big fella. There’s no drama whatsoever. Of course, the optional, low-profile Pirelli PZero Nero three-season tires wrapped around forged seventeen-inch wheels have everything it takes. There’s a downside, though. The ride is firm but fine. The real problem is the tread pattern’s disagreements with the grooved concrete of SoCal freeways, which causes the car to dance around. And when it’s time to park or make a U-turn, the Abarth, which ought to pirouette, shows club-footedness: the turning circle of 37.6 feet exceeds that of a Dodge Durango by half a foot.
Never mind. You’re whizzing by the jumbos in this adorable teapot. And what do the cetacean SUVs and manateelike sedans see as you nip in ahead? They see generously vented fascias, deeply sculpted sill extensions, and a whopping great spoiler. They also see no fewer than eight Abarth badges (including wheel centers), the Abarth name stenciled in the lower-side graphics, and the “500” designation on the liftgate handle. The Fiat name is incognito.
Measure for measure
Emerging from the Abarth, you step back and say, “I did all that with this?” It’s like field-dressing an elk with a glazing knife. Only the tiny windshield had interposed itself as a reminder of the car’s true size. This nubster is all about the driver, about passione, exuberance, and cool design. Its robustness is as bracing as the face slap in Fiat’s great “Seduction” TV spot.
Indeed, the same is true of the tempestuous Streetfighter. Car and bike offer rawness carefully balanced against refinement, positive reads and responses in every aspect from the controls and the performance dynamics, and a raucousness that the easily offended will simply have to shrug off. There’s loads of brio and style, especially for the money. Despite the Streetfighter’s sophisticated traction control system and the lap timer that’s integrated into the display panel, despite the Abarth’s stability control and creature comforts, they’re both about maximum involvement, about leaving you tingling and satisfied.
To put perspective on the Streetfighter’s irksome stumble off idle and lack of tractability in city traffic, and on the Abarth’s balking in tight spaces, let’s recall art historian Anne Hollander’s analysis on the evolution of aristocratic clothing: “Changes in very elegant fashion usually meant exchanging one physical discomfort for another; the comfort of such clothes was in the head, a matter of honor and discipline and the proper maintenance of social degree.”
By riding the Streetfighter or driving the Abarth, you mark yourself as a member of the cognoscenti, one for whom visual and aural expression is massive capability unto itself, for whom this expression signifies stealthy power; so the occasional lapse in utility may be forgiven. Meanwhile, should you find yourself temporarily short of the purchase price for either one, treat yourself to a cup of cappuccino followed by a slug of grappa as a reasonable short-term substitute. The fact that bargain-priced Italian speed is back for a new generation at least deserves your saluto.
Fiat 500 Abarth
PRICE: $22,700/$26,050 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 1.4L turbo I-4, 160 hp, 170 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
Ducati Streetfighter 848
PRICE: $12,995/$12,995 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 849-cc V-2, 132 hp, 69 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
Techtonics: Opening and closing valves in different ways
Both the Abarth and the Streetfighter rely on valvetrains that neither look nor function like a conventional cylinder head. Fiat’s MultiAir technology allows for continuously variable valve timing and lift on the intake side, eliminating the pumping losses caused by a traditional throttle body. Efficiency and performance benefit from valve-opening profiles that vary based on conditions such as full power, low-load cruising, and cold starts. Rather than rigid rockers, the MultiAir system connects the camshaft lobe to the intake valve with hydraulic fluid. A solenoid regulates whether the fluid acts on the valve or bypasses it, controlling both the timing and the height of the valve opening.
Ducati’s V-twins use a desmodromic design that dispenses with valve springs and instead relies on a second rocker arm to close each valve. Desmodromic cylinder heads historically offered more efficient and reliable performance at high rpm, whereas conventional valvetrains were plagued by valve float and spring failures. Modern valvetrains have overcome those problems, but springless head design hasn’t stood still, either. While desmodromic systems have traditionally involved frequent and costly maintenance, the Streetfighter 848 boasts 15,000-mile intervals between valve adjustments. – Eric Tingwall
- In the Fiat, the cam lobe drives a piston that creates pressure on the hydraulic fluid in the valve system.
- An electronically operated solenoid controls whether the fluid opens the intake valve. When the solenoid is open, the fluid bypasses the valve and is pushed into a holding chamber.
- When the solenoid is closed, the hydraulic fluid is directed toward the intake valve, lifting it. By opening and closing the solenoid strategically, the MultiAir system can alter timing and lift.
- There are no valve springs in a desmodromic valvetrain. Instead, this second rocker arm returns the valve to its closed position.