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