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.