THE ABARTH TREATMENT HAS TRANSFORMED THE GRANDE PUNTO INTO THE CAR WE ALWAYS FELT IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.
Abarth. Mean anything to you? I have a vague recollection of some Abarth-badged Ritmos and 131 Mirafioris from my youth and some rather cheesy kits on Puntos and Cinquecentos a few years later, but that’s about it. And yet despite not really being able to remember any proper Abarth cars I somehow know they’re something special, like Cosworth or Alpine or Shelby. Perhaps it’s just because “Abarth” sounds good or it’s got a cool scorpion badge, but something about Abarth says performance and speed to me, even if I’m too young to really remember what it’s about. In case you’re interested, Carlos Abarth founded the company in 1949 and specialised in tuning Fiat cars for competition purposes. Fiat bought Abarth outright in 1971 and went on to win the World Rally Championship three times (’77, ’78 and ’80) in a Fiat 131 Abarth, but during the ‘80s the Abarth legend was let fizzle away into nothing. Now, it’s not just back as a badge on sporty Fiats, it’s about to become a brand all by itself.
Can Fiat sustain another brand? It’s already got four, if you exclude Ferrari, but it seems confident that the Abarth brand is strong enough to stand all on its own, which is why there isn’t a single badge anywhere on the car. That’s also why Fiat intends to sell it only through authorised dealer experiences. So far, 40 dealers are already signed up in Italy, but no Irish dealer has taken the plunge yet. However, that will change once they see the Grande Punto Abarth (GPA), because it isn’t just the usual collection of badges and plastic add-ons. For a start, the 1.4 T-Jet engine’s got more power – 155hp and 206Nm of torque, though a push of the Sport Boost button on the dashboard will dial up more aggressive throttle mapping and increase torque to 230Nm. Fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox, the GPA now has a top speed of 208km/h and can accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 8.2 seconds – decent if unspectacular performance. More significantly, the track has been widened and 17” alloy wheels have been fitted, behind which lurk four pot Brembo brakes and 305mm discs. The suspension has been lowered by 10mm and there are also 20 percent stiffer springs and dampers, thicker anti-roll bars and a retuned ESP system that can’t be switched off (to save young Italians from themselves, presumably). The result is a car that’s flat and stable in corners, nicely adjustable on the throttle and very sure-footed at speed and under braking – even in the wet. The driving position can be tailored so that hands and feet fall right onto the necessary controls, but the controls themselves do lack a little weight and feel, especially the steering, which is quick and responsive but rather secretive about what the front wheels are up to. The styling has also been beefed up, with the necessary badges and decals (of course) but also a sexy new bumper, black headlamp surrounds, larger air intakes, side skirts, wheel arch rims, under-body plastics, a rear diffuser, twin exhausts and a rear spoiler. Inside, there’s a leather-effect dash, snug bucket seats, lots of Abarth branding and red stitched leather on all of your contact points. Not bad for car with an entry-level price that we guess will be only around €24,000. If all that isn’t enough, you could splash out an extra five grand on the “esseesse” kit (read it as “SS”), which boosts power to 180hp, torque to 272Nm and pushes the top speed to 215km/h while whittling its 0-100km/h time back to a respectable 7.7 seconds. The kit naturally includes a whole heap of “esseesse” stickers and a chequered flag roof, but it also comprises 18” alloy wheels, a 20mm lower and stiffer suspension, cross-drilled brake discs and high-performance pads, fruity exhaust and seriously deep bucket seats. It doesn’t come from the factory this way, though, so it has to be installed at an official Abarth service centre within one year or 20,000km of buying the basic Abarth. It’s Fiat’s first real sniff at the €12 billion European market and given how pronounced the changes are to the GPA’s handling and performance, I’d expect the take-up on “esseesse” kits to be rather high. It’s almost like driving a racing car, such is the noise and the firmness and the huge, huge grip, even in the wet. The name Abarth might mean very little to the spotty youths the GPA is aimed at but it won’t be long before it will be as much a part of the youth culture as illegal music downloads and myspace accounts. It’s quick, good looking and a decent handler but, most importantly of all, the GPA is simply dripping with Italian cool.
Abarth Grande Punto 1.4 Turbo
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl turbo, 155hp, 230Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Acceleration: 0–100km/h: 8.2 seconds
Top speed: 208km/h
Economy: 7.0L/100km (est) CO2: 160g/km (est)
Boot capacity: 275 litres
Weight: 1,150kg (est)
Price: €24,000 (est)
Price “Esseesse”: €29,000 (est)