Abarth puts soul back into Fiat

Once, Abarth turned Italian 600s into little boy-racers. John Simister welcomes the famous marque back
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Ferrari last week, a hotted-up Fiat Punto this week... Italy has long been the country where the most soulful cars are created, and it seems that some good things never change. With that upbeat thought, I'd like to reintroduce to you a name from Italy's, and specifically Fiat's, motor-sporting past: Abarth.

You might remember, or have seen pictures of, the little Fiat Abarth saloon-racers of the 1960s. Typically based on the rear-engined 600, they had their engine covers propped open to keep the innards cool and managed to look very cool in the process. The Austrian-turned-Italian Carlo Abarth also created tuning kits for the tiny 500, by which they were renamed 595 SS or 695 SS, plus several of his own-design, Fiat-based, GT and racing cars.

Beyond this, Abarth made a range of tuned exhaust systems for lots of cars, giving them a "sting in the tail" that befitted the company's Scorpion badge. You could buy all this stuff in England back then from Radbourne Racing, and re-creations of much of it now from today's British Abarth torch-bearer, Middle Barton Garage. Abarth subsequently became, effectively, Fiat's competition department, during which time it won many world rallies. Latterly, though, it has suffered dilution and iniquity as a go-faster badge on slightly sporting Fiats.

But no longer. Fiat is undergoing a Damascene realisation of what it was, what it is, and how it can reinterpret the best bits of its past to make a more exciting future. We have seen this with the 500, and we see it again with Abarth's reinvention. The muscled-up Grande Punto you see here is the first example of the reborn Abarth operation, based once again in its old headquarters on Corso Marche, Turin and in charge once again of Fiat motor-sport – including the very successful Grande Punto Super 2000 four-wheel drive rally car.

The new, roadgoing Abarth Grande Punto (it wears no Fiat badge, just the scorpions) is no body-kitted charlatan with a half-hearted mechanical makeover. The engine is a 155bhp version of the turbocharged 1.4 first seen in the new Fiat Bravo, the suspension has a wider track and springs stiffened by 20 per cent, the brakes are bigger, stronger Brembo items and there is – naturally – a twin-pipe exhaust system. Inside, we find splendid sporty seats and aluminium pedals, while outside the Abarth hits the right visual note.

The body sits 10mm lower on widened wheels which are bounded by slender black wheel-arch lips, and the deep, vented valances suggest genuine competition-car credentials. The Abarth eschews the styling-kit look of the otherwise fine Vauxhall Corsa VXR while avoiding the visual half-heartedness of the Peugeot 207 GTI. Its creators describe it as "small and furious".

"Small" is a relative term, of course: the Punto looked vast next to the tiny 595 SS proudly displayed on the Corso Marche building's immaculate, newly finished, gloss-red floor. Now I'm at Fiat's test track at Balocco, midway between Turin and Milan, and out in the open air and in a new context the newest Abarth looks low, stocky, and ready for action. I start the .....................engine to be greeted with a deep but disappointingly muted note, an un-Abarth-like attribute forced on Fiat by EU noise regulations which measure only decibels, not a sound's ability to please.

There's a power-boost button. Press it, and maximum torque rises from 152lb ft at 5,000rpm to 170lb ft at 3,000rpm, giving a rush of energy instead of a gentle build-up. The accelerator becomes more sensitive, too. Right now, the Balocco track, part of it newly surfaced with kerbs painted in Italian tricolour fashion to add to the racetrack ambience, is wet, so I begin with power unboosted. Or less boosted, at least. It will be a good opportunity to try out the stability and traction systems, which can't be switched off.

Modern Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) systems act quickly enough, provided they are calibrated properly. This doesn't always happen; Peugeot's 207 GT THP 150 has an ESP system always switched on above a certain (low) speed, and should you ever take the car on a track you will find that the system's constant, over-cautious interventions very annoying, even if they are seldom encountered on the road. The Abarth is different. I zoom along the first straight, aim at the fast S-bend under a bridge, touch the brakes, turn in, power through.

The ESP does calm the power if you're too enthusiastic on your exit from a tight corner, but only to get the best from the Punto, rather than wagging an accusing finger at you.

I press the power-boost button, and the Abarth morphs into a keener, sharper version of itself without suddenly turning into a thug. This is a very enjoyable little car, agile and tightly controlled with firm brakes and properly positive steering. I like it a lot.

But what is this other Abarth Grande Punto? It sits another 20mm lower, has 18in instead of 17in wheels, the twin exhausts are larger and there's a red-and-white chequerboard on its roof. Seats are rather like a proper rally car's, andthere's a freer-flowing intake system in carbon fibre. Meet the Abarth Grande Punto Esseesse, heir to those old SS models.

As in the past, so in the present. Once again you can have an Abarth tune-up kit on your Fiat, except that this time the car to which it is applied is already called Abarth. The Esseesse kit is around £3,500 on top of the £13,000 the Abarth will probably cost in the UK early next year.

The Abarth engineers include the Esseesse's wonderfully sonic exhaust system in this, to my surprise and delight. It's like driving a real rally car. The engine feels sharper and freer-revving, as well it might, with power increased to 180bhp (from 1.4 litres!).

Pace rises from the 129mph and 8.2-second 0-62mph time of the regular Abarth to 134mph and 7.7 seconds. Thanks to that ample torque (up to 201lb ft in the Esseesse), the reality feels yet swifter than the figures suggest.

And oh, the cornering! You brake hard, feel the extra G-force from the drilled discs and grippier brake pads, revel in the crispest, most accurate and most natural-feeling steering yet in a modern hot hatchback with electric power assistance. Lowered suspension means any movement of the steering wheel is more effectively converted into a direction change instead of making the body lean, and makes the wheels lean in at the topto improve response.

I know of no current hot hatchback with better steering, but what works on a track may not be optimal for the road.

The Esseesse is riotously amusing. I just hope it stays that way once it's over here, I really do.