There's a lot of interesting stuff in the new Abarth Punto Evo, the successor to the Abarth Grande Punto introduced in 2008: a strong 1.4 litre turbocharged engine with MultiAir variable valve timing, fierce-looking, attention-grabbing alloy wheels with an aggressive "claw" design, a "little lever" (Manettino in Italian) or Sport Switch, which allows the car to be put into a special "sport" setting that sharpens its throttle and steering response, as well as engaging the Torque Transfer Control (TTC) system, a sort of electronic limited slip differential.
Then there's a fuel-saving stop-start system, still a comparative rarity on cars of this sporty nature, which helps the Abarth Punto Evo to achieve impressive economy and emissions figures despite its excellent performance, as well as a host of safety features, including seven airbags.
I suspect, though, that this car's makers wouldn't mind too much if some of that detail didn't really stick and you remembered just one thing about it – the badge. Because, as they constantly emphasise, this is an Abarth, not a Fiat; buy one and all of the paperwork will record it as such.
Fiat owns Abarth and the link to Fiat is indispensable to any understanding of what Abarth is all about, but the Italians are now working very hard to establish it as a standalone marque. Nineteen Abarth dealerships have so far been established in the UK, of a planned medium-term total of up to thirty; most are collocated with mainstream Fiat dealership premises but a few are run by Alfa rather than Fiat specialists, which may give some idea of the ambitions there are for the brand.
So what is Abarth all about? The chances are that unless you're fairly old and quite interested in cars, you may never even have heard about it, but it is one of the more storied automotive badges around. The Austrian-Italian Karl (later Carlo) Abarth was a renowned engine tuner and in the 1950s he began to specialise in tweaking Fiats to give them more performance, building a huge following on the back of spectacular competition success. So, a great starting point for a new or revived brand, one which has a long, deep, authentic connection connection with Fiat.
The reinvented MGs produced by Austin Rover in the 1980s had versions of the MG octagaon motif all over the place, and if you study a Bentley closely, you will find the famous "B" logo everywhere, even on the tyres' dust caps, but I don't think there has ever been a car as heavily badged with it's maker's mark as this one.
My test car had a nice enamel Abarth badge, with its famous scorpion motif, on the grille, and this was repeated on the tailgate button as well. Two further Abarth badges adorn the Punto evo's rear flanks, and I think that may be the first time any manufacturer has stuck a badge on that part of a car.
Just in case all those badges don't get the point across, optional side stripes spelling out the Abarth name are available, and that claw design on the alloy wheels is inspired by the scorpion too. Get into the driver's seat and you will be confronted by three further Abarth logos; one on the steering wheel boss, another on the floor mat in the foot-well and a third that lights up in the instrument panel when you start the engine.
Personally, I usually prefer something a bit more understated, but I think the Abarthisation process works pretty well on the Punto Evo. The main danger of laying things on so thick, of course, is that the car really needs to be good enough and sporty enough to live up to that fine Abarth tradition; broadly speaking I think it is.
The Manettino works as it is supposed to, and the 1.4 litre turbo engine, with the MultiAir valve-gear is a great piece of kit – it revs freely, it's torquey and it sounds great too. Most of my driving in the Abarth Punto Evo was on the hilly twisty roads of North Yorkshire, where the car acquitted itself well.
A quick go in the Abarth Punto Evo also serves as a reminder that the standard, that is to say, Fiat, Punto Evo on which this Abarth is based, is a pretty competent machine too, although not all of the changes that turned the Grande Punto into the Punto Evo were necessarily for the better; the newer car has lost something of the old one's "Baby Maserati" appearance around its nose, a look that would have suited this sporty Abarth right down to the ground.
Abarth Punto Evo
Price: £16,500 on the road
Top speed: 133mph
0-60mph: 7.9 seconds
Consumption: 47.1 mpg (combined cycle)
CO2 emissions: 142g/km
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