As a teenager in the 1980s, there were many cars to lust after. Of course, everyone had a poster of a red Countach on their wall, but there were more realistic objects of desire, too.
Mine was the Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC. Sure, the bodywork began disintegrating the instant it was exposed to the atmosphere, and the loom was made from fuse wire, but it was somehow greater than the sum of its rather mediocre parts.
It helped that it was fitted with a socking great engine – a 130bhp 2.0-litre, while the Escort XR3i made do with a 105bhp 1.6.
The Strada Abarth was the last in a long line of hot Fiats created by specialist tuning company Abarth, whose heyday in the 1950s and ’60s peaked with the arrival of the Fiat 500 Abarth. Over the years, the firm racked up 10 world records, 133 international records and over 10,000 track victories.
Fiat absorbed the company in 1971 and, after the Strada, the Abarth name was relegated to cynical badge-engineering exercises on an increasingly underwhelming array of warmed-over models.
For 2008, however, the Abarth name is back – and in some style.
Fiat has pumped a considerable sum of money into re-launching Abarth as a stand-alone brand, and that includes the construction of a new, purpose-built, Abarth HQ with its own sales, marketing, design and engineering facilities.
The cars themselves will be sold through a dedicated dealer network – there are 10 in the UK so far, with more coming on-stream next year – with their own brand identity.
The Abarth Grande Punto is the first of those cars to arrive in the UK, with the Abarth 500 due next year.
Although based on the standard Grande Punto, the Abarth features a track widened by 6mm, gorgeous 17-inch two-tone alloy wheels, a re-designed front bumper with larger air intakes and headlights with a dark surround. Side-skirts, black wheel-arch extensions, and a rear spoiler and air diffuser complete the look.
Inside, there are 1970s-retro sports seats, and a leather-trimmed dashboard finished with the same red stitching as the Momo-esque steering wheel, gear lever and door pulls. The instruments get the Abarth treatment, too, and in common with the exterior, there are Abarth scorpion badges everywhere – no Fiat logos here.
Mechanically, the changes are more substantial. The front anti-roll bar is thicker, the front springs are 20% stiffer, and the ride height has been reduced by 10mm. Up front, four-pot Brembo callipers clamp down on 305mm ventilated discs to reign it all in.
Of course, the big news is under the bonnet. Abarth have fiddled with the 1.4-litre T-Jet engine from the Grande Punto Sporting and, through a host of changes, have boosted power to 155bhp at 5,500rpm.
The most obvious of these changes is the fitment of a new turbocharger. This diminutive turbo features a 33mm diameter turbine with a fast spin-up time which, coupled with the drive-by-wire throttle, hides most of the turbo-lag and gives the impression of a much larger, torquier engine. The figures – 169lb/ft at 5,000rpm (150lb/ft with Sport Boost turned off) – back this up.
All of this adds up to a 129 mph top speed and a 0-62 mph time of 8.2 seconds. While we’re talking about numbers, we should mention combined cycle economy of 40.9 mpg, and CO2 emissions of 162 g/km, placing it in VED band D (band H from 2009).
If those numbers aren’t exciting enough for you, Abarth have a solution. Two kits are available to boost the Punto’s power and handling, and are delivered in wooden crates, continuing the Abarth tradition.
The Assetto kit focuses on improving the handling, and includes springs that lower the ride height by 15-20mm, softer compound front brake pads, cross-drilled front brake discs and 18-inch light-weight alloy wheels with ultra-low profile tyres.
The ‘esseesse’ kit concerns itself with boosting power, which jumps to 180bhp at 5,750rpm and 200lb/ft at 2,750rpm, reducing the 0-62 mph time to 7.5 seconds. The kit includes all the items from the Assetto kit, plus a new Garrett GT 1446 turbocharger which increases boost pressure from 1.3 to 1.5 bar, new water and oil pipes to the turbo, new exhaust manifold, heat shield, injector rail, MAP sensor, boost sensor, modified catalytic converter, larger diameter exhaust, new intercooler pipework, adapted radiator pipe, new water pump, wastegate valve, and new software for the engine ECU.
The parts can be fitted by an Abarth dealer any time within the first year or 12,000 miles, and the conversion is covered by a two-year warranty. In fact, the official recommendation is that the kit should be fitted after a few thousand miles to allow the engine to run-in first.
The eagle-eyed among you will have realised by now that this process will leave you with a boot full of old bits. While that may make the tuning kits seem rather ill thought-out, we think it’s actually a cunning wheeze.
Fitting a dirty great turbo and loading a more aggressive fuel map is likely to have a seriously detrimental effect on a car’s CO2 emissions – enough to push the ‘esseesse’ version into the fairly unpleasant far reaches of the VED band table, we suspect. However, since a car is taxed on its CO2 rating at the time of first registration, fitting the kit doesn’t affect the car’s VED band.
While it’s unlikely we’ll see sports cars sold with puny 1.0-litre engines, only to later fit a honking great V8 as a ‘tuning kit’ to qualify for reduced road tax bills, we think Abarth may have hit on something, here.
Eco-mentalism aside, the idea of driving the standard car for a year before using the ‘esseesse’ kit to re-invigorate the experience is quite appealing.
That said, the standard Abarth Punto strikes a near-perfect balance on British roads, in our opinion. The handling is softer than some rivals, but with the advantage of a more composed ride around town. It’s firm, but never fidgety, and while the steering isn’t exactly over-burdened with feel, it allows quite eager placement of the car through corners.
The Brembo brakes are nicely linear and allow smooth modulation of braking effort, and the ESP (which can’t be fully disabled) confines itself to making subtle reductions in power rather than completely shutting down the party.
On a Monday morning’s commute or a trip to the supermarket, the Abarth settles down to the job in hand, cosseting you with a smooth clutch action and snatch-free driveline. But, with that scorpion badge peering up at you, it’s clear the sting in the tail is never far away.
Snick the surprisingly fluid gearbox down a notch or two and dive down a favourite B-road and the Punto is ready to express itself.
Here, you’ll want to engage the Sport Boost by pressing the rather tacky-looking button on the dash – this tightens up the throttle response, reduces the assistance from the electric power steering, and allows the full 169lb/ft of torque to be used.
While it does make a noticeable difference, it is something of a gimmick that should be enabled by default, and there’s little to be gained by turning Sport Boost off when driving in town.
It’s surprisingly at home on motorway cruises, too, with useful sixth-gear overtaking surge once you’ve allowed a second or two build up some boost, and reasonable wind- and road-noise suppression.
What surprises most, however, is the depth of character infused by the Abarth engineers. It might be easy for some to write-off the Abarth as a tarted-up Grande Punto with a touch more power and a nose-job. Sure, some of the interior plastics are scratchy and hard and, although our test car didn’t emit a single rattle or squeak, the cynically-minded would say they probably won’t take long to develop. But somehow none of that matters.
The Abarth Grande Punto has a sense of fun that only the Italians can instil. From the peppy burble of the exhaust to the sense of occasion that greets you as you climb into the bucket seats, you can’t help but feel that the Abarth is something special – something greater than the sum of its parts.
Those parts only cost £13,500 – just £1,125 more than a boggo Grande Punto Sporting, and hopefully with better residuals thanks to strictly limited numbers and no dealer discounts. Prices for the Assetto and ‘esseesse’ kits have yet to be finalised, but the latter is expected to come in around the £4,500 mark once fitted.
The level of standard kit is good, too, with CD/MP3 player, iPod/USB interface, Blue&Me Bluetooth integration, air conditioning, dark tinted windows, ABS, ESP, cruise control and trip computer.
It’s inspiring, and to be applauded, that the Fiat Group have invested so much in re-creating this great brand.
If the Abarth Grande Punto is an indication of things to come, we can’t wait to see what’s next.
Peppy and characterful, the Abarth Grande Punto is a strikingly handsome package, particularly in white with red Abarth stripes and retro cloth sports seats. It’s eager, rather than rip-snorting, and all the better for it, in our view. The newly established and entirely separate Abarth network appears to consist of largely enthusiastic and willing dealers, which bodes well for the brand. While rivals such as the Clio Renaultsport 197 are faster, they’re ultimately not as engaging on an emotional level. On that score, you can’t beat the Italians.