Abarth’s Scorpion Badge Signals New Sports Era for Fiat
By Andy Bannister
After years of half-hearted neglect, Fiat is now making a serious attempt to capture a slice of the market for super-fast small cars by reviving the spirit of the Abarth racing concern and its evocative badge.
Abarth versions of the little 500 and the Punto are now available and look set to give hot hatch rivals like Ford, Opel and Renault a real run for their money in Europe and possibly further afield.
A self-taught engineer from Austria, Carlo Abarth began his company in 1949, tuning baby Fiats and Simcas. The marque’s scorpion badge he designed was derived from his zodiac birth sign.
These rear-engined cars had tremendous motor sport success – setting five world records at Monza – and were also available as road vehicles. Meanwhile, less affluent buyers who wanted to plug into the Abarth magic could purchase a series of company-developed tuning kits.
In 1971 Abarth was taken over by Fiat, which began to utilise the badge to build its own image. Among the successful vehicles it was used on were included the world-beating 124 and 131 rally cars, which did much to spice up sales and add some excitement to the line-up.
On the road, the badge was haphazardly used from time to time on a variety of models, some closer to the spirit of the founder than others. An early beneficiary was Fiat’s Autobianchi small car division (later absorbed into Lancia), which offered a slightly-warmed over version of its baby hatchback as the A112 Abarth.
The name was dusted off again in the 1980s for a hot version of the oddly styled Fiat Ritmo (called Strada in the USA and Britain), the high performance 130TC, meant to be Fiat challenger to the all-pervading success of the VW Golf GTi. It was an intriguing niche model, but wasn’t taken as seriously as Fiat hoped, and sales were never spectacular.
More recently the Abarth name adorned various optional bodykits for Fiat models, and was then revived for the most sporting version of the ill-fated Stilo hatchback. This was one of the least successful Fiats of the last few years, failing to meet its sales targets and being treated with indifference by buyers. Many enthusiasts worried that if the Stilo was a sign of things to come, Fiat was set to devalue the badge altogether.
Happily, a recently-rejuvenated Fiat seems to have rediscovered what it does best, making stylish and attractive small cars with real personality. Among other promising developments, last year saw the revival of Abarth as a semi-independent sporting brand. This has been done with surprising thoroughness, so Abarth has its own headquarters, its own engineering department, a race programme and a dealer network.
By concentrating on the smaller end of its range, Fiat is taking on the acknowledged market leader, Renault – which makes seriously hot semi-racing versions of cars like its Clio Renaultsport Cup – head on. It is a brave move, as the Italian brand hasn’t has a really decent small hot hatch for many years, so lacks an enthusiast following or any customer case for this sort of car.
The Giugiaro-styled Punto (sometimes known as the Grande Punto to differentiate itself from its predcessors) is a Ford Fiesta rival which has a hint of Maserati Quattroporte about its front-end looks. It sells in large numbers across the continent and has been a major factor in Fiat’s recent renaissance.
Most sales so far have been cheaper, low-end models, so the Punto certainly needs a good injection of Abarth magic to make it a serious hot hatch competitor. True to form, the 1.4-litre engine has been uprated to a heady 153bhp, with a redesign of the intake and combustion systems, the camshaft profiles and timings, the intake and exhaust manifolds, coolant circulation and the spark plugs. Significant modifications have also been made to the steering and suspension.
Outside, the Punto Abarth gets a subtle bodykit, a new front bumper with bigger air intakes and foglamp shrouds, plus a rear spoiler, 17-inch alloy wheels and of course those scorpion badges.
Joining it is the 500 Abarth, on sale in Italy since July and the fastest version ever of the hugely popular smll Fiat. This stylish tiddler boasts a 1.4-litre turbo offering 135bhp and a new torque transfer control system. Externally, the modifications – including a large winged spoiler – are all designed to improve the car’s on road performance rather than just enhance its showroom appeal.
These two cars, taken together, are a promising start, but if Fiat is to be true to its revived brand it needs to deliver some track success and develop more extreme Abarth versions of both the 500 and Punto, rather than being tempted into simply offering a profitable sporting version of every model in its range. Time will tell if Abarth truly can deliver a sting in the tail for rivals.
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