Tiny cars are enjoying a design vogue right now, from the ubiquitous Smart Car 2Gos in the world’s most stylish cities, to the weird futuristic BMW i3, to the Google self-driving prototype, the pod of the future, which gets simultaneously mocked and admired in most public showings.
The new microcompacts represent sparks of light in a black mass of beige SUVs, witty, innovative machines that promise something new. But none of them seem to hit the design sweet spot as well as this Fiat 500 Abarth. Everything that feels bland and generic about the new Smart Fortwo feels fresh and interesting here. A lot of cars have crossed my driveway since I started this gig, but few have inspired so much enthusiasm from my friends, neighbors, and spouse. The gearheads among them saw the Abarth scorpion on the rear. That was all they needed. Everyone else just saw the car’s design and squealed with delight.
The Abarth has all the exterior zip and brio that the Google car lacks. It looks tough, like the hood would take a snap at your hand if it comes too close. The interior is unflashy, low-fi, and decorated with racing stripes. It has a killer sound system, a slick-looking dual exhaust, and bright red brake calipers that adorn it like tough-guy earrings. If the Google car looked like this, as opposed to the Toon Town reject it does, no one would be able to mock it.
But this isn’t the Google car, and therein lies the problem. The Abarth comes equipped with a 1.4-liter turbo, and it’s a burner. It roars like it’s about to be launched from the pit at LeMans. Essentially, this is a tiny rally racing car, and it handles like one. For an urban environment, which is where it will mostly exist, it’s too fast, too loud, and too out of control.
The Abarth gets 24 MPG city, 27 combined, which actually, sadly, puts it in the upper half of greenhouse gas efficiency ratings among all cars. I realize this is supposed to be a performance vehicle, but if you really want something small that performs, the Ford Fiesta ST is way better. That makes the Abarth feel like a waste in more ways than one. It’s frustrating that Fiat won’t play to this car’s real strengths.
The hullaballoo over the Google car indicates that people, or at least enough people, really want something small and cute that will drive itself, but don’t really want to burn rubber, or gas. They also want that car to be well designed. Italians, who simply have more flair than Silicon Valley scientists, designed the Abarth. Maybe Google should hire them away.
So would I buy this car? Well, let’s keep the cool-looking shell and the smooth interior design, including the sound system, add in some safety features and the most progressive autonomous driving tech, remove the gas-guzzling engine and replace it with a modern electric motor that can be charged via solar panels. Instead of a nice-looking salute to an age of fossil-fuel waste, you’d be left with a nifty self-driving green-energy machine, a car of the future to make Google blush.
Of course, that’s not an Abarth, as an Abarth currently stands. I seriously doubt that Fiat will have the tech imagination to match its design fancies. But someday, someone will, and people will still squeal when that car whizzes on by.