Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Luigi the Turbo

Five-buck-a-gallon gas is everything Fiat needs to return to an American market that has largely forgotten that "FIAT" was more a prophetic acronym than car company when it was last run out of town.

A too-darling little 500 that carries four and splits the difference between a Smart ForTwo and a Mini Cooper on the road-legal rollerskate scale is in dealerships now, but it's a 100-horsepower wheezer.

Coming for 2012 is what we really want: The turbocharged Fiat 500 Abarth, which should show 180 ponies to a mere 2,350 pounds: Luigi's own 13-pounds/horsepower laugh riot.

The Abarth joins the Nissan Juke, stripper VW GTI and upcoming Chevy Sonic RS/Ford Focus/Fiesta ST in the Big-Punch Fourbanger Rodeo that tries to mate mid-20s fuel economy to everything-you-need-for-the-street performance.

Anyone who knows how quickly a modern Mustang or Camaro can accelerate from 0-bailbond can appreciate the no-concessions brilliance of this class of car: sub-seven-second 0-60s, bring-barf-bags cornering, above-average fuel economy, tidy exterior dimensions, and somehow enormous seats-folded cargo space.

The blown Abarth arrives missing only the cargo space part of the hot hatch formula, but chances are its cuter-than-a-bug demeanor will forgive the inability to carry a snare drum set.

Fiat's generous four-year bumper-to-bumper warranty is a nice re-introduction gesture which may instill confidence in those worried about buying an Italian car manufactured in a Mexican Chrysler plant.

The real fun comes when looking at how close the Abarth comes to being a four-place, front-wheel drive, half-price Lotus Elise. With dedicated airbags showing up for every body part and impact beams all around, cars aren't getting lighter anytime soon.

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