Abarth in the US: What’s not to like?

Fiat Abarth Punto Evo

Abarth’s Punto Evo – were it available Stateside – would be an effective bridge between Fiat’s 500 and the upcoming launch of Alfa Romeo.

Wishing you were here. An entire sub-industry exists within the automotive press devoted to covering those vehicles not sold in the U.S. As just one example, more ink – or, at least, virtual ink – has been spilled covering Suzuki’s Swift, which isn’t offered by American Suzuki’s U.S. network, than those Suzukis which are sold in the U.S. And so it is with coverage of Fiat’s Abarth. Here we’ll not touch on the 500-based Abarth coming to North America this spring; rather, we’ll touch on those Abarth models which offer an interesting design, but without any designs on the U.S. market. And while the catalog of things not offered won’t overwhelm, it does beg the obvious: Why not?

Follow the path beyond Fiat USA’s website and you’ll find a host of info on Fiat, those models modified by Abarth and the historical chronology of the Abarth catalog. Although our own Carroll Shelby’s bio probably won’t reference Herr/Signore Abarth, his story could serve as a prototype for Mr. Shelby’s automotive career some ten years later.

Karl Abarth initially raced motorcycles, only to be sidelined by a near-fatal crash prior to World War II. After the war Abarth renewed contacts with the Porsche family and worked as a consultant for the Cisitalia racing and sports car initiatives. It was in 1949 he founded his own company, devoted to the production of aftermarket products for established carmakers.

Abarth’s big success was built on the construction of performance exhaust systems. But with the introduction of the Fiat 500 in 1958 Abarth recognized an opportunity, and realized it with the debut of the Abarth 595. A tempest in the proverbial teapot, it propelled the Abarth name onto race trophies around the world, and those same cars are still seen on the winner’s podium in vintage circles. The Fiat Abarth story is similar to that of the Bugatti Type 35 and Chevy small-block V8, one of dominance in their respective categories and an iconic status in the broader context of automotive design.

Today, under the aegis of Fiat, Abarth offers in Europe more 500 variants than you can shake a biscotti. Derivatives of the storied 500 include the Abarth 500 and 500 Cabrio, 595 (turismo and competizione), and 695 (Assetto Corse and Tributo Ferrari). The Assetto Corse models are those used in the Eurocentric Abarth spec series, and would – we think – supply appropriate underpinnings for the newly established B-Spec compact racing category in the U.S. And while the hardware is real, there’s the obvious intrusion of the marketing department with the ‘Tributo’ lineup. To their credit,  the popularity of  Abarth has resulted in some 38,000 sales since the brand was relaunched in 2008.

With the spring intro of the 500 Abarth in the U.S., the most notable absence here in the States will be that of the Abarth Punto. A compact hatch occupying a market space one size up from the 500 itself, it has a footprint similar to that of the Mazda2 and a suggested retail price in England some $3K more dear than the 500-based Abarth. With that price point there probably isn’t the mathematical argument for bringing it to the U.S. That said, one would think there would be a demand for Abarth-like performance attributes without having to suffer the ‘cute’ factor implicit in 500 ownership.

To be sure, Fiat’s Punto is also at the end of its product cycle. Should the new Punto get a U.S.-friendly redesign and, even more ideal, be produced alongside the Fiat 500 at Chrysler’s Mexican assembly plant, the business plan could be rewritten. The Punto would fit nicely – we think – between the 500 derivatives at one end of the showroom and the planned Alfa lineup at the other.