The idea is the same, but the execution – ah, the execution is something else entirely.
The idea? A sporty car – not too big, but just right – for around $30,000 or less, one aimed at a shrinking crowd of enthusiasts who embrace real experiences over virtual ones. I began mulling this notion during a joyous romp in the utterly impractical Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio. At $27,995, the Abarth sells for less than the average transaction price of a car in Canada. Affordable, in other words.
But it is a toy. That's not such a bad thing. The Bible and the likes of the great C.S. Lewis may have counselled the need to put away childish things, but toys have their place. Thus, I see room in this world for the Abarth and its ilk and I see it with perfect clarity. This is a car with style and purpose, though if your purpose is to move the contents of your house, forget it. The Abarth is so small I could put three on my balcony and have room for a Lincoln Navigator on the side.
As for the execution, this is an adult work of engineering. Fiat started with the bones of a runabout 500, then tapped into the spirit of 1950s Karl Abarth and went to work. Remember, Abarth's ideas for a car that represents cheap and fast fun were the product of a Europe recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. No one had money to throw around on automotive trifles when bridges and buildings and an entire continent needed to be rebuilt.
So what has come of that legacy in 2013 is a zippy runabout with a 160-horsepower 1.4-litre MultiAir Turbo engine, racy side skirts, suspension tuning for cornering, not comfort, and a lot more – all at about the price of an utterly responsible Toyota Prius hybrid. If you're a two-car family, why not both? One for your soul (the Fiat) and one for your conscience (the Prius).
But back to this bit about ideas and execution. As I whipped about in the Abarth, I began taking mental notes. Yes, about the car, of course, and you'll find more details below. But also about the competition. What else plucks the emotional strings of a certain type of gearhead, and for about this price, using this particular formula?
I am not talking muscle cars, either. Muscle cars are something else entirely. They are somewhat inelegant blunt instruments. They are more about power than finesse. They are the hammers of the racy car world, where the Abarth, the Ford Focus ST and the Mini Cooper S coupe are stilettos – not the shoes, the knife. The Abarth and so on – they carve, rather than crush.
Yes, I'd put the Focus ST in this group. Again, Ford started with a run-of-the-mill compact car and then delivered a high-performance transfusion that certainly shocked me. With Ford running around talking up fuel economy, hybrids and pickups, I'd begun to think performance tuning was no longer in fashion at Ford. Wrong.
Not only is there a Focus ST – 252 turbocharged horses for $29,999 – Ford is also now giving enthusiasts something equally intriguing: the $24,999 Ford Fiesta ST, all 197 turbocharged horses of it, not to mention the same sorts of fan-boy tuning we have in the Focus ST. Just in a small, less expensive package.
(On a side note, are you as surprised as me to see only Ford doing this sort of thing among the Detroit Three? General Motors used to have a pretty healthy high-performance "skunks works" within the company. In fact, the head of GM's North American business, Mark Reuss, used to be in charge there. GM does not have anything in its lineup right now like the old supercharged Chevrolet Cobalt SS. And Chrysler has an SRT division – Street and Racing Technology – but we've yet to see a Dodge Dart SRT in a showroom. At least the Abarth comes from the Fiat-Chrysler alliance.)
Performance tuning for the masses may be out of fashion in Detroit, but not elsewhere. For instance, Hyundai has something you must consider if this is your sort of ride: the Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T R-Spec which, at $28,799, is a terrific little two-door with a shockingly powerful 274-hp turbo four. You'll need to invest in track time to appreciate what's here.
The same for the Mini Cooper S coupe. This is a little Mini, which seems like such an odd thing to say. Little as in a pure two-seater and barely any trunk space. But the turbo four – 181 hp – sings and the handling is exhilarating. Like the Abarth, the Mini S coupe has no earthly purpose other than to entertain. And it does.
Finally, four others: Honda Civic Si coupe, the Scion FR-S, Subaru BRZ and Volkswagen's GTI Wolfsburg Edition. Actually, you might just as well group the FR-S and BRZ together and that's not a bad thing. Both are rear-drive sports cars from an ancient and respected tradition of sports cars. Love 'em. The Civic is a fine package, though perhaps the most mainstream of this group. And the 200-hp GTI is something akin to the Focus ST, just less aggressive.
Each of them is a fine idea executed with skill and, I'd argue, even affection.