I am not a Fiat fanboy. I’ve never like the Fiat Range in India. The Punto petrol’s are a lost cause, the diesels are underpowered and it seems Maruti Suzuki does a better job of tuning Fiat’s own diesel engines than Fiat themselves. And don’t even get me started on the build quality, Indica++ would be a compliment. The most energetic fiat that I’ve ever driven in India has to be the Linea T-Jet, and it was still terrible, especially in the gear shifts. Somehow Fiat India seemed to have lost that charm that came with the Palio 1.6 Sport. That little Italian flair, that little hint of madness in the engine, those little bits in the driving experience that says “Yes.. my older brother is a Ferrari”.
Then came the news of the Abarth Punto being launched in India. And then the news came again the following year, and then again the year after that. Cry wolf long enough and the world stops taking you seriously. And that’s what exactly happened to the Abarth Punto in India. It was delayed so many times that the enthusiasts moved on, and when it finally arrived after 3 years of ‘Crying Scorpion’, the enthusiast community had moved onto other brands. What also didn’t help the Punto Abarth, was that it was the Punto Abarth.. not the Abarth Punto. The difference between the two is the same as BMW M vs a BMW MSport. One is car torn down by BMW M division and rebuilt as a performance oozing machine. The other is a body kit and at most an exhaust. Same goes for the Indian version of the Punto Abarth. It’s not the real thing, it’s a fake. It’s a wannabe. What it actually is, is a regular Fiat Punto with the engine of a Linea T-Jet running a higher boost engine map. Yes! it has a mildly better suspension than the regular Punto along with all the little Abarth logos, stickers but lacks its true soul akin to a 520d running a MSport body kit and wider wheels trying to convince you it’s a M5.
But here is where it gets interesting. You see, that is not such a bad thing after all. I own a VW Polo GT TSi, one of the most modified and arguable the fastest Polo GT TSI around. And the Abarth left me speechless and not to mention eating its dust.
Yes ladies and gentlemen it’s that QUICK.
Rolling back about 6-8 months, when the magazine reviews of the Punto Abarth were coming out on the shelves and all over the internet portals, I kept wondering, is it really that slow and sluggish? I had a suspicion that the testers and reviewers were running this turbo charged hot hatch on regular gas, but no one mentioned the same in their elaborate ‘performance’ reviews of this car.
Fast forward to today, and we had finally got our hands on a Punto Abarth. Initial driving impressions mirrored the magazines and portals, solid punch in the turbo range, but other than that the engine felt lethargic and choked. On quizzing the owner my suspicions were confirmed, he was running the car on regular petrol. Now regular petrol isn’t a bad thing for most modern engines. Most engines in India are meant to be driven on regular petrol. But when it comes to high pressure turbocharged engines combined with our lovely tropical heat, regular petrol is like slow poison. So first thing we did was empty the tank and fill it up with Speed 97. Then a quick reset of the ECU to clear the learnt ignition timing table followed by a spirited drive of about 150kms to let the engine re-learn the ignition timing limits and the we were set.
How did the car perform on Speed 97? In today’s world of ‘Udta Pujab’ related references, all I can say is the engine came running out screaming: “Oye sun lo painchodoon… I’M THE REAL GABRU!!!”
Turbo lag? What turbo lag? Stab the throttle at any rpm and your greeted with a shove in the back akin to getting rear ended at a traffic light. The turbocharger screamed to life and shot the car forward like a rocket. Throttle response improved hugely, you could actually feather the throttle now and get a response from the engine. Just a simple change in the grade of fuel and this car came alive and unleashed and feels like the proper hot hatch. I felt the ECU advanced the ignition timing now that it had the added protection of a higher octane fuel that would resist knock. The way this car came alive on Speed97 is demonstrated in the way it ate my modified Polo GT TSI for lunch and spat it out its exhaust. I’ve a sheepish feeling it will do the same to my friend’s modified Polo GT TDI which is pumping out 145bhp. The way this car took off on the Polo GT TSI is ridiculous. Felt like the Italians putting the Germans in their place when it came to performance cars or in this case semi-hot hatchbacks. Standing drags, rolling drags, highway pulls, there is no scenario imaginable where the Polo GT TSI, even one as modified as mine had a chance in hell of keeping up with the Punto Abarth. The turbocharged 1.4L engine is truly something and you should ONLY run it on this fuel. To hell with regular 89 octane and Speed. The Scorpion’s poison is Speed97. Under the hood you will notice a nice conventional large front mount intercooler. The other affordable petrol hot hatch in the market, the GT TSI comes with an Air to Liquid intercooler which is mounted onto the intake manifold of the car and shares the coolant with the engine. This setup is nice for a commuter car but in a car which you intend to tune to extract more power out of the engine, it’s a giant headache. Fiat fortunately has kept a front mount intercooler setup and its plenty large for a 1.4L engine, so turn up the boost in the remaps and rest in the safety of the car not knocking or going into severe timing retardation with the introduction of additional boost PSI’s.
Gearbox: The gearbox is another story. My frame of reference of how bad a Fiat gearbox felt is from the test drive Linea T-Jet I drove in 2013-14. It felt rubbery, had no connection and you couldn’t tell which gear you’re in once you engaged it. Yes sir! It was that bad. Now compared to the Linea T-Jet which shares the same gearbox with the Punto Abarth, I went into the car with low expectations. Has Fiat improved on the gearbox in the Punto Abarth? Yes it has. By how much? Not too much. They have addressed the throw and feedback to some extent. I’m assuming they threw in a set of stiffer bushings and called it a day. Still it’s a bit freaky. If you drive with your hand on the gear lever, you will feel it moving back and forth even when the car is in gear, almost as if the car wants to pop out of gear. The thing that hasn’t improved is the throw. Longish gearshifts are a trademark of driver driven commuter cars and vans like the Toyota Innova and the Tata Safari and not what you’d expect in a hot hatch. The height of the gear lever is also a point of contention. Some feel its adequate, but for me, I’d prefer a lever that’s shorter by at least 5cms if not more. Even with this quirky gear lever, you won’t spend much time changing gears as they are pretty widely spaced and that will be a good thing when your racing other cars or just out for a joyride. Yes, acceleration suffers a bit with the engine in stock form, but let’s be honest, if you’re on the NASA page reading about the Fiat Punto Abarth, chances are that you will not be keeping the car stock for long. The longer gears will definitely help when you bump up the power by another 30-40hp by ways of a free flowing turbo back exhaust and a remapped ECU.
Handling: The Punto has always been a great handling car. Its stiffer than most hatchbacks and the balance of the chassis is pretty spot on. The only car that could out perform its chassis and handling dynamics in India is the Ford Fiesta S which sadly is no longer in production. Even with the stiffer suspension setup, the Fiat Punto Abarth is still a heavy pig. You can surely feel the weight rocking around and upsetting the balance and diluting driver confidence. I wish Fiat had spent some money in lightening the chassis and had lowered the car by about 5-10cms. Hell! Give it to us as an optional accessory even instead of the scorpion stickers and badges.
Braking: This is where the car is absolutely spot on. The brakes a fabulous. A proper all wheel disc brake setup in a hatch back especially considering India is a market where most sedans and SUV’s come with rear drum brakes. Kudos to Fiat for going the extra mile here. Brake bite and feel is brilliant but the height and weight of the car plays a bit of a spoilsport sometimes as it erodes driver confidence, especially in emergency situations. Still the best brakes in this segment and a few above.
Ergonomics: Here is where the Punto Abarth left me a bit confused. I’ve driven my friends normal Punto and the driving position felt a bit odd. You can get used to it over time I suppose and it’s not too bad, just feels odd. I was hoping that the Punto Abarth would come with some spectacular race inspired bucket seats but alas to my disappointment, the seats were the same as the regular Punto. Here is where the difference between the Punto Abarth and the Abarth Punto comes into play once again. Fiat should have at least given us the option of buying the car with sports bucket seats. The gear lever is also a bit oddly placed but nothing you cannot get used to in the long run.
Build Quality: It’s here the Punto Abarth is at its weakest. The interiors were liveable but felt cheap and the fit left a lot to be desired. I’d have loved to have better quality plastics and trim but then again I’ve been spoilt by VW fit and finish. And let’s face it, it’s a hot hatch. The money saved on the interior quality most likely went towards the engine which can be reasoned out a bit. However, two things absolutely stood out in horror in the Fiat. First were the flimsy indicator and wiper stalks. I felt they were about to break off if I tugged a bit too much at them, and after speaking to a friend who owns a Punto, it was confirmed that he did manage to break his indicator stalk a few times. Terrible build quality here. The second was the hatch open button on the centre console of the car next to the radio buttons. The graphics on the button resemble a spoiler button rather than a hatch release, and more than that its right next to the radio buttons. I can imagine a scenario where you’re driving on the road and trying to change a radio station and boom! The hatch pops open. Other than this the interiors are OK. Not great but liveable, especially considering the stellar performance of engine you’re getting attached to these interiors.
The Bottom Line So did I like the Punto Abarth? Yes, I loved it. Would I buy it? Actually after giving it a long thought, I would definitely buy it if I needed a fun weekend car or a track focused car! The car has a lot of quirks, but that engine is so much fun and if you already have a daily beater, the Punto Abarth can be a perfect weekend ‘Hoon’ Machine.
OK So if I did buy the Punto Abarth, how would I go about fixing some of the shortcomings of the car?
First and foremost: Run the car ONLY on Speed 97. Any other fuel, the cars performance deteriorates exponentially and it loses its charm. Weight: Simple, strip out the seats, add a couple of light weight bucket seats up front and leave the rear empty. Put on an aftermarket carbon fibre hood and rear hatch lid, add a rear cross brace across the hatch. It’s a weekend car. Go wild with it.
Handling: Get a set of proper height adjustable coilovers, with adjustable damping if possible and add a rear sway bar. Get rid of the OEM crap tires and put on a set of stickier and wider rubber with stiffer sidewalls. Lightweight rims won’t hurt either.
Gearbox: Two things. A short throw shifter kit and stiffer bushings for the gearshift mechanism. Get a better weighted gear knob if possible. Stock one sucks!
Engine and Power: Get a proper tuner to bump up the boost and remap the car. Put on a lighter turbo back exhaust made of stainless steel, remove the resonator and a sportier muffler.
With the above this car will be hilarious to drive. It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face and leave far expensive cars eating its dust on track and at traffic lights!