Flitting from apex to apex on the twisty Ambenali ghat, I was trying to remember the last time a car this side of Rs 10 lakh made me smile so much. It was a Ford Ikon, a good 17 years ago, on this very road, which still is my favourite strip of tarmac (for a short few months, before the monsoon sets in and rips it up).
The Ikon is now history, but the crackerjack throttle response of the 1.6 ROCAM engine, the brilliantly balanced chassis and quick steering are hard to forget. Quite frankly, no other mainstream car has quite matched the Ikon’s ultimate fun-to-drive character which was rooted in a mechanical purity that’s hard to find in today’s cars. And that’s exactly what makes the Fiat Abarth Punto so special.
The purist in me just loves the Abarth’s old-school charm that begins with the no-longer-conventional-but-rather-outdated hydraulic steering that is still unbeatable when it comes to sheer feedback. There’s a very confidence-inspiring feel around the straight-ahead position and yet the steering is quick off-centre, which makes tackling the switchbacks just before Pratapgadh an absolute delight. It’s so easy to place the Abarth accurately through corners with the steering weighting up reassuringly as you pile on the lock. It goads you to push it harder but that’s when you quickly uncover one of its flaws – the lack of a front-end grip.
Though over a decade old, the Punto’s classic design is still pleasing to the eye.
Every time I mash the metallic-finished throttle pedal, the front wheels struggle for grip. The cranked-up ground clearance (for an Abarth) has resulted in a fair bit of body roll and the low-grip 195/55 R16 tyres mean it’s easy to break traction, especially when you’ve got 147hp and 212Nm of torque flowing through the front axle. This does steal a bit of the fun, so it’s best to be less aggressive and adopt a more flowing driving style – this means carrying more speed into the corner up to the apex and nailing the throttle only once the road straightens out.
Driving this way to make full use of the Abarth’s eager turn-in and the fluent way it rapidly changes direction are delightfully rewarding. Adding an extra two centimetres to my already wide grin is the spot-on gearing which has always been Fiat’s forte. Again, the five-speed gearbox with its wide throws lacks modern precision but it’s the way the ratios are so cleverly stacked (slightly on the shorter side), to make use of all the torque, that made the charge up to Mahabaleshwar feel utterly effortless. Snicking between second and third gears, it’s easy to keep the Abarth on the boil, without having to rev the guts out of this engine for fear of dropping out of the powerband with every upshift.
The thing about the less-used Ambenali ghat from Poladpur to Mahabaleshwar is that it’s rarely in perfect shape. There’s always a bad patch somewhere on this 40km stretch, which gives any car’s suspension a thorough workout; and this is another area the Abarth came up trumps. The fact that you don’t need to lift off for the odd bits of broken tarmac – which the Abarth flattens in an almost SUV-like fashion – is a huge plus. In fact, just by virtue of it being able to sail over roads other hot hatches would have to slow down for, the Abarth is easily the fastest A to B hatch on Indian roads.
The return home is via Panchgani and the Bengaluru-Pune highway. This route is longer but faster with a shorter and less twisty ghat section that quickly takes you to a section of the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ). By now, the Abarth’s unflinching poise has given me enough confidence to keep my foot in there through the fast sweepers and open radius corners on the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani stretch I know so well. The brakes, however, aren’t as reassuring. Stopping power is again limited by the tyres and the pedal feel is a bit mushy, especially after hard braking on the downhill run from Panchgani to Wai.
The smooth and four-lane wide GQ is made for high-speed cruising and so is the Abarth. On the long, straight stretches of the fairly busy run down to Pune, the meaty torque curve comes in handy, allowing you to scythe through traffic with just a gentle dab on the pedal.
The Abarth has a reassuring big-car feel which is great on the highway, but, on the inside, it’s anything but a big car. The small boot doesn’t hold much luggage and is just about sufficient for a couple of soft bags for a long weekend. The rear seats too are cramped and the odd driving position doesn’t make the driver’s seat particularly comfortable either. Also, the dashboard, which gets a splash of tiny Scorpion motifs crawling over it, now looks seriously dated; especially true at night where the red LED lighting looks so 1990s.
But these foibles are quickly washed away the minute you leave the city. Flawed the Abarth is, but curiously that’s a part of its appeal. This one car whose keys I’m not letting go off in a hurry.