The Beetle and the Mouse That Roared

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 30, 2014

I just went from a hot Beetle to a hot Scorpion, and that gives me a unique opportunity to compare the two. Well, the Scorpion is actually a reinvention of the iconic Fiat Abarth, and Carlo Abarth (who died in 1979) used that predatory arthopod as his logo.

Battle of the Arthropods: Car Talk scooped Nova on this one! (Jim Motavalli photo)
Battle of the Arthropods: Car Talk scooped Nova on this one!  (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Bug is a GSR edition based on the Beetle Turbo. Both 2014 cars, they’re actually fairly close in price, with the Beetle at $31,950 as tested and the Fiat (a Cabrio, which always adds cost) at $33,104. The image is kinda close, but in reality the two are very different driving experiences.

Let’s start with the Fiat. Abarth produced tuned cars and easy-breathing exhaust pipes—I seem to recall putting one on my Alfa Spyder—and was bought out by Fiat in 1971. I love the concept of the tiny road rocket, and the Abarth cars are the very epitome of the term. It would be great fun to try out a tiny Abarth 1500 Biposto, dating to 1952.

Our car here is a clever bit of badge engineering, like the innumerable versions of the Mini. Under the hood is a turbo-charged and twin-intercooled 1.4-liter four making 160 horsepower. There we have the concept defined, 160 horsepower from 1.4 liters. Cars like that need to rev, and this one does, up to a 6,500 rpm redline. Zero to 60 takes 6.9 seconds.

Is the Abarth screaming at higher revs? You bet. This is one of the noisiest cars I’ve ever driven, and whether its music or an unholy din depends on your perspective. Obviously, Fiat put a lot of work into that exhaust note, and it makes the car feel like it’s hitting 100 mph when it’s only going 60. Here, listen to that rorty noise yourself on this video:

Driving the Abarth is great fun, with my only issue a notchy third gear that I had trouble engaging. Around town it’s a great point-and-squirt car, with handling (enhanced by Koni shocks and stiffer springs) and brakes (beefed up and color coded) both up to snuff, but on the highway that droning engine note gets somewhat annoying.  

The Fiat Abarths' primitive ancestors had stingers in the tail.
The Fiat Abarths' primitive ancestors had stingers in the tail.

The modern yet retro interior of the Fiat is cool, but don’t expect much from the rear seat or small trunk. I much miss a volume control; up and down buttons are too distracting. One button puts the canvas top down. It makes a bit of a hump that blocks some rear vision, but not too badly. I liked the al fresco motoring, but there’s wind buffeting unless you crack the side windows.

The great benefit of small-displacement pocket rockets is performance with fuel economy, and the Abarth doesn’t disappoint—30 mpg combined. It trumps the Beetle, which offers 26 mpg combined.

Yes, the Beetle. The GSR is an appearance package on the Turbo model, offering such macho accoutrements as a racing-type yellow-and-black color scheme, big 19-inch black-painted wheels, and a rear spoiler. VW has been trying to get men to buy Bugs, and this is the latest foray in that plan.
Stomp on the accelerator and the GSR takes off, but it never feels as sporty as the Fiat. The two-liter turbo produces 210 horsepower, which is 50 more than the Fiat, but—despite the screaming graphics—it’s a more refined proposition. I wasn’t tempted to test the limits of the redline. Yes, it's slightly faster to 60, 6.6 seconds, but you don't have to drive it that way.

The Beetle, hungry for automotive journalists, lies in wait for its prey. (Volkswagen photo)
The Beetle, hungry for automotive journalists, lies in wait for its prey. (Volkswagen photo)

Needless to say, the Beetle was more versatile. Longer trips didn’t leave me exhausted. I could cruise in comfort, lean back, punch in the seat heaters. I got stuck in traffic with the Fiat and revving up that little engine to go five feet proved embarrassing; I wouldn’t want to commute in the little guy.

The bottom line: The Fiat is great fun, but I’d probably actually buy the Bug. In this case, anyway, it’s the beetle that kills the scorpion.

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