Karl Alberto Abarth was a Scorpio.
Scorpios are all about intensity and contradictions. They appear cool and collected on the outside, while underneath boils tremendous power, strength, and passion. They give the impression of being detached and unemotional, though they possess strong willpower and fierce determination. They may appear small and frugal, but are a blast to drive.
Abarth began converting run-of-the-mill Fiats into small, affordable sports cars in the 1950s, under the sign of the scorpion, and since then, the scorpion-badged cars have represented race-bred performance at a reasonable price. So, imagine my giddiness when I found out today that the Abarth version of the Fiat 500 will be making it’s way to the U.S.!
As someone who follows the auto industry, I’ve known – and been excited about – the fact that Fiat will soon be returning to the U.S., due to their recently consummated relationship with Chrysler. I was even more excited upon finding out a few months ago that Fiat’s reintroduction would begin with the diminutive 500. It’s obvious from this post over a year ago that I’m a fan of small-but-fun cars. And I don’t mean the slow, decontented ones we typically get here in the States. The fact that the Abarth is one of the flavors that will be available to us is unexpected icing on the automotive cake! (Go over to the website and build one for yourself! …Unfortunately, the Abarth option isn’t active yet…)
Fiat 500 Abarth
I’m hopeful that the 500 will do well here. In my opinion, it should. It’s in the same vein as the Mini Cooper, albeit slightly smaller. (Though not so small as the not-so-Smart.) The Abarth is like the Mini Cooper S – after a brief stay in juvie. It’s the badass little econobox that says, in a cute little Italian accent, “Per favore, mi scusi,” while punching you in the face.
It’s a Scorpio.
Anybody who’s had a course in economics – especially natural resource economics – understands what the “tragedy of the commons” is. (Multiple parties, each acting rationally in their own self-interest, will deplete a finite shared resource – which is certainly not in anyone’s interest.)
Today I read a small news item from a research analyst at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), warning that the “safest small cars are still vulnerable.” It states that recent crash tests of the 2009 Ford Focus and Volvo C30 resulted in top scores, but that the test involved collisions between vehicles of similar size – with the statement that “the cars still [do] not offer as much protection as larger vehicles.”
It’s obvious (from posts like this one) that I like small, fun cars. And the statement above bugs the heck out of me. It’s effectively promoting the continued trend in oversized, inefficient vehicles in the name of “safety.” Unfortunately, while the occupants of the larger vehicle may be marginally safer in the event of a collision, the occupants of another vehicle with which the larger vehicle may collide (not to mention any pedestrians) will be that much less safe.
It’s the tragedy of the commons again: consumers, acting in their own interest – to protect their own safety – cause a reduction in safety for others, who must then upsize their vehicle, and on and on. …Unfortunately, I’m not aware of anyone (including the IIHS) who has investigated the relationship between the likelihood of being involved in an accident and the size of one’s vehicle (though I haven’t really looked). Anecdotally, I know of a few people who believe they have avoided a collision simply by virtue of the fact that their small, nimble vehicle was able to quickly escape the path of an errant SUV driver.
If people continue to believe that they must “buy big” in order to be responsible and protect their family … well, that would be a real tragedy.
The car you drive says a lot about you. …At least that’s what the vehicle marketing folks would have us believe. And it’s probably true – as Sperling and Gordon write in their book Two Billion Cars: “It’s axiomatic in marketing that people value identity over practical considerations in making purchases. They buy products that reinforce their self-image and symbolize who they want to be.”
Why, then, do people buy hybrids today? From a financial perspective, they may be the more economical choice when our volatile gas prices swing upward; but if the axiom above holds true, this isn’t really the motivation behind hybrid purchases. The folks who buy them do so because the car portrays an image of who the driver wants to be. For hybrid drivers, the message is usually, “I care about my impact on the Earth.” I’ve heard the term “conspicous non-consumption” several times recently to describe this behavior.
Unfortunately, it’s the techy, greenie, “first adopters” who are the ones who want to portray this image when it comes to automobiles. As long as that’s true, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EV’s will never constitute more than a a slight percentage of our vehicle fleet. How do we overcome this? We either have to recruit more folks to the “green” movement, or we have to make these cars appeal to more than those who want to conspicuously non-consume. I expect the latter will be a much easier task than the former…
This idea applies to more than just electrified vehicles; it’s true for small, economical cars as well (a topic which I touched on here). As long as small cars are largely decontented appliances that send the message, “This is all I can afford,” they won’t compete with the massive “I dominate everything” rolling fortresses that roam the nation’s highways. Wouldn’t it be ironic if increasing the price of a compact car (while making it more desirable) actually led to increased sales? MINI has actually done a good job with this, producing a fun, attractive small car that costs a little more than most econoboxes, but actually offers something – a lot – in return.
"What're YOU lookin' at?!"
Now, I’m off to the garage to see what my cars have been saying about me…
Fiat 500 Abarth
One of the outcomes for which I was hoping from the Fiat takeover of Chrysler has now been confirmed! The Fiat 500 will be coming to the U.S. (as reported by autobloggreen). I’d love to park that in my garage, alongside the Alfa Romeo Mi.To. …Of course, I don’t actually have the Alfa in my garage, since it isn’t sold here. …Which is the case with a lot of the most eye-pleasing, sporty small cars from across the pond. Why is this? Why has the North American market been so focused on large SUVs and trucks, while the ultra-compact car segment has been relegated largely to a few featureless, ill-handling, snore-inducing models?
Alfa Romeo Mi.To
A large part of the answer is the difference in the price we pay at the pump, as well as different tax systems that penalize larger cars in Europe. But another reason is the differences in our cultures. We Americans need large 7-passenger vehicles with acres of storage space to transport our large broods and our gear from our estates in the suburbs to our offices, private schools, and shopping malls spread far and wide, don’t we? …Cynism aside, this isn’t necessarily untrue. (My wife and I purchased a 7-passenger crossover when we realized the infant-seat for our second child would not fit in our Audi A4 and still allow room for a front-seat passenger!)
So, perhaps our large, inefficient cars aren’t the problem – they’re just the symptom of a larger problem – our sprawling, poorly-designed cities, which have led us to our car monoculture (as described by Dan Sperling and Deborah Gordon in their book Two Billion Cars). And as big of an undertaking as it will be to transition our vehicle fleet to an efficient one based on low-carbon energy sources, it could be a much more difficult task to transform our cities to the type of mixed-use places that solve our mobility issue, at least in the way that Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins suggests when he says the ultimate mode of transport is being there already.
So, I’m quite excited for the Fiat 500 – the Abarth version, of course! (This is the car that made Top Gear‘s Jeremy Clarkson quite giddy! …Top Gear = best show ever, by the way…) But I wonder – will it sell in America? Or do we just have too far to drive, and too much stuff to bring with us?