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There’s a special place in Petrina Gentile’s heart for Fiat. The iconic Italian brand conjures up memories of her past – in Guardia Lombardi, her parents’ tiny hometown in the Campania region of southern Italy.

Vivid memories of six, seven people crammed inside of her cousin’s tiny Fiat Cinquecento with no seat belts en route to the Amalfi coast. Sure, over the years, Fiat has braved its share of setbacks and even suffered the dreaded “Fix It Again, Tony” label. Still, the brand has endured, and the lineup has grown.

But does it still carry cachet among Italian-Canadians?

Globe Drive’s deputy editor, Darren McGee – don’t let the last name fool you: his mother is the daughter of Italian immigrants from the Marche region, in central Italy, and Friuli, in the northeast – and Gentile take the souped-up 2016 Fiat 500 Abarth for a spin to discover if it still holds a special place in the hearts of Italian-Canadians.

Photos by Petrina Gentile

Gentile: Luxury Italian car makers such as Lamborghini and Ferrari steal the spotlight on the road, but so does a Fiat 500. Its unmistakeable design is charming; it oozes Italian style and makes me smile. But the colour of this particular car – Celeste Blue – a hideous baby blue shade that was hot in decor, clothing and cars in the 1970s leaves much to be desired today.

McGee: Ahh, the seventies. The decade that fashion forgot. I wore a tuxedo to someone’s wedding circa 1979 that was the same colour as this. At least there’s no frilly shirt here. That blue is horrrrrrrrible. Forza Azzurri? Not.

Gentile: That retro blue colour scheme continues inside. I like the interior layout – it’s simple and smart, but I’m not a fan of the TomTom navigation system. It takes several tries to input an address because the numbers and letters on the screen are too small. Even with long fingers and nails, I kept hitting the wrong buttons.

McGee: Gotta admit, I feared the worst about the driver’s cockpit. I’m not exactly a small, svelte dude but this tiny terror of a car is deceiving. It was larger inside than I expected and the driver and front-seat passenger each have ample room. The seats are comfortable – soft but supportive, and there’s legroom galore. But, for a cheeky city car with such a sporty spotlight, the seating is too high. Connect me to the road, dammit. I don’t want to see eye-to-eye with the minivan and SUV crowd.

Gentile: I disagree. I love the high seating position – you get a great view of the road ahead. However, getting into the rear seats is tricky – just like the old Cinquecentos. While tight on legroom, the headroom isn’t too bad, thanks to extra space in the roofliner.

McGee: What?! The rear seats are ridiculous. The Atomic Ant – Toronto FC’s 5-foot-4-inch Italian superstar, Sebastian Giovinco – would have a rough ride back there. How do I know? Because we crammed Globe Drive web wizard Jordan Chittley in there – he’s 5-foot-5 – and, while he fit (uncomfortably), I was compromised ahead of him in the front passenger seat. After 20 minutes he said, “Okay, I’ve had just about enough.” Petrina, you have “memories” of six, seven people crammed inside of your cousin’s tiny Fiat Cinquecento? Nightmares, maybe.

Gentile: Whatever. I only recall the good times. And the Abarth is no ordinary Fiat 500. The 1.4-litre turbo I-4 is powerful, pumping out 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque – impressive numbers for a tiny little car. It’s a blast to drive, especially mated to a five-speed stick. It lets you zip in and out of traffic with ease. It’s so tiny it’s a cinch to park.

McGee: Amen. This peppy pipsqueak packs a powerful punch – and its entertaining exhaust note emits a delightfully splendid snort.

Gentile: True, but I wasn’t blown away with the fuel economy numbers. The EnerGuide rating is 7.8 litres/100 km combined driving. Instead, I averaged 8.9 litres/100 km, mostly on the highway. How did you do, Mr. Lead Foot?

McGee: Ahem. I averaged 7.1.

Gentile: Okaaaay, moving on. Let’s talk price. The base 500 Abarth is $27,995; as tested it’s $34,520. Yikes! Fiats are supposed to be cheap, affordable little cars. The base Fiat 500 starts at $18,995, but asking someone to pay nearly $35,000 for a small car is highway robbery.

McGee: Agreed. This subcompact hot hatch is fun, funky, frivolous, impressively irreverent, impractical, smart and saucy – like any good Italian.

Gentile: And price aside, this Fiat still captures my heart like Cinquecentos of old.

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