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The Mice That Roared

Test-driving two new fiery subcompact cars in the city and on the backroads.

It was a Saturday afternoon earlier this summer, and I was due back in the kitchen. A dinner party loomed. Hours earlier I had left the house, intending to make a quick run over to Church Street for some artichokes, to be prepared Roman Ghetto style— deep-fried and garnished with salt, pepper, a chiffonade of mint, and a squeeze of lemon. But as I plonked into the driver’s seat of a blood-red Fiat 500 Abarth, turned the key, and contemplated the engine’s feral moan, I found myself wondering if the artichokes might be a little fresher in Half Moon Bay.

     One hundred and thirty-two miles later, after flogging the little beast over a ridiculously convoluted route to and from Bob’s Vegetable Stand, I knew two things with certainty. The artichokes are indeed fresher in Half Moon Bay, and the Abarth is perfectly adapted for the vehicular predicament otherwise known as the San Francisco Bay Area. (I also know my little detour may have angered the carbon-emissions trolls. Whatever their wrath, I say it was worth it.)

     For the automotively inclined, the city and its surroundings present a dilemma. The congested streets call for nimbleness and maneuverability. The grinding traffic smiles on tiny, fuel-efficient engines. And the dearth of parking favors diminutive species that can squeeze themselves into the tiniest of spaces. At the same time, San Francisco is just a stone’s throw from some of the most stunning roads in the country, roads that beg for the discipline of a race-bred car. By a twist of fate, 2012 delivered not just one vehicle custom tailored to these seemingly contradictory specifications, but a pair of them.

     The first is the aforementioned Fiat, a $22,700, two-door demon whose 1.4-liter engine dispenses 160 horsepower while achieving an EPA-estimated 28 miles per gallon in the city, 34 mpg on the highway. In other words, a monster with a mouse’s carbon footprint. Car number two: the Mini John Cooper Works Roadster, a snub-nosed two-seat convertible whose 1.6-liter engine squeezes out considerably more power (208 hp) than the Fiat, while delivering similar fuel economy (25 mpg city, 33 highway). The Roadster’s not-sodiminutive $30,600 base price reflects the fact that the cars are built in England and shipped to the U.S., and that the Mini brand has considerable cachet in the States; Fiat, on the other hand, has an iffier track record here, and it is presumably keeping costs down in order to win back wary Yankees (see sidebar).

     While both debuted on the U.S. market this year, the inspiration for their design stretches back to the 1950s and a curious case of automotive parallel evolution. In the postwar period, European automakers faced a vexing challenge: providing the masses with a means of transport that was appealing, affordable, and, owing to limited oil supplies, fuel efficient. In 1957, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, Fiat for short, introduced the Nuova 500, a bug-eyed mite powered by a rear-mounted two-cylinder engine. In 1959, the British Motor Corporation launched the Classic Mini, a minuscule box of a car whose innovative transversely mounted four-cylinder engine pumped power to its go-kart-size front wheels. Practical, adorable, and fun to drive, the cars were a massive hit. Half a century later, as Americans find themselves balancing a taste for high performance with the reality of $4-plus gasoline, a stateside homage to these tiny titans proves once again that small is beautiful.

     From its snarling idle to its wailing 6,500-rpm redline, the Abarth is pure music. Roaring up and down the canyons of the Santa Cruz Mountains, I was smitten by its mad acoustics. It growls, barks, cackles, whines, and hisses, and if you nail an upshift under just the right amount of turbo boost, the Abarth produces a spine-tingling whap of a backfire. While the John Cooper Works Roadster is less symphonic, its engineers did tune its injectors to spray a bit of extra fuel into the cylinders under deceleration for some burble and pop.

     Vocal talents aside, both cars are exhilarating to drive. On a backcountry drag strip, the Abarth gave me ample opportunity to enjoy the squeezing force that torque exerts on the human body. Flooring it in the Mini, likewise, is an eyeball-flattening rush, only with notably less time to work out a contingency plan—in other words, it’s a hellion. In the corners, too, the pair are indomitable. Both sport 16- or17-inch wheels wedded to tires that stick to the pavement like gum, and both employ sophisticated stability and traction-control systems that, with a computerized tap of a single brake or a slight adjustment to the distribution of power to the wheels, keep the cars going in the direction they’re pointed. Aiding this effort are a pair of decidedly firm suspensions designed to keep all four wheels planted on the ground under extenuating circumstances.

     And if there was ever a city with plenty of those, it’s this one. So how do these rides hold up on our meanest streets? Quite nicely, thank you. Powerful antilock brakes bring both the Fiat and the Mini to rapid, non-screeching halts to avoid smartphone-gazing jaywalkers.Both cars are equipped with a hill-holder feature, allowing for non-clutch-burning takeoffs on our famously steep inclines. A light foot easily trounces the EPA’s gas-efficiency estimates, and a few power-assisted turns of the wheel transform the shortest chunk of curb into a meter-maid-approved parking spot. On rough pavement, the Mini’s ride is a bit harsher, the Fiat’s more supple. In either vehicle, driving through San Francisco potholes is no fun (though steering around them is).

     Whether a pair of track-ready rockets like these truly belong in the city is another matter. Let’s just say that artichokes aren’t the only thing that tastes better with a few hundred miles on the odometer.