2013 FIAT 500 AbarthView Vehicle Profile
Fiat 500 Abarth: Tiny Italian stands tall in Quebec
After several trips to Montreal, my wife Marianne and I decided it was time to be more adventurous.
No more comforting English overlay, no more being part of the PQ’s worst nightmare — the dreaded drift toward “Louisiana-ization,” where French withers to folkloric status.
So we headed for Laval, the dynamic “city above Montreal” that covers sprawling île Jésus. Its motto: “Unité, Progrès, Grandeur” (unity, progress, greatness). It’s flanked on the south by the broad rivière des Prairies and on the north by rivière des Mille Îles.
Quebec’s third-biggest city is solidly French, with only about 7 per cent of residents claiming English as their mother tongue. Arabic and Spanish are coming on fast, as more immigrants move in.
On the way, we stayed overnight in Cornwall and strolled the banks of the St. Lawrence River in downtown Lamoureux Park, then took in Pitt St., the main drag, and adjacent Cornwall Square mall. Very Ontario.
Back on Hwy. 401 late in the afternoon, we pulled into the service centre just inside the Quebec border to use Tourisme Québec’s Centre Infotouriste service, whose friendly, bilingual staffers can book you a room anywhere in the province. We settled on the Laval Best Western at $116.52 a night, tax included.
Our test car is a black, top-of-the-line Fiat 500 Abarth three-door, with a five-speed manual transmission. This agile little Italian is a satisfying tourer for any twosome who likes brio in their ride.
The key asset is a 160-horse, turbocharged 1.4-litre four, producing rocket-like acceleration. This hot rod may be small, but it stands tall on the street and highway.
Leg room up front is fine; the compressed rear space encourages you to only pack what your really need — a blessing actually. The cargo well holds a fair bit and the car is so short that you can easily lean in to stash gear on the rear bench seat (no, you won’t want to sit there). The 50-50 split seatbacks flop forward, of course, but don’t lie flat.
The subcompact is lavishly adorned with the famous Abarth scorpion badge. Counting the ones engraved on the optional 17-inch aluminum wheels (a $995 option), I counted 16 references. Excessive maybe, but a feel-good touch because the name has a magic about it.
Vienna-born Karl Abarth (1908-1979) was a champion motorcycle racer in his youth. He later founded a firm known for its performance exhaust systems and motorsport achievements in collaboration with Fiat. The Italian giant absorbed the firm in 1971.
Some 500 Abarth negatives:
The power sunroof (a $1,200 option) cuts into headroom.
The TomTom nav system mounts obtrusively on the dash top. A screen integrated into the centre stack is needed.
Fiat recommends using “91 octane or higher for optimum performance.” I put in premium gas at about $1.42 a litre in Quebec, but it hurt. Fortunately, the tank only holds 40 litres.
The Abarth starts at $23,995. Our price as tested was $29,705.
Laval is a mix of wide commercial streets (Lavallois do a lot of shopping and fine dining), low-rise apartment buildings, residential enclaves with imposing stone-fronted houses, industrial areas, open fields and busy autoroutes. The city’s “maire à vie” (mayor for life), Gilles Vaillancourt, 71, recently resigned over corruption allegations.
We spent our week there simply walking, people-watching and driving around. But a nagging problem surfaced: my French often fell short in talking with Lavallois. I suspect most anglo Canadians would face the same predicament. Yes, our nationalist sins are of the most grievous kind in that we can’t communicate well in la langue de Molière.
The trip taught me one thing: a frontal assault on this failing is crucial if we’re ever going to create a forged central block of Canadian identity and become a real country.
Driving on île Jésus (pronounced eel zhay-zyew) posed another problem.
The incredible abundance of stop signs and long stoplights makes motoring very much a stop-and-go proposition. In fact, many streets are festooned with mini stop signs warning you that a real stop sign lurks ahead. As if you couldn’t guess.
My favourite attraction was Carrefour (crossroads) Laval, which bills itself as Quebec’s biggest mall. It features a vast elliptical skylight with gardens below and a “quartier gourmet” (sounds tastier than food court) complete with chandelier and potted trees.
The mall’s face will become even more French if the language police succeed in their bid to compel major chains to frenchify their names.
So you could see Meilleur Achat (Best Buy), Vieille Marine (Old Navy), République des Bananes (you know that one), etc.
Before heading home to end our 1,500 km trek, we walked around St-Vincent-de-Paul in east Laval. The district’s forbidding old prison (now closed and a national historic site), massive Catholic church and Collège Laval cluster together in a strange embrace. Très québécois.
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