Ducati 848

Ducati Streetfighter 848 vs. Fiat 500 Abarth

Sep 04, 2012

Elon Musk merely dreamed of building rockets and electric cars, the front-passenger air bag wasn’t yet mandatory, and the euro currency didn’t exist when Americans last had Italian speed on the cheap. Long past its Graduate-fueled prime, the Alfa Romeo Spider bowed out in 1994, and that was it for reasonably accessible Italian driving pleasure. Fiat had made an ambivalent effort to vend its wares before abandoning these shores a decade earlier, and the truth was that its cars hardly kept up with the Alfas even when modified by exhaust systems and other speed parts from the Abarth performance division.

So from the land of extra-virgin olive oil and some of the most outrageous racing boats, airplanes, and automobiles ever conceived, only Ducati and Moto Guzzi, small manufacturers of motorcycles, consistently kept the spark going. Although Ducati sometimes flickered along the way, it ultimately produced a series of ever-more-sensational bikes that cost roughly the same as routine service on exotic Italian cars.

In early 2011, Fiat returned to America with the interesting but tepid 500, the Mexican-made retro tribute to the people’s car introduced in 1957. Having established this bivouac, Fiat now brings to the American automotive summit the 500 Abarth, a turbocharged entry in the minicompact field that recalls the Mini Cooper S but is full of puttanesca sauce with anchovies instead of mustard and herring.

Compared with the 500 Sport, the Abarth is 2.7 inches longer in the naso in order to accommodate twin intercoolers and improve aerodynamics. It also rides on optional seventeen-inch forged-aluminum wheels and low-profile Pirelli tires, and its twin tailpipes mesmerizingly vociferate in honor of Karl Abarth, the Austrian motorcycle racer who moved to Italy, where he tuned and raced Fiats, among other marques.

Coincidentally, Ducati introduces the Streetfighter 848, the more civilized sibling of the Streetfighter S, king of naked bikes. An example of the design aesthetic that harks back to Brutalist architecture and Le Corbusier, the Streetfighter is all yellow pecs and delts: the trellis framework, engine casings, and wheels are blacked out. It has enough horsepower and torque to make the rider wish for neural implants to help his brain keep up.

At $12,995, the Ducati undercuts the Abarth by $9005. The Streetfighter is also more potent but less weatherproof than the Abarth. No right mind would call a Fiat versus a two-wheeler a fair fight.

Rather, our challenge in bringing together these two very different animals was to delineate their ferocity. Reader advisory: You might want to insert earplugs for the remainder of this story.

The Tempest: Ducati Streetfighter 848

Ducati 848

In the two-wheel world, the Ducati name is as magical as Ferrari’s in the four-wheel world. In the same way that Ferrari has long stuck with flat- and V-12 engines, Ducati has spent more than forty years developing and perfecting the oversquare 90-degree V-twins that give its bikes a narrow profile and a low center of gravity while also making noises that are among the most recognizable and agreeable in all of internal combustion, starting with the 750’s mellow sonority in 1972.

The Streetfighter 848’s nearly vibration-free, DOHC, liquid-cooled, two-cylinder 849-cc unit (our question why the 848 has an 849-cc engine went unanswered) generates 132 hp at 10,000 rpm and 69 lb-ft of torque at 9500 rpm. Compare this efficient output of 155.5 hp per liter to the Ferrari 458 Italia’s 124.9 hp per liter (not to mention the supercharged Chevrolet Corvette ZR1’s 103.5 hp per liter).

At 373 pounds dry, the Streetfighter outweighs Ndamukong Suh by the equivalent of a bull terrier, and it might even be meaner than that combination. The engine’s primary balance and even pulses are hard to outclass; the Ducati thunder is not only heard but also, like ass-pinching Italian men, felt from a distance. Envious in defeat, rockslides have benchmarked this sound.

Climbing aboard the Streetfighter and assuming the pugnacious riding position — which is more or less shared with competitors in the Olympic skeleton and a frat boy worshipping the porcelain throne — you push the start button with your right thumb, disengage the clutch with your left hand, and feel the thwack, like a rotating turnstile, as your left foot selects first gear. Blooming before you are hydraulic reservoirs for the lightweight multiplate wet clutch and the disc brakes (two front, one rear, no ABS).

You don’t see the front wheel at all, and the LCD instrument display is visible only if you tip your head down or scoot way back. Now twist open the elliptical throttles with your right hand, release the clutch, and fire away. The bike stutters and coughs until 2750 rpm, so you add revs. Zero to 60 mph is a matter of OMG! Then, instead of traffic, you see a banquet of prey: Harleys, two- and four-wheel BMWs, and Porsches just waiting to be culled from the herd.

This is how the first motorcyclist felt more than a century ago when overtaking buggies.

Ducati 848
Ducati 848
Ducati 848
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