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On October 24, 2014, the Washington Automotive Press Association (WAPA) held its annual “WAPA Rally” at Little Seneca Lake in Boyds, Maryland, roughly 25 miles northwest of our nation’s Capital. The quiet rural environment provided a fantastic backdrop for the event, which served as an opportunity for us to explore and drive a wide variety of vehicles from well over a dozen brands. In addition, a number of company representatives were on hand to network with and offer their product knowledge, but the highpoint of the day was certainly getting behind the wheel of the cars. Having driven so many different models at the event, however, I’ll highlight a couple that made the biggest impression.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

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The first vehicle of the day was a brand new Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG, a speedy luxury SUV carrying a handcrafted 355-horsepower, 2.0L turbo inline-4 paired with 4MATIC all-wheel drive from the company’s in-house tuner. With a quick 0-60 mph time of only 4.8 seconds, based on an estimate by Mercedes, the GLA45 AMG is akin to a wolf in sheep’s clothing as the model is much more capable than what one might think at first glance. Also, only astute enthusiasts are likely to pick up on the relatively subtle visual cues that differentiate the AMG version from other GLA-class models, making the utility vehicle quite a sleeper among the luxury crowd.

Built on the same platform as its compact CLA sibling, the top-of-the-line GLA utilizes a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and exhibits a level of agility and handling rarely seen in its segment, which adds to its allure for buyers who fancy luxury utilities yet appreciate unleashing their all-wheel drive speed demon on unsuspecting boy racers. Having driven this luxury monster on open country roads, I can attest that while it is more of a reserved, mature Clark Kent on the outside, on the inside it has unique powers that would make Superman proud. The GLA-class model began sales in September and has tallied 2,998 deliveries through its first two months on sale, but just as the CLA sedan has proven to be another success for the German automaker, this new Mercedes SUV should undoubtedly become a winner as well. With the driving dynamics of its platform-sharing CLA45 AMG sibling and the convenience and versatility of an SUV, the Mercedes GLA45 AMG combines the best of both worlds and any buyer in the market for such a vehicle need look no further.

2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio

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When it comes to anything from soccer to cuisine to autos, the Italians certainly have their own particular way of doing things and apply their own distinct style and flair in the process. An example of this is the Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio as one glance at the radical subcompact can cause someone to wonder how a car of such small proportions can have such a loud, boisterous personality. Not only does the model display a number of Abarth badges and decals, its color schemes and overall design make a wholehearted attempt at distinguishing the Abarth as the sporty, wild child of the Fiat 500 lineup.

With a sporty flat-bottom steering wheel, bright red gauge cluster featuring a turbo boost gauge, and generous use of red contrasting stitching throughout the cabin, it is clear that the Abarth version is not to be confused with an ordinary commuter car, creating a fun, vibrant ambience inside the funky hot hatch. However, the downside of the Fiat’s Italian roots comes to light when attempting to execute a few of the seemingly simplest tasks. As it was a seasonally chilly morning in the D.C. area, I felt the need to close the windows after beginning my drive, but quickly realized the power window controls were not in their logical place on the door panels. After failing to locate the controls, I decided to close the car’s rag top after reaching a stop sign, however, the time it took to close the top from its fully open position felt excruciatingly long as I battled the wind chill.

Shifting my focus over to the drive itself, the peppy 500 Abarth Cabrio, albeit not lightning quick, employed its 160 horsepower 1.4L 16V MultiAir Turbo engine to great effect. With its small wheelbase, the car felt quite nimble and sharp on windy roads and although the five-speed manual transmission would have provided a more engaging experience, my vehicle’s six-speed automatic tranny still allowed for an entertaining drive for those who prefer not to row their own gears. At higher speeds though, the lightweight, skinny Abarth begins to feel less stable and more vulnerable to gusts of wind such as those found on the highway.

The Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio has an inimitable character all its own that pulls at the heartstrings of one’s inner child; however, once the initial excitement of the honeymoon phase is over, the vehicle’s flaws that were initially forgiven or overlooked become more noticeable. While the hatchback technically has four seats, fitting four people in the car is only achievable if the two in the back are elves. Also, as was revealed in J.D. Power’s 2014 U.S. Initial Quality Study (IQS), Fiat was found to have 206 problems per 100 vehicles, good for last place in the study, compared to an average of 116 problems for the industry. All things considered, the Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio is somewhat of a mixed bag that is like romancing an exotic Italian girl or guy, but you don’t speak Italian and don’t understand the culture. As fun and alluring as the idea of courting the Fiat can be, only those willing to compromise function for style and personality should take the plunge and pick up this Italian.