TEST DRIVE | Fiat 500 Abarth
The new Fiat 500 has been a huge success for the Italian company since its launch back in 2007, so in theory this hot Abarth version can only build upon that.
Abarth is a separate tuning brand within Fiat (much like AMG within Mercedes-Benz) and has been working its magic since the 50s and 60s. A little known piece of trivia is that Abarth’s distinctive scorpion logo comes simply from the founder, Carlo Abarth’s, star sign, which was scorpio.
The regular 500 is a cheeky little city car and has the three key ingredients for this type of vehicle; small, economical and above all, fun to drive. My mum even has one and she adores it, I’ve driven it lots and can see why. The 500 Abarth’s fuel economy is diminished slightly but at the expense of fun. It still achieves 40mpg though.
It features a lively little 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine giving 135bhp and it performs as well as it looks. 0-60mph takes less than 8 seconds and the twin exhaust system has been tuned to burble and crackle very nicely at idle, it urges you take it to the higher revs just to hear it do what it does best. 135bhp may not sound like a lot but there isn’t an awful lot of car for it to propel so it goes faster than a fat kid chasing an ice cream van!
The ride is harsh and firm, but I wouldn’t really expect anything else. It has different dampers and springs compared to the regular 500 which doesn’t exactly ride soft to begin with. Also in the regular 500 is a button on the dash marked ‘city’, which when pressed makes the steering very light and good for city driving and tight turns and helps with parking. In the Abarth the button is labelled ‘sport’ instead. Push it and the steering becomes a little heavier which encourages you to throw the car around a bit more.
If you don’t find all this lively enough already then Fiat can fit the ‘Esseesse’ (SS in Italian) pack which can be fitted to your 500 Abarth by Fiat within 12 months or 12,000 of when the car was first registered. It uprates the engine to 160bhp from 135bhp, gives the car bigger ventilated and drilled brakes, even firmer suspension, 17 inch white or titanium coloured alloys with tyre pressure monitoring system, sportier quad exhaust and you also get a posh key fob cover and to choose from lots of sporty decals and go-faster stripes if you wish. Cost for the conversion is a fair wedge at £2,500 so I’m sitting on the fence with this Esseesse pack. The uprated power isn’t that noticeable unless you really cane it.
The stubby gear stick is mounted on the dashboard (yes, like a van) but it works well, the floor isn’t cluttered with big pieces of unnecessary trim and big slabs of nasty plastic. Although it’s a tiny car, the Abarth does have a larger boot than a Mini Cooper S – one of it’s main rivals. The 50/50 split seats can be folded down to give even more room.
Fiat can cram as many airbags (7 in this case) and safety features into the 500 as they want, but at the end of the day it’s a small city car. It isn’t going to offer the sort of protection in a collision that a Range Rover does. But all things considered, the 500 is a pretty safe and secure car.
One big gripe I have with the new 500 is that you can’t change the height of the driving position enough. There is a little handbrake-shaped lever to the left of the seat, a few inches away from the actual handbrake (smart move Fiat!) which allows you to pump the thigh rest up and down a bit but no overall height adjustment. This can just about be accepted in the regular 500 as it has a ‘get in and drive’ feeling but in the sporty 500 Abarth, you really need to be able to sit lower as the standard seating position is too high I find. The steering wheel can be be manually adjusted a little which helps. Speaking of seats, the leather seats are top-notch – they feel very premium and supportive and come in a range of colours.
All the above focuses on the hatchback version, but I’ve also driven the Abarth 500C with it’s roll-back fabric roof. Not a lot changes, just that you get lots of fresh air and can hear that lovely burbling exhaust even more.
One of the big questions is reliability. In recent years Fiat has sorted their act out and now takes reliability seriously so this shouldn’t be an issue for owning a Fiat nowadays. If you’re looking to buy an Abarth new, you will first have to hunt down an Abarth dealer which are few and far between. Alternatively, there are lots emerging on the used market with low mileage and high spec.