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2012 Abarth 500 Esseesse Review Photo:
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What's Hot
Rip-snorting little engine, fun on corners.
What's Not
Torque steer, interior idiosyncrasies.
A fun little pocket-rocket; buckets of retro-style and razor handling.
Tony O'Kane | Nov, 07 2012 | 5 Comments

2012 FIAT 500 REVIEW

Vehicle Style: Light hot-hatch
Price: $34,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/transmission: 1.4 litre turbo, 118kW/201Nm; 5-spd manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.5 l/100km | tested: 8.6 l/100km



Fiat’s pint-sized 500 Twinair a bit girly? Try the Abarth 500 Essesse on for size.

Abarth, Fiat’s tuning arm with a history that stretches back to the original Fiat 500, turns the wick up on Fiat’s city car to create one of the most eye-catching, smile-inducing pocket rockets around.

It’s the not the quickest light hatch on the market (the Renault Clio RS 200 arguably clinches that crown), but for fun-factor, the Abarth 500 Essesse delivers in a big way.

Just don’t expect it to be particularly refined or comfortable.



Quality: Quality is okay, but the doors sound tinny when closing and the acres of hard plastics don’t lend the impression that this is a premium car - despite wearing a premium price-tag.

There’s leather on the gearknob and steering wheel though, and the colour-coded trim panel that stretches across the dash helps brighten up the interior. The boost gauge/shift light that sprouts out of the dashboard is also a cool feature.

But what’s with the hard metal panel on the back of the rear seats? It looks cheap.

Comfort: Like the regular 500, the Abarth has a few ergonomic issues. The seats are mounted way too high, and the pedals are stuffed in the footwell so tightly that big-footed drivers will find themselves hitting two pedals at once.

Other complaints include a seat squab height-adjuster that’s mounted right next to the handbrake (and often gets confused for it), a steering wheel that doesn’t adjust for reach and a centre console that intrudes on knee room.

Happily though, the Abarth’s sporting DNA helps us overlook these shortcomings. The deeply sculpted seats give good lateral and upper-body support, the thick-rimmed steering wheel is a delight to hold and that boost gauge just looks cool.

Back seats? Well, they’re there, so they can be used occasionally, but otherwise they’re only for children.

Equipment: Standard on the Abarth 500 Esseesse are power mirrors and windows, foglamps, climate-control, trip computer, Bluetooth and a single-disc CD player with USB/Aux inputs.

Wheels are 17-inch alloys with 205/40R17 Michelin rubber, while other Abarth-specific exterior features include a hatch spoiler, vented front bumper, side skirts, twin exhaust pipes and a rear bumper with faux diffuser.

There’s no cruise control unfortunately (but did we mention that it’s got a boost gauge?)

Storage: Definitely not the Abarth 500’s strong suit. There’s just 185 litres of space in the boot. growing to 550 litres with the 50/50 split rear seats folded down.

In-cabin storage is pretty woeful. Besides a small tray in the centre console there’s a lack of covered storage space and just a shelf in place of a proper glovebox.



Driveability: The Abarth’s 1.4 litre turbocharged inline four is a perky little thing, although saddled with a lot of turbo lag.

But while lag is something we often criticise in other cars, in the Abarth it’s part of the fun.

Pin the accelerator, wait a couple of seconds for the turbo to wind up, and then enjoy the surge of thrust.

It WILL break traction in the dry under full throttle, and the torque steer WILL attempt to wrestle the wheel out of your hands, but that’s all part of the Abarth’s unique character.

It revs quite happily up to its 6000rpm redline, but it’s not entirely necessary to touch the rev limiter to extract the best performance.

Just make sure you have the ‘Sport’ button engaged whenever you need some poke, otherwise turbo boost is dialed back and the throttle feels a lot spongier.

Peak power of 118kW is developed at 5500rpm and peak torque of 201Nm arrives at 2750rpm, so - as long as the turbo is kept spinning - there’s plenty of midrange grunt to exploit.

By the way, if you’re thinking those numbers sound modest, don’t be fooled. With a kerb weight of just 1035kg, the Abarth 500 has plenty of zip. Fiat quotes a 0-100km/h time of 7.4 seconds.

The gearbox isn’t bad, with a nicely-placed shifter and good ratios. It could use a crisper shift feel though, as well as a sixth gear on the highway.

Refinement: It’s pretty loud inside the Esseesse. There’s noise from the engine bay, vibration, wind noise, tyre noise and the (surprisingly) deep, bassy thrum of the exhaust.

Add to that a firm ride, and it’s clear that the Esseesse is not designed for long journeys. All those noises and sensations add to the drama though, so we won’t knock any points off.

Suspension: The suspension is set up for grip at the expense of comfort, and although the Abarth pitches wildly on poor tarmac, it corners like a go-kart.

Mid-corner bumps can cause the tyres to skip and lose contact with the road though, so you’re best-off keeping spirited jaunts to well-groomed tarmac.

On the right kind of road, the Abarth 500 Esseesse is a delight to drive with plenty of grip, and decent feel and feedback (although torque steer can be an issue at times).

Braking: The cross-drilled brake rotors measure 284mm up front and 240mm at the rear, and are gripped by sliding calipers. They’ve got plenty of stopping power to pull up the 500, and resist fade well.



ANCAP rating: 5-Stars

Safety features: Seven airbags come standard (front, front side, curtain, driver’s knee), as does ABS, EBD, hill-hold and non-switchable stability and traction control.



Warranty: Three years/100,000km

Service costs: Servicing costs vary. Consult your local Fiat dealer before purchase.



MINI Cooper S Hatch ($43,050) - The 135kW Cooper S has more power and a fractionally faster 0-100km/h time, but looks conventional next to the Abarth.

It’s a more well-rounded machine than the 500 though, but is that worth an extra eight grand? (see Cooper Hatch reviews)

Renault Clio Renault Sport 200 ($36,490) - The benchmark in handling for light hot-hatches, the Clio RS is also one of the most powerful.

Its 2.0 litre inline four pushes out 147kW and 215Nm, and at 1281kg it’s still a lightweight. It’s also blessed with Brembo brakes, and the Cup Trophee variant gets form-fitting Recaro seats. (see Clio reviews)

Volkswagen Polo GTI 3 door ($27,790) - Volkswagen’s hot Polo is the most visually understated in this bunch, but it’s also the cheapest.

It produces 132kW and 250Nm from a twincharged 1.4 litres, and its standard seven-speed DSG makes it quite quick in a straight line - but it lacks the excitement of the Abarth. (see Polo reviews)

Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.



As far as performance hatchbacks go, the Abarth 500 Essesse is swift rather than outlandishly quick.

But outright speed isn’t everything in this segment, and the Abarth makes up for any shortcomings with a sizable fun factor.

It’s an exciting car to drive, and it engages virtually all of your senses - bar taste, of course.

It’s dramatic, extroverted... a lovable scamp of a car. It’s still too expensive, but we sure do like it.

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