ABARTH 500 REVIEW
Vehicle style: Light two-door hot hatch
Engine/trans: 118kW/201Nm 1.4 litre turbo | 5spd manual
Fuel consumption listed: 6.5 l/100km | tested: 7.6 l/100km
If you’re bored with cars, if they all look and feel like a minor variation on the same old sausage, and if the daily commute has ground your soul into dust, well, Fiat has the antidote.
It’s the Abarth Esseesse. Take it twice daily - take it around the block… anywhere - and that creeping tedium will creep no more; you’ll be cured. That’s all it takes.
(“Lazarus, get up you lazy sod and take this for a fang. Man, you’ll feel alive again.” That’s the lesser-known parable of the miracle of the Abarth.)
And what fun it is. It might be no bigger than a size-ten sneaker, but this little Fiat will restore your faith in four wheels.
And who says you need big power and torque figures? Pack a feisty 1.4 litres with 118kW and 201Nm into just 1035kg, and you would swear you had at least 30kW more.
Get used to the high seating position - you’ll feel like you’re riding it rather than sitting in it - and you’ll find masses of grip, and, in equal measure, masses of control.
We joined the Italian Connection Trophy rally (as did our colleagues from Motor magazine) to put the Abarth Esseesse through its paces in the Victorian Alpine region.
We then tacked a ‘straight through’ six-hour drive onto the end. And wanted to keep driving.
I’ll fess up to nurturing a passion for Italian sporting cars, but, personal predilections aside, I’d defy anyone not to enjoy this car.
- Sports bucket seats, power mirrors and windows,
- Climate-control and trip computer
- Bluetooth and a single-disc CD player with USB/Aux inputs
- Audio-streaming and Blue & me connectivity
Comfy seats do not a comfy interior make. The seats in the Abarth are quite good: they’re nicely padded and bolstered, and provide support in the right places.
But there’s an ‘Italian thing’ to grapple with at the wheel of Esseesse. The relationship between the pedals, the steering wheel and driver’s seat is all wrong. It’s made worse by a wheel that adjusts for rake, but not reach.
And you’ll spend the first half hour sliding the seat back and forth, and fiddling with the backrest as you try to find the right driving position.
Rest assured, you will not find it.
In the end, you’ll settle on a straight-arm reach to the steering wheel but with the pedals still a little too close and cramped.
So don’t expect to be too comfortable. (And in a strangely weird way, you'll add ‘minor discomfort’ to the list of quirks that make driving this car such an individual joy.)
While it’s cheerful inside with some nice sporty touches, the interior itself is too plasticky for a $35k car.
It is well-enough laid out and the coloured panel running across the dash gives things the right retro feel, but it looks and feels a bit insubstantial.
The door trims get a neat fabric-covered armrest, but there are a few edges that have a box-cutter finish. There are also some ill-fitting plastics elsewhere around the cabin (most noticeably on the a-pillar in the tester).
The single retro instrument binnacle looks ok, and the selectable read-out is fine, but the switchgear is nothing to write home to Mum about. It’s capped off by a dodgy turbo boost-gauge spoiling the top of the dash (it would have to go).
So you wouldn’t buy the Abarth for its interior.
It’s not lacking for features though, the sound system has a nice thump to it, and the stubby gearshift nestled at the left hand is a beauty.
The pedals, in alloy, look good and are also placed right for heel-toe driving (though off-set a little to the left to accommodate the front wheel-well).
There is also reasonable room for knees in the backseat, not for six-footers maybe, and enough headroom for passengers there in the upright Abarth/Fiat 500 cabin.
Boot space is surprisingly good for such a tiny car, and the seats split fold if you need to carry something larger.
ON THE ROAD
- 1.4 litre Multiair turbo | 5spd manual (Dualogic auto also available)
- 118kW @ 5500rpm/201Nm @ 2750rpm
- Brakes: 284mm cross-drilled discs up front, 240mm at the rear, Brembo callipers
- 17-inch alloys with 205/40 R17 Michelins
This little rocket is all about the drive. Forget that the ergonomics at the wheel are ratty, forget the naff interior plastics, it’s all about the drive.
And weighing in at just 1035kg, the 118kW and 201Nm has no trouble getting this little Abarth to boogie.
There is the briefest delay as the turbo spools up - you’ll learn to work with it when pressing on through corners (that’s why we were given a heel and a toe) - but keep it on song, and this little flea is incredibly quick around a mountain road.
All the while, on this kind of ride, while rowing the stubby shift back and forth through the beautifully weighted 5-speed gate, there is a rorty brattish rasp for accompaniment from the twin-pipe rear.
And it is deliciously balanced. A fat 17-inch wheel at each corner with sticky 205/40 R17 Z tyres, go-kart steering and razor front-end precision - as well as fantastic vision over a bonnet that is barely there - mean you can place this Abarth Esseesse with amazing accuracy if really showing it the whip.
It is also, for such a focused drive, surprisingly compliant.
It’s firm, and there is not a lot of suspension travel, but there’s enough initial ‘give’ to take the harsh edge out of broken tarmac, ripples and poor surfaces.
We found the bump-stops a couple of times on the gravel (a bit of a hoot at the time), but came away impressed with the little Abarth’s ability to swallow long kilometres without becoming wearing at the wheel.
Fiat claims a 0-100km/h dash of 7.4 seconds. That would be about right, but rolling acceleration in that critical 80km/h to 120km/h (when you need it for overtaking safely) is very brisk.
The 201Nm of torque chimes in at a low-ish 2750rpm, so you don’t have to wring its neck to get it to fire.
Stamp on it though, and the Abarth is out and around in seconds (leaving shocked looks in its wake).
So, do we love driving this thing? And will you?
You’d better try it on for yourself, but I can name at least one idiot who’s smitten. If only it wasn’t so much dearer than the Polo GTI, and if only the interior wasn’t so obviously borrowed from a much cheaper car (damn that Pop interior).
ANCAP RATING: 5-Stars for Fiat 500
Safety features: driver and passenger front, head and side-airbags, driver’s knee-airbag, head airbags for second row seats. Active safety systems include traction control, electronic brake distribution, and brake assist.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Abarth 500 Esseesse offers a three years/150,000km manufacturer's warranty and retails at $34,990 plus on-roads.
The VW and Renault hot-boxes also come standard with sports automatic dual-clutch transmissions; the dualogic auto (which is not the best in the business) available for the 500C Esseesse, widens the price gap further.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Yes, if cars have become tiresome and mere clones of each other, I offer you, or Fiat does at least, the Abarth Esseesse.
This car will give you your gruntle back.
Less gruntling is the price; it’s $5k dearer than both the Polo GTI and Renault Clio RS, and they’re both faster, swisher, and better-finished inside.
The Ford Fiesta ST, with a $9k price advantage, has it soundly thrashed for value as well as outright performance.
But the Abarth is irresistible. It might not be the sensible buy, but it will charm your pants off.
The Italian Connection Trophy (ICT)
It’s an enjoyable event this Italian Connection Trophy.
Besides giving a brace of Italian classics the chance to blow the cobwebs out on some super roads, the object is to raise money for the Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Foundation (www.duchennefoundation.org.au).
The steering is more about enjoying ‘the wheels’ than being at the pointy end of a competitive drive.
For two of the three days, the focus this year was on touring, taking in some of Victoria’s most spectacular mountain roads around and over Mount Hotham, Omeo and Mount Buffalo.
The third day included some more competitive motorkhana and speed events at Corryong airport (which we missed).
A lot of fun, and some really interesting cars like a very, very rare Alfa Romeo Zagato, a 1978 Ferrari 400A, and a very immaculate Porsche 550 replica among the obligatory Alfa 105 coupes, older Fiats and now (because of the marriage of Chrysler and Fiat) one very Australian-Italian Valiant Regal.