The Abarth 500 is a tiny car with a big heart. This baby (or should that be bambino?) Italian sports machine is guaranteed to bring pleasure to anyone who loves sitting behind a steering wheel.
In Australia we like our cars hot so the decision was made to import only the topline the Abarth 500 Esseesse (trying saying ‘SS’ with an Italian accent and suddenly ‘Esseesse ‘ makes sense!).
The Australian line-up includes the standard Abarth 500 Esseesse and the Abarth 500C Esseesse convertible, our review vehicle was the closed coupe.
The Abarth 500 comes as standard with powered door mirrors, climate control air conditioning, electric windows, an Interscope sound system with radio, CD and MP3. Much of the control of the audio system can be done through Fiat’s Blue&Me hands-free communication to minimise driver inattention.
This model is not just about looks, the Abarth 500 has uprated suspension, cross drilled brake discs and stylish 17x7 alloy wheels (huge for such a small car) in a style unique to the model.
The Abarth 500 Esseesse has a turbocharged four-cylinder 1.4-litre powerplant sitting under the front bonnet and driving the front wheels. It produces 118 kW of power and torque of 230 Nm. So it’s completely different to the original Abarth of 1957 that was rear-engined.
It’s not just about the way it drives, but also in the retro styling that on our glittering white test car was further enhanced by stylish red side stripes carrying ‘Abarth’ lettering. The Abarth ‘scorpion’ badge sitting proudly in the centre of the grille and the wheel hubs leave no doubt this diminutive machine is something out of the ordinary when it comes to providing sting in the tail.
Talking of the tail, have a look at that big spoiler and the huge exhaust outlets. The brake callipers and door mirrors also receive the full red treatment.
Lowered suspension is emphasised by a body kit that neatly fills the area between front and rear wheels and continues to air extractors in the rear bumper. A deeper front spoiler aids aerodynamics and also feeds extra air to the cooling system and engine.
Crash prevention or minimisation features include ABS braking with EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution) and HBA (Hydraulic Brake Assistance) to ensure maximum stopping power. There’s also an ESP (Electronic Stability Program) to ensure control is maximised at all times. A Hill Holder provides stress-free starts on a slope for drivers who prefer not to use the handbrake.
Should you still manage to get it all wrong there are seven airbags. Abarth 500 has secured a five star EuroNCAP rating - something that’s not easy to achieve in a diminutive body like this.
Acceleration is hard, but not in the fashion of a full-blown sports machine such as the Subaru WRX to which the Abarth is likely to be compared. Rather the Italian bambino is about ample power that demands the driver keep the car in the right gear to get the best from it.
To maximise driver input there’s a dash-mounted turbo boost gauge when the Sport button is pressed. We loved to buzz the little engine to its redline and listen to the purposeful sound it produced when it was working to the max. Abarth has also included a Normal mode for those who feel that way inclined - I can’t say we tried it for long.
We loved the way the Abarth’s cheeky personality showed up in torque steer tugging at the steering wheel when the throttle pedal was floored at low speeds. Abarth’s engineers have installed a system called Torque Transfer Control (TTC) that acts like a kind of limited slip differential to limit understeer and counteract the hassles when driving hard on rough roads.
Feedback through the steering wheel is excellent, as is the way the hot little Italian can be steering on the throttle. This makes for lots of driving pleasure and everyone who drove the Abarth came back with smiles on their faces.
Unless they had been driving on rough and ready Aussie back roads that is, where the smile on the face may have been turned into a grimace produced by the firm suspension. This is exacerbated by the short wheelbase of the baby car.
Like to own a Ferrari or Maserati but are about half a million short of the asking price? Then why not take your own test drive in a far more affordable machine from the same Italian sporting stable? Or perhaps you already have a Ferrari or two in the garage and now want to buy a toy or two to spoil your kids?
Fiat Abarth 500 Esseesse
Price: from $34,990 (manual), 500C from $38,990 (auto)
Engine: 1.4 litre turbo 118 kW/230 Nm
Transmission: five-speed manual or five-speed automatic
Acceleration: 7.4 seconds
Thirst: 6.5 L/100km
Renault Sport Clio 200 Trophee
Price: from $38,990
Engine: 147.5kW/215Nm 2.0-litre inline four-cyl
Transmission: six-speed manual, FWD
Fuel economy: 8.2L/100km, 195g/km CO2
0-100km/h: 6.9 secs
Subaru Impreza WRX hatch
Price: from $39,990
Engine: 195kW/343Nm 2.5-litre turbo flat four
Transmission: five-speed manual, AWD
Fuel economy: 10.4L/100km, 247g/km CO2
0-100km/h: 5.3 secs
Mini Cooper S
Price: from $40,700
Engine: 135kw/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo inline four-cyl
Transmission: six-speed manual (six-speed sports auto), FWD
Fuel economy: 6.3L/100km (6.7) 146g/km (155) CO2
0-100km/h: 7 secs