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Car reviews - Abarth - 500 - Esseesse

Our Opinion

We like
Rorty little engine, oozes charisma and retro charm, sharp handling, characterful engine note, headroom
Room for improvement
No cruise control, bone-jarring ride, cabin looks good but feels cheap, $35k sticker price

14 Dec 2012

“AWESOME”, “super-cute”, “adorable” and “hilarious”. All words used by friends to describe the Abarth 500 Esseesse during the week it called the GoAuto offices home.

That should come as no surprise. Style and substance get equal billing on this cheeky retro-styled Italian sports-shoe.

First up, it’s tiny. The Fiat 500 on which it is based competes in the sub-light class, and the Abarth is enough to make a Mini Cooper S seem large. Like the Mini, it offers a huge injection of retro charm for the young-at-heart.

Even so, at $34,990 plus on-road costs, the miniscule Bambino appears to have its work cut out. The Italians have a history of squeezing a premium out of buyers, but price-point rivals include the brilliant Renault Sport Clio and Volkswagen Polo GTI, among others.

Those rather narrow and tall proportions are not ideal for a sporting vehicle. It is relatively agile, but the height mitigates against flicking it through the turns at the same rate as a low slung machine.

Surprisingly, though, it feels quite assured on decent roads when the boot is stuck in, gripping the surface with nary a hint of roll and no more understeer than any other front-drive hatchback at the limit.

When the going gets bumpy, things get a little more problematic, with bum-jarringly hard suspension causing the tiny body to hop, skip and jump about like a barefoot teenager on a summer-soaked footpath. Attribute some of this to the space-saving, but dynamically inferior, rear torsion beam.

On good surfaces the ride is firm bordering on harsh on bumpy ones it is crashy and noisy. As far as shortcomings go, it could be worse. This is a hot hatch, so nobody is expecting Rolls-Royce ride, and the Mini or Polo GTI are scarcely better.

Still, there is one department where the 500 belies its small size and justifies the big price – it’s as much fun as you can have with clothes on. It’s a ‘point-and-shoot’ car with eccentricities and quirks, but your grin will spread from ear to ear.

And isn’t that the point?

First up, the little turbocharged 1.4 engine stirs the soul in ways its German and French rivals simply don’t. Yes, 118kW of power at 5500rpm and 230Nm of torque at 2750rpm isn’t much by class standards, but then again neither is a kerb weight of 1035kg.

The little donk operates with verve and vim, and bristles with off-kilter character. The exhaust note is pleasingly throaty through the rev band, and while there is a hint of lag below 2500rpm, it pulls like a little train from there to redline around 6000rpm.

Abarth claims a zero-to-100km/h sprint time of 7.4 seconds – we pulled a 7.8 – but the super-low seating position makes it feel faster. Torque steer (when the steering wheel tugs under hard acceleration) is rarely evident.

Furthermore, since all the extra turbo bits don’t fit in the standard engine bay, the nose has been extended ever so slightly, which is hard to pick with the naked eye but makes for good pub-fodder (or, perhaps more aptly, cafe conversation).

The Abarth has a slightly vague five-speed manual gearbox that could use a sixth ratio – a fun highway cruiser this car is not – and the clutch, while beautifully modulated with a light action and good take-up point, is let down by the tiny and un-ergonomic pedal box.

Naturally, the lack of cruising ability isn’t helped by a lack of cruise control. This is a grievous omission, no matter how you spin it.

Fuel consumption is pretty sharp. We came pretty close to matching Fiat’s claimed combined figure of 6.5 litres per 100km ... at least when we weren’t driving like a loon.

As well as the power increase, the Abarth comes with bigger brakes – 284mm ventilated and drilled discs at the front and 240mm drilled ones at the rear – and there's not much wrong with the way it stops.

The Abarth treatment upgrades the interior with a chunky but perhaps oversized flat-bottomed sports steering wheel, more supportive (but still short in the base) cloth-trim seats, a special high-mounted gear-shifter and a leather handbrake surround.

The leather instrument cowl cover looks upmarket, and red stitching is used on several interior components. Unfortunately, the rock hard plain plastics on the fascia fail to cut the mustard.

Little touches like the dash-top turbo booster gauge and silver sports pedals add some welcome character, but the cabin can’t hide its cheap Fiat 500 origins.

That tall cabin gives acres of headroom, and the rear seats are useful for babies or storage, but the 185 litres of cargo space are good for little more than few chic designer shopping bags.

Stylistically from the outside, it is hard to take the Abarth entirely seriously. But then, who even wants to? The looks of the Fiat 500 are well celebrated and rightly so, because the design creates a lot of emotion, and the Abarth is no different.

That retro-charm is enhanced and given some welcome edge by the red stripes, bigger alloys, red brake callipers and red mirrors, too.

So, it is probably no great mystery at this point that we grew rather enamoured with the Abarth over the course of a week. It was a brief love affair, yes, but one that will linger.

The ride is harsh, it is no cross-country cruiser and the price-tag is dangerously close – or even exceeds – some real pocket rocket luminaries – but damned if we wouldn’t buy one anyway.

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