Road Tests

Abarth 500 Esseesse vs MINI Cooper S

Time 12 years ago

The Abarth 500 Essesse and MINI Cooper S are bitter rivals. So much so it led to a seething office row over which is better. To settle the argument we headed to the Isle of Wight to find out. It rained. A lot.

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THE Isle of Wight is a funny old place – if you ever went there on holiday as a kid, chances are the same places you visited are still around, plodding along, selling the same tat, attracting the same people.

It’s small too. At just 23 miles across by 13 miles deep it’s not the place to go if you’re prone to claustrophobia. Thankfully those bonsai tree proportions make it the perfect location for this twin test. With just 140,000 residents, the Isle of Wight is about the same size as a medium city – like Peterborough.


And there’s our logic: City cars to a city-sized island; Small cars, small roads, big fun. Anyway, you catch my drift – really it was just a good excuse to get out of the office.

The island hasn’t got a single stretch of motorway on it. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find some dual carriageway. Bumpy B-roads criss-cross the island, intertwined like a cat’s cradle with a smattering of fast, flowing A-roads. Towns and villages are tight and cosy – the perfect territory for two tiny cars that punch well above their weight.

So what are the challengers? Well, last month I came back from the launch of the Abarth 500 singing its praises. But the problem was, no-one in the Car Dealer office believed me when I said it’s going to give the MINI Cooper S a run for its money.

In Esseesse trim the 500 is a potent little package. The 1.4-litre turbocharged engine produces 160bhp (up from 135bhp in the standard Abarth), 230Nm of torque, and the dealer-fit performance kit adds up-rated brakes and suspension, not to mention those all-important scorpion badges. On the launch, I only got to try the spicier variety on a closed hill climb, but it was enough to whet the appetite – and spark that office row.


MINI MARVELS 

The Cooper S is a performance machine that completely belies its size. Its 1.6-litre engine is also blown, helping it produce 175bhp and 239Nm of torque. The benchmark 60mph dash is completed in a sprightly 7.1 seconds – only a good gear change quicker than the lighter Esseesse’s 7.4 seconds. It’s a close match. On paper, at least, the MINI and Abarth are arch-enemies: Similar performance stats, similar size and a seemingly similar target audience.

And if you’re selling either, know this: If a buyer walks in interested in your marque’s offering, they’ve either tested, or are about to test, its deadly rival.

We know our opinion counts for little, but still wanted to know which would get our deposit if we were putting our cash on the line. I did think at one point this test could help you sing the praises of one or the other to potential buyers, which it might, but then we realised you probably don’t need our help selling your own cars. Instead, we pitched these two together purely to settle that inter-office row – and I don’t want to be
getting the coffee for the next month…

 

MINI COOPER S

ma5EARLY mornings and I disagree like chicken madras and children. We just don’t get on. Plus, if I get up before 6am, the battery on my iPhone dies by 3pm – and that puts me in a really bad mood.

So, the fact I’m falling out of bed at 5am on Good Friday of all days with a smile on my face shows just how much I’m looking forward to pitching these two cars together.

Small cars, in case you hadn’t noticed, are big news. The credit crunch has crystallised consumers’ views on motoring and they’re ditching their larger, ‘gas-guzzling’ (how I hate that term) motors in favour of smaller, more fuel efficient modes of transport.

But the thing is, not everyone wants a Blu-eco-locomotive model, with one million mpg, that’s as much fun as herpes. There’s still a large bunch of drivers out there that buy cars because they enjoy driving. Okay, so they’re not allowed to admit it, that would be like admitting you like Ian Huntley, but they are out there. So what could be better than a motor that fits the small car mould, but still offers big car performance? Well, that’d be a sure-fire sales winner, surely?

In fact, the new MINI has been a sales legend since it first arrived back in 2001 (yes, it really has been that long). Ok, so the arrival of the Fiat 500, on which the Abarth is based, hurt it quite considerably, but they’ve still knocked out a fair few of ’em. And you can expect a few more to roll off the Cowley production line this year. Why 2009? Well, it marks the Mini’s 50th anniversary and that means a party, albeit a German one.

I know it will grate watching BMW flaunt ownership of the original British icon at a huge party at Silverstone – they’ve even got Paul Weller playing, for goodness sake – but then you have to admit 50 years is quite an achievement.

And without BMW there’s a good chance the rebirth of the legend wouldn’t have happened. It could easily have ended up in the lap of some small British maker in a shed that would have knocked something together with a glue gun and cardboard. And that would have been a disaster. Instead the Germans – like they do – snapped up the brand and set about engineering a car that is homage to the original with a new charm that captured new buyers.

BUMBLEBEE SPEC

Sat waiting for the ferry in this bumblebee spec Cooper S I can’t help thinking what a good job the Huns did. All the clichés ring true: small on the outside, big on the inside; wheel-in-each-corner handling blah; classy BMW build quality, blah, blah. It’s boring because you’ve heard it so many times, but that’s only because it’s true.

After 45-minutes making bow waves in a sheet glass-smooth Solent we dock in Fishbourne, and prepare for 12 hours of enjoying these tiny terrors. First stop is an eerily deserted Needles park at Alum Bay on the west side of the island. It’s half nine and we need filling up, but nothing’s open.

A you’re-not-from-round-here local points us in the direction of a Chinese restaurant that does full English for £1.99. Told you this place was weird. Three plates of good food and a couple of rounds of coffee later, snapper Allan, Dunc and I are ready to battle the mist.

We head off anti-clockwise around the island and enjoy the A3055’s charms. It’s a fast cross-country stretch that reminds me of Wales. I’m slotted behind the wheel of the MINI and having fun. The 1.6-litre unit is an absolute peach, producing punch that belies its size. On boost, the rush of power is progressive and stringing these long straights and tight turns together is immense fun.

ma15With the mist and fog rolling off the English Channel, we near the southern most tip of the island and the roads dampen as squally showers upset our tempo.

Putting 175bhp through the front wheels is never an easy task, but when the Tarmac’s as greasy as this, the MINI’s steering becomes five-year-old-on-two-packets-of-Skittles lively. There’s a whiff of torque steer when it’s dry, but in these conditions it stinks of it.

But then I quite enjoy steering that dances in your hands. It’s character building. On country roads there’s little to separate the Cooper S and the following Abarth. On a straight they’re neck and neck and in the corners there’s little to separate them still – it’s more about how each car makes you feel when you’re behind the wheel.

The MINI is undeniably classy. The interior of our test model was superb with leather seats and a quality dash. I’m not massively keen on the layout – do you really want everyone in the car being able to read your speed off the huge centre dial? I know I don’t.

And I don’t find the seats hugely comfortable. I’m lanky tall which means I find most cars uncomfortable – it’s not unusual for a seat to send my thighs to sleep within five miles, and this MINI is no different. That’s not to say they’re bad – fellow tester Duncan had no such problems.

On these bumpy B roads the MINI is certainly the more refined of the two. It’s still a bumpy ride – but nowhere near as bad as the Abarth’s pogo-like temperament – and in town it’s perfect. Visibility is superb, and with stop-start technology cutting the engine every time you slot it in neutral at a standstill, it’ll return 45mpg on the combined cycle.

We head to the Blackgang Chine theme park for some pictures in front of the attraction’s giant pirate statue and, as Allan battles the weather, Dunc and I swap opinions on the two contenders. Both are entertaining and frustrating us on equal levels – and we still can’t decide between them. Usually a car stands out on a test like this pretty soon, so this really is close.

Pictures in the bag we carry on with our anti-clockwise tour of the island heading towards the postcard resort of Ventnor. Visibility is down to a few feet as the fog thickens to cotton wool density and HGVs take us by surprise as they appear out of the milky soup.

Pottering through Ventor’s tight streets, it’s instantly apparent why buyers pick small cars for towns and cities. They make light work of the stop-start progress and sat-nav-induced three-point turns. A Range Rover would be a nightmare on this island, in fact it would probably tip a corner into the sea.

While trying to capture a dramatic snap of the MINI on a slipway, poor Allan gets a soaking from a giant wave. But the best bit is I’ve caught it You’ve Been Framed-style on camera – see below.

We dry Allan’s shoes and socks in separate cars (fortunately I don’t get the socks) and decide to find a café for lunch. Over baguettes and sticky chocolate cake we try to separate the two. ‘It’s not easy,’ says Dunc. ‘I like them both for different reasons.

The MINI is more entertaining to drive, but then the Abarth sounds better. Looks wise I prefer the Cooper S, but the 500 handles brilliantly. I still can’t decide.’ He can certainly see why I was so impressed by the Italian at its launch though.

‘I prefer the MINI,’ adds a still dripping wet Allan. ‘The heater’s better.’

 

ABARTH 500 ESSEESSE

A change of cars should sort this out. Let’s see what the little Abarth can do. In the isolation of a closed hill climb, a car is always going to excel. A manufacturer isn’t exactly going to let hacks loose in a car on a surface or circuit that does anything but paint it in the best possible light.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Abarth press office had scoured the country for the right location to launch its new baby for months, analysing bump-o-graphs and camber changes. Or is that a bit cynical?

It might be, but I sure don’t remember this little car being this hard. It’s as if the shocks have been packed with sand from one of those tubes being flogged on the side of Bembridge beach. The Isle of Wight is anything but smooth, a sweeping generalisation I admit, but it sure highlights the Abarth’s firm dampening.

ma4Luckily I’m distracted. The Abarth’s 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, with it’s dealer-tuned Esseesse kit, is a gem. Growling and snarling under stress, it easily keeps up with the MINI, despite giving away 15bhp.

Power is instant and continuous, creating an addictive bark from the twin exhausts as the revs rise. It’s got a great soundtrack too, even at tick-over it burbles away like a boat.

But it’s not quite as planted as the MINI. It just feels a little lighter in the bends. It doesn’t help that you sit higher, perched on the sports seats.

They’re hugely comfortably (no sleepy thighs here), but the steering wheel isn’t angled quite right and the driving position feels a little alien. Couple this with steering and a gear change that are not weighted as well as the MINI and you could be left a little disappointed.

But I’m not. And I think that’s thanks largely to one thing: TTC – or torque transfer control. The Abarth engineers have fitted a clever set of electronics that replicate a limited slip differential to the 500. Don’t ask me how it works – it’s complicated – just ask me how it feels. Brilliant.

On these damp roads, with TTC engaged, the Abarth seems to conjure up more grip and drive than the MINI. There’s no dancing steering out of bends as the front wheels scrabble for grip, and torque steer is practically eliminated.

‘SEBASTIAN LOEB WITH IT ON’

On the launch they demonstrated the system on a figure of eight, with the front running wide with the system off and completely controlled when it was on. ‘Sebastian Loeb with it on, Sebastian Learner with it off,’ quipped the instructor. Thanks.

TTC is certainly no gimmick. It works. And in this company, testing two cars with similar power outputs back to back, it’s impressive.

The interior of the Abarth is good too. It’s a pleasant take on the original 500 and is suitably different to the MINI. Fit and finish is top notch and the quality of materials satisfactory. However, comparing it to the German leaves it lagging behind. But only just.

It’s the looks of the Abarth I really can’t get on with. It’s just a bit loud for me – and this is coming from a Focus ST owner. I like body kits, spoilers and sports stripes, but for some reason the Abarth doesn’t quite work.

It’s attractive, but to the wrong sort of person. A baseball cap-wearing, Red Bull-drinking, Drum and Bass-loving person. I absolutely love driving it, it’s got an addictive exhaust note and I even find it more comfortable than the MINI, but could I own one? I’m not so sure.

After 12 hours circling the island, nearly getting stuck on a sandy beach (see cover) and annoying the locals in Ryde High Street (see below), we head to the ferry for our return journey. I’ve managed to wangle myself the keys for the Cooper S for the trip back, which even though I find it uncomfortable, says a lot.  

THE VERDICT

ma3The thing with these cars is they’re in different classes. They might appear on paper to be rivals, but the stark differences are apparent only when you ask yourself who is going to buy one.


I know I said earlier that most buyers will likely check out both cars, and they will because there are such similarities in terms of price and performance, but I just don’t think the same people will be interested in the Abarth that will be in the Cooper S.

And as if he knew we needed help making our decision, a fellow ferry passenger’s opinion sealed the deal. Waiting to board we’re accosted by an accountant, late thirties, wife (I think) and two kids in the back of his Merc E-Class.

He walks over, admits he’s a petrolhead and tells us he’s had two MINIs. A Cooper S, which he loved, and a Cooper S convertible he loved until someone shouted something about Will Young at him. He sold it a week later.

He’s all over the Abarth, asking loads of questions, wants to know about the performance, which car we prefer, the works. So I ask him: ‘You’re obviously a prospective buyer of the Abarth, would you have one?’

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‘No,’ he tells me quite categorically. Why? ‘Just look at it – my wife wouldn’t get in it. It’s too much like a boy racer’s car.’ And he’s right. It might be brilliant to drive, have a superb engine and heritage to match the MINI, but it hasn’t quite got the same class. And that might just be its problem. 

WORDS: James Baggott

PICTURES: Allan Hutchings

 

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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