Road Tests

Abarth 500 First Drive: Taste of little Italy

Time 13 years ago

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She’s posh, likes shopping, lunching with friends and is climbing the social ladder. No, I’m not talking about Cheryl Cole (for once), this time it’s Miss Minnie Bya who has caught my attention – and she’s in a bit of a dilemma.

You see, a few years ago if Miss Bya’s husband/dad/secret lover wanted to buy her a runabout to pop to Sloane Square in, there was only one car that would fit the bill: a MINI.

With its cute, perfectly formed dimensions and bigger-than-it-looks interior, the car was fun to drive and above all oozed quality.

But then along came a new take on the retro-car theme – the Fiat 500 – and the ladies-who-lunched had problems. Not only did they have to choose which shoes and handbag worked well together, but they now had to pick between an Italian and German (and I’m not talking footballers to have an affair with).

And this is my point – it’s not really a choice is it? Milan or Berlin? Exactly.

So the march up the sales chart for the Fiat 500 began – and it’s been eating into MINI sales ever since. You’ve got to hand it to the Italian brand, they’ve done a brilliant job reinventing the iconic classic and, in these crunchy credit times, the fact it costs a few bob less means Miss Bya can afford a few more trips to The Ivy.

One thing has been lacking from the 500 range, though – a proper rival to the sporty Cooper. A breathed-on version that the man of the house wouldn’t feel ashamed stepping out of his Aston into.

Fortunately for Fiat, the firm can go one better than its German rivals here by not just adding a new model to the range, but launching the fiery 500 under a completely separate brand – Abarth.

And they’ve done a great job. Under the bonnet of the ‘standard’ Abarth version is a 1.4-litre 16v turbo-charged unit, producing an impressive 135bhp and 206Nm of torque.

That’s enough to propel the 500 to 60mph in just 7.9 seconds. On the road it is superb to drive. Punching well above its weight, it fires you out of corners with the drive of cars twice its size.

There’s no lag to speak of as the turbo spools up and the sound from under the bonnet – and those twin rear exhausts – is an aural masterpiece.

It’s the handling that really impresses though. The Abarth engineers have fitted a clever torque transfer control system that replicates a limited slip differential.

If it senses a wheel is losing traction it applies a brake to that corner rather than cutting power, and this makes a huge difference to the car’s dynamics. You really can feel the system working, especially if you get the chance to try the car out on a closed circuit or are really pushing on.

Whereas the Abarth 500 is the rival to the Cooper – the maker has an even spicier version taking aim at the Cooper S too. It’s called the Esseessee (pronounced E-sess-A).

Now the name might look like a bad typo, but with 160bhp and 230Nm this car’s certainly not a mistake. Costing £2,500 more, it’s around £500 cheaper than its German rival and, I would argue, considerably better.

The upgrade comes courtesy of a dealer-fit kit – which comes in a Scorpion-branded wooden crate (already quite a collector’s item in itself). Inside is a new air-filter, special wheels, bigger brakes, uprated suspension, and dealers fettle the ECU for more power too.

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Not only does this improve the car’s handling, but performance increases with the added go – the 60mph benchmark now reached in 7.4 seconds. That might not look like a huge increase for the cash, but you certainly notice the added verve.

The only thing I’m not 100 per cent sure on is the sporty 500’s looks – it just feels like the maker has tried a little too hard. With lower side skirts and added performance frippery, I’m not quite convinced Miss Minnie Bya will approve. And you can never underestimate the importance of the posh pound when times are as tough as they are…



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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