The Abarth 500 has arrived to give the MINI Cooper a run for its money
What is it?
The hot-hatch we have all been waiting for, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong, the regular Fiat 500 is a great little car but it’s always been crying out for more power. And this is exactly where Abarth steps in. Easily identified by those iconic red and yellow scorpion badges, Fiat’s performance division ups the ante with a range of modifications that improve acceleration, top speed and, most importantly, handling.
And the magic begins with a turbocharged 1.4-litre 16-valve turbocharged petrol engine. Delivering up to 1.2 Bars of boost, it churns out 99 kilowatts and 206Nm worth of torque. I know this doesn’t sound especially exciting but when matched to a miserly kerb weight of 1035kg, it actually makes the Abarth 500 surprisingly brisk.
No turkey in a straight line (the 0-100km/h dash is dispatched in 7.9 seconds), the firmer, lower suspension setup provides significantly sharper handling characteristics. The Fiat 500 always felt a little too loose and floppy for bouts of enthusiastic driving but here, it full Abarth trim, there’s a crispness to its poise that really encourages you to put foot and squeak a bit of takkie. And when you do you’ll discover a massive amount of mechanical grip courtesy those 195/45 R16 gumballs stuck at each corner.
You also get, just like in some Alfa products, one of those electronic torque transfer systems mimic a mechanical limited-slip differential. When engaged, TTC uses the ESP sensors and braking system to transfer drive away from the unloaded inner wheel to the loaded outer wheel. Helping quell understeer, this electro wizardry really comes into its own when threading through tight switchbacks or gnarly hairpin bends.
How does it look?
Like the dog’s bollocks! Building on the dapper geometry already employed by the standard 500, this Abarth version gets a significantly revised front apron that sports larger, more aggressive air intakes. You even get special cooling ducts set in front of the front wheels to help keep the brakes operating at their optimum temperature. 16-inch alloys studded with scorpion centre hubs come standard and five-spoke 17-inchers are available as an option. For the sake of ride quality, we’d pick the former.
Move to the rear and you’ll find an air-diffuser flanked by two oversized chrome-tipped exhaust tailpipes. Finishing things off nicely is a stubby roof spoiler that sprouts from the top of that steeply raked hatch. It’s a subtle work over, I’ll admit, but one that massages the 500 into even more of a head turner. Even dudes will dig it.
Tasty on the outside, the inside of the Abarth 500 is equally awesome. A place where the worlds of retro design and racing meet, highlights include supportive sports seats and a flat-rimmed steering wheel to maximise mobility during evasive manoeuvres. You also get a fair amount of standard kit thrown in for the list price. You know, nice-to-haves like electric windows, air conditioning and a radio/CD/MP3 player with steering wheel controls. There’s even Bluetooth integration for your mobile phone.
But the pièce de résistance has to be the turbo boost gauge mounted just to the left of the instrument cluster. Fitted with a red needle that arcs wildly with every prod of the throttle, it makes you feel like you’re behind the wheel of some Italian Touring Car.
What’s it like to drive?
Though still not quite as sharp as a MINI, the Abarth 500 is a fine driving tool. It’s not wildly fast but there’s enough power on tap to make the most of a winding back road. And although I wasn’t mad about the driving position – the steering wheel lacks fore and aft adjustment – I did enjoy the informative steering and that slick-shifting five-speed gearbox. Even the pedals are nicely spaced for quick heel and toe work.
As I mentioned before the Abarth 500 gets a firmer suspension system that culminates in flatter cornering and sharper reflexes. Yet despite all this extra rigidity, the overall ride quality remains strangely unaffected. Yep, even when steered down the scabbiest sections of Johannesburg tarmac, the little Abarth rolls along with a surety that feels quite at odds with its comparatively short wheelbase. Not what I was expecting at all.
Any special features?
Yes. The R37 000 Esseesse (pronounced SS) kit. Arriving in an Abarth branded wooden crate (it’ll make a great coffee table once emptied), this performance package bolts in a revised Engine Control Unit (ECU) as well as a high-flow BMC air filter. The result? Well the extra 19 kilowatts and 24Nm of torque will now see the Abarth 500 hit 100km/h in 7.4 seconds. With your foot flat you’ll reach a claimed 211km/h. You also score Koni FSD shock absorbers, larger cross-drilled brake discs and 17-inch alloy wheels that can either be painted white – our choice – or titanium grey.
Should you buy one?
Yes. I’ve always been a fan of the MINI Cooper S but the problem is, well, all the wrong people now own them. They’ve become the obvious choice for urban poseurs, frustrated accountants and ditsy blondes the world over. And for this reason alone I’d be inclined to rather spend my cash on the Abarth. For even though this fast 500 isn’t as good to pilot, its left-field appeal makes it way more enduring. I like the slightly oddball styling. I like how that Essesse kit comes in a wooden box. I like those crazy scorpion badges. But most of all I like the fact that we won’t see one on every corner.
Abarth 500 at a glance:
Engine: 1368cc four-cylinder turbo
Power: 99kW at 5500rpm (Esseesse 118kW at 5750rpm)
Torque: 206Nm at 3000rpm (Esseesse 230Nm)
Top Speed: 205km/h (Esseesse 211km/h)
0-100km/h: 7.9 seconds (Esseesse 7.4 seconds)
Fuel Consumption: 6.5l/100km (claimed combined)
Pricing: R230 000; R267 000 (Esseesse)
Really fun to drive
Not the obvious choice
Cramped driving position
No fore/aft steering adjustment
Optional MTA semi-auto gearbox