Fiat’s regular 500 presents dangerous ground for any attempt at dispassionate assessment, because it is so much of a style icon that its strengths and weaknesses are probably of less interest than they should be to a lot of its prospective owners. The Abarth models are a little different though, in that they promise something quite specific: energetic performance. If they didn’t deliver, they would become something of a joke; and a bad one, given the history of Abarth in developing sporting cars.
Abarth’s standard 500 offers 135PS and either 180Nm or 206Nm — depending on which driving mode you select — from its turbocharged 1368cc engine. With a kerb mass of 1035kg, these figures are obviously more than adequate to deliver urgency: Fiat claims 7.9 seconds for the standing-start dash to 100km/h, and a maximum speed of 128mph.
The purpose of the Esseesse is to add even more gusto to these figures. It’s not actually a factory car, but an upgrade to the engine specifications and running-gear carried out by an Abarth agent. The engine is remapped and an air cleaner with a lower back-pressure is fitted; brakes and springs are uprated; and larger wheels and tyres — with a tyre pressure monitoring system — are deployed.
Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse.
The result is an extra 25PS — 160PS at 5750rpm — while maximum torque rises to 230Nm at 3000rpm. Claimed maximum speed climbs 3mph to 131mph, and standing-start acceleration to 100km/h improves by a half second at 7.4s. Fuel economy returns over the European test cycles remain unchanged.
Wheels are located using McPherson struts with an anti-roll bar at the front and a torsion beam — again, and unusually, with an anti-roll bar — at the rear. Fiat’s chosen system for rear suspension provides two separate roll-limiting mechanisms, but not a great deal of independence. Although the 500’s 2300mm wheelbase is generous in relation to the car’s overall length, its still pretty short in overall terms, so achieving manageable handling on an uneven surface — or under torque-reversal — is quite difficult, relying on both good suppleness and outright grip.
Abarth cam cover, heat shielding and low-pressure air intake define 500 Abarth engine bay. Intercooler mounted longitudinally at left-hand end of engine.
No-one could expect the 500 to offer a vastly spacious driving environment, but it actually does quite well — so long as you don’t have very long legs. Amazingly for such a small car, there is no offset to the pedals, and the footwell is actually quite roomy. There is even a small but solid ledge for the driver’s left foot when it’s off-duty.
The driving seat is excellent, with support in all the right places and a surprising feeling of robustness.
The 500’s switchgear layout is very effective. Even the push-buton controls for the heating and ventilation system are quite useable: large, well designed and mounted reasonably high up.
The instrumentation is an acquired taste. The speedometer and rev-counter are concentric, with an orange fluorescent display in the middle. Sprouting out of the top of the dash is a boost gauge for the turbocharger; it looks like an afterthought, but it’s fun nontheless. Interestingly, the boost gauge lives elsewhere on other markets — Fiat has obviously decided to challenge the Mini’s monopoly on sprouting instrumentation. In the centre of the boost gauge is a gear-change indicator: this thankfully takes good account of engine load before it doles out advice.
On home market, boost gauge lives next to main insrument display.
On the move, one of the first things to strike you is the curious ride quality. It’s very firm of course; but because of the short wheelbase, the 500 gives the impression of riding up and over bumps rather than simply being jogged vertically by them. As speed increases, the ride quality becomes a little more civilised; potholed urban streets are never going to be easy on the backside, but ride quality doesn’t get in the way of driving enjoyment out of town.
The 500’s Abarth engine is a perfectly civilised unit, with a progressive response to the accelerator and a torque curve that allows smooth progress without any particular effort. There is never the sense, familiar from more old-fashioned petrol turbo engines, that the engine is always either gutless or feverish and there’s nothing in between. In practice, this means that it’s possible to drive moderately briskly in give-and-take traffic without being stuck on a knife-edge between too much torque or too little.
While I suspect that most Abarth 500 buyers will be townies, it’s good to report that the little Fiat lives up to its looks and its specification. Across country, it’s a great deal of fun: acceleration is more than adequate — to say the least — while turbo-lag is well controlled: gun the throttle at (say) 3000rpm, and there is inevitably a little delay while the blower accelerates, but it’s never enough to undermine confidence in the car or to make overtaking an uneasy experience. A more progressive approach to applying power more or less hides what little lag there is.
The stubby gear-lever falls immediately to hand, and its action is decidedly sporting: smooth and precise, but firm, almost heavy. Like the well-designed and solidly-built seats and the well-spaced pedals, it inspires confidence.
The 500 is a small, quick car with a low polar moment of inertia and good tyres. This means that it will always be easy to change the car’s direction; but, conversely, that it will not be particularly easy to achieve smooth progress. On difficult roads, the 500 is a peach: the more awkward the bend, the more engaging the car becomes. Grip is never lacking. Yumps and dips in the road surface do not cause problems, though they do demand a little input from the driver. On the other hand, fast, open bends are not the Abarth’s forté: the lively responsiveness you feel in tight going turns to twitchiness.
Steering response is good, if a little numb, and weighting is firm.
Perhaps a lot of owners won’t care too much about refinement, but in fact there’s not much to complain about. Drive with a little restraint and — ride quality aside — the Abarth is actually quite civilised. Apply the throttle with more determination and the engine dominates, but it’s an enthusiastic roar rather than a disagreeable thrash. Road noise is obvious over rough surfaces, but it doesn’t throw up any nasty resonant booms. Wind roar is not a problem. Even in its most powerful form, the 500 is unlikely to spend much of its life on the motorway, and the sountrack to driving it is pretty well balanced.
The 500 Abarth Esseese is tremendous fun across country. The more difficult the road, the better it gets. Long motorway journeys are probably not a good idea. Sadly, most Abarths — like other 500s — are destined to spend their lives in town.