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Car reviews - Abarth - 500 - Esseesse

Our Opinion

We like
Brilliant engine, rorty exhaust, stand-out design, handling on smooth roads
Room for improvement
No cruise control, ESC not switchable, cheap interior plastics, poor ride, high price

9 Mar 2011

DID you know Fiat’s performance arm Abarth is pronounced “abart” and not “abath”?

Now you can impress others at your next party, although turning up to said party in a new new Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse (pronounced SS) would have much more impact.

The standard Fiat 500 is not a great car. It’s a tiny hatchback, the size of a Ford Ka, with reasonable quality and a giant injection of heritage thanks to its old-school 500 exterior design and a sheet of coloured plastic on the dashboard that replicates the metal of the original.

As with the Mini, this retro design makes its owners feel a million dollars and helps them justify paying the huge premium over similar sized models (the entry level 500 1.4 Sport costs $25,000).

So, judging the Abarth Esseesse version is difficult unless the 500 design honks your hooter.

Viewing it as a $35,000 hot hatch, the Esseesse has too many compromises, despite a fantastic engine. Remember, a Renault Clio Sport can be had for $36,490, providing a far better car but perhaps without the cool looks.

Looking at the Abarth Esseesse through the glasses of a Fiat 500 fan, it is the ultimate fun machine, a real hoot and an absolute bargain for $35,000.

The 500 was built on the same base as the new Ford Ka, which we don’t get here, and is a size smaller than the Ford Fiesta. It is relatively tall and narrow, not the dimensions you would select for building a sporty model.

That comes through in the drive, as do almost all of the bumps and lumps on the tarmac. The Esseesse has firm suspension that would be too uncomfortable for many in an everyday commute. Enthusiasts would not be bothered.

Out on the bumpy roads near Gosford for this week’s national media launch, the Esseesse bopped and rocked over the uneven road surfaces, and the narrow wheel track (distance across the axles) and the height did not help. We suspect the larger 17-inch alloy wheels might contribute to the issue.

That said, while it bucked and carried on over the bumps, the little 500 kept going in the direction it was pointed and did not bounce off the road or into another lane.

Sections of marble-smooth roads provided some fun cornering, but this is not a Clio Sport by any means.

It is relatively agile, but the height means you don’t really feel like flicking it through the turns at the same rate as a low slung machine.

There is nothing wrong with the engine. It is a beauty. All the extra turbo bits didn’t fit in the engine bay, so the nose has been extended ever so slightly, which is hard to pick with the naked eye.

All the work is worth it. Of course, improved performance over the naturally aspirated 1.4-litre four in the standard car can be expected, but this really is something else.

The mid-range torque is exceptional. Change gears and you find yourself doing 2500rpm and naturally expect to wait a while for some excitement, but the Esseesse surges forward on a great big elastic band of torque.

A digital display flicks on at 6000rpm tells you when it’s time to change up, but it is of little value given the nature of the engine. This isn’t a screamer and the engine’s best work is done by 5000rpm. It’s better to shift up earlier and let that turbo do its work.

The engine sounds rorty, with a nice induction roar and exhaust bark coming from those two rear pipes. Sometimes a crackle and the odd pop is heard.

Zipping around in traffic, agility makes it a lot of fun – if you forget about the bumps.

Torque steer (when the wheel tugs as you accelerate hard) is rarely evident. The Esseesse has an electronic aid that mimics a limited-slip differential which you can turn on and off. We did, lots, and couldn’t work out if it was on or off. Maybe you might be able to feel it on wet roads.

The electronic stability control (ESC) cannot be switched off, which is annoying. It isn’t intrusive, but comes on now and again, especially in the wet.

Another gripe is the lack of cruise control, a glaring omission in Australia where highway runs are as inevitable as passing several speed cameras.

The brakes, which look great thanks to the bright red callipers, pull up the 1000kg-odd car with little effort.

The 500 has a competent five-speed manual gearbox that does the job, and the engine is not too noisy on 2500rpm at 100km/h in top.

Fuel consumption is a positive. One of the drivers on the launch managed to return 6.2 litres per 100km, while still having fun. Our car was closer to 9.5l/100km, which was matched in city driving.

We imagine this number would come down in more normal conditions, and that is pretty good given this is a performance model.

The new 500 is massive compared to the original, but it is small compared with other new cars. The co-driver appears close, and the rear seats are not for adults, unless they are small.

The boot is adequate for day-to-day use and maybe even a weekend away if you pack extremely lightly.

The Abarth treatment upgrades the interior with a great chunky sports steering wheel, more supportive cloth-trim seats, a special gearshifter and a handbrake surround.

An leather instrument cowl cover looks upmarket, and red stitching is used on several interior components. Unfortunately, the leather additions clash with the plain plastics of the standard car. Rock hard, these surfaces belong in a cheap small car, not something that costs more than $30,000.

Small touches such as the lack of a boot hatch handle also jar. Instead of a handle, a loop of hardy fabric is held in place by an Allen key. That’s fine in a cheap car, but not in this.

The premium sound system is a plus, as is a USB socket.

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.

The red wing mirrors and race stripe show it is up for some spirited driving, as do the wheels and the red brake callipers. Fiat has done a good job in modifying the front plastic clip to fit the extra turbo tubing without spoiling the design.

Fiat recognises the design on the 500 is crucial and that without it the car would have far less appeal.

The Abarth Esseesse is fun to drive for short bursts before you tire of the harsh ride and the compromises of its narrow body on the twisty roads. If you are a believer in the Fiat 500, its design and everything it stands for, you would likely be able to put up with these issues and just enjoy driving and looking at your new baby.

We would happily drive one for maybe a week or so, but that would be about it.

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