In 1958, when tuning supremo Carlo Abarth created his masterpiece, the Fiat 500 Abarth, it had precisely double the power of the model it was based on – 26 bhp, up from 13 bhp. He worked his magic by increasing the 479cc engine’s compression ratio, fitting a larger Webber carburettor, optimising the fuel and air intake systems, and tuning the exhaust.
Today, the basic Fiat 500 starts life with a measly 68 bhp, so it seems fitting that the modern day Abarth 500 boasts an almost double 135 bhp.
In a world where the Clio Renaultsport and Peugeot 208 GTi have 200 bhp, that might not sound like much. But the Abarth has two particularly compelling strings to its bow: an abundance of character, and value for money.
While many manufacturers are finding ways to increase their sticker prices, the cost of the Abarth actually fell recently, and today a shiny new 500 can be yours for just £14,205. At the same time, a couple of colours disappeared from the shade chart (Funk White and Scorpion Black are no longer available on the base 500 model), but a new one – a retro-inspired Legends Blue – was added. Removed also from the standard equipment list were the Interscope hi-fi upgrade, rear privacy glass and red brake calipers, and they now reside on the options list. However, rear parking sensors and an auto-dipping rear view mirror are now standard by way of compensation.
Mechanically, the Abarth 500 is largely unchanged since its first introduction. Power comes from a 1.4-litre four-cylinder with a small-diameter turbocharger shoe-horned under the bonnet. The various bulges and grilles added to the front of the car house a multitude of intercoolers and radiators necessary to keep under-bonnet temperatures in check. The figures reveal 135 bhp at 5,500 rpm and a respectable 206 Nm of torque at 3,000 rpm. With the engine’s output transmitted to the front wheels via a five-speed manual transmission (a robotised manual with an automatic mode is also available), the sprint to 62 mph is achieved in 7.9 seconds and it all runs out of puff at 127 mph.
On the road, the power delivery is almost diesel-like. There’s a modicum of turbo lag below 2,000 rpm or so, followed by a definite shove towards the horizon. However, by 4,500 rpm boost begins to drop off, and there’s little to be gained by straying closer to the red line – far better to change up a gear and surf the wave of torque.
The electrically-assisted steering is a little on the vague side, and with Sport mode deactivated the assistance ramps up still further – great for town driving and parking, though. Still, it’s accurate enough once you’ve grown accustomed to the lack of feedback and there’s little difficulty in scribing your chosen line through a set of curves.
If the Abarth has an Achilles’ heel, though, it’s the suspension. On smooth roads it feels firm and composed. However, on the pockmarked maintenance-free tarmac that’s to be found throughout most of the UK, the 500 crashes into potholes, skips over bumps, and bounces its way from one poorly-damped surface depression to the next. The problem stems from its short-travel rear suspension, excessively long rear bump stops and poor quality dampers.
If you’re in the right mood, the Abarth feels like an over-excitable terrier, jumping up at its owner to entice them to throw a stick. But on a rainy, Monday morning commute, it can become tiresome.
Thankfully, there is a solution – Abarth dealers can supply a handling pack which consists of uprated springs and Koni FSD dampers that improve both the ride and the handling immeasurably, and we’d strongly recommend making the £899 investment. You might like to think about adding the excellent Record Monza exhaust system while you’re there, although we understand the quad tailpipe look isn’t for everyone. The standard system is more than characterful enough for most people.
Torque Transfer Control (TTC) can be enabled via a dash-mounted button, and this activates an electronic differential of sorts – using a combination of the ABS and ESP systems, the car applies the brakes to a spinning inside wheel to help maintain traction through tight turns. Useful, perhaps, on tight and twisty circuits, but realistically in most on-road circumstances, the little 500 is capable enough of putting its power down already.
Inside, the Abarth is equally charming, with that historic scorpion badge staring up at you from the chunky leather steering wheel. The seats are a little sit-up-and-beg, with the sensation of sitting ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ them, and the funky dial-within-a-dial instruments do have strange ideas about when to illuminate and when not. But, foibles aside, you can’t help but smile when you climb aboard.
The boost gauge, which resides in its own little pod on top of the dashboard, also houses a ‘Shift Up’ light which prompts you to change gear when using Normal mode – in Sport mode, it doesn’t nag you.
Fiat’s Blue&Me system provides Bluetooth connectivity and voice control, while the stereo features MP3 compatibility and a port for use with a USB memory stick. It’s a decent sounding system, too, particularly with the optional Interscope subwoofer mounted under the front seat.
Air conditioning is standard, with climate control an option. Also on the options list are goodies such as Xenon headlights, two types of sunroof, four different alloy wheel designs, and a host of different coloured decals to choose from. While it’s easy to get more than a little carried away with the customisation, reign it in and you’ll find the Abarth 500 holds its value extremely well, thanks to limited supply and a steady demand.
Economy is respectable – although the official figures are 43.4 mpg on the combined cycle, in everyday driving you’ll be more likely to see low- to mid-30s. CO2 emissions of 155 g/km place it in VED Band G with a road tax bill of £175 a year. Servicing is a little pricey – oil changes are every 9,000 miles with a service every 18,000 – and Abarth dealers are a little thin on the ground (there are currently 24 in the UK).
However, these minor issues are a small price to pay for such a fun and affordable little package. With most hot hatches these days piling on the pounds (both in terms of mass and price), the Abarth 500 remains the one option that lives up to the phrase that was coined by its charismatic creator all those years ago – “Small but wicked.”