This pocket-rocket has some serious sting in its tail.
This pocket-rocket has some serious sting in its tail.

Road test: Abarth 500 generates smiles and good vibes

INFUSE racing heritage with a cute small car package.

When you say it out loud the concept doesn't seem quite so alluring. But way back in 1957 Carlo Abarth took the newly launched Fiat 500 and created the first Abarth 500.

He turned the "Bambino" into fire-breathing pocket-rocket which gave birth to the pretence that runabouts could be converted into race cars. It was from there the phrase "small but wicked" was coined.

And this is the modern reincarnation. Using the modern Fiat 500 as the base, this lgem has been given the Abarth Esseesse treatment. The external treatments may look like a few fancy decals and a flash set of alloys, but the scorpion featured on the Abarth badge has ample sting in its tail.

Comfort

Personality and fun resonates once you tuck yourself into the figure-hugging sports seats.

Hard plastics on the dash, doors and console aside, it's an inviting environment that bucks the cabin blueprint trend. It boasts a wonderful leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel which begs you to tackle the twisty stuff.

The driver has a unique view of the world, with three key gauges set up in three-dimensional styling. There are three circular layers, with the speedometer on the outer ring, tachometer in the middle, while a digital read-out sits in the centre.

It's covered by a leather-clad hood, and jutting from the dash next door is a small turbo gauge with shift indicator.

Those sitting up front will find the pews nicely supportive (although the husky gent or lass may find them constrictive), with good head and leg room. It's much tighter in the back, but if the front passengers are generous there is enough room for medium size adults in the rear.

On the road

Lowered suspension with up-rated springs and dampers, cross drilled brake discs and 17-inch alloys combine with an invigorating 1.4-litre turbocharged engine to prove good things do come in small packages.

Engineers redesigned the front end to shoehorn the turbo inside the tiny engine bay.

It manages the 0-100kmh over seven seconds but it feels quicker.

Surprisingly there is minimal, if any, torque steer. That's courtesy of the Torque Transfer Control system which limits understeer while maintaining stability and enhancing turn-in.

It works well, and you can really hammer into the bumpiest of corners with confidence. The little Abarth has a hankering for the bends and relishes quick directional changes.

That ability makes for a firm ride…but those who love to drive will be happy with the trade-off.

Using the Sport button on the dash provides greater steering feel and ups the torque output. It's best to turn it off around town for ease of parking.

What do you get?

Ticks on the standard equipment list include tinted rear windows, unique roof lining, climate controlled air-conditioning, electric windows, CD stereo and MP3 file player power amplifier and sub-woofer, as well as Blue&Me hands-free Bluetooth equipped communication system.

Safety is five-star, with the likes of anti-lock brakes and electronic brake distribution, stability control and Hill Holder ensures the car doesn't slip back when restarting on a slope.

Other options

A key rival is the Mini Cooper S ($42,990), although also worth a look at the cheaper end is the Citroen DS3 DSport ($27,990 drive-away), Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo ($21,990), Suzuki Swift Sport ($23,990) and the Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo ($31,990).

The lowdown

There are grand plans for Fiat and Abarth in Australia. An expanded range and price reductions could well be the shot in the arm the Italian brand needs.

This is a niche car for those who want the charms of a pint-size car with ample personality, but don't want to forgo performance.

What matters most

The good stuff: Head-turning styling, great fun in the corners, brilliant steering wheel, easy to park.

What we'd like to see: Cruise control, less cabin plastics, more storage spaces.

Warranty and servicing: Three years/150,000km, which includes roadside assist. Service intervals are 30,000km or every 12 months.

VITAL STATISTICS
Model: Abarth 500 Esseesse.
Details: Three-door four-seat performance hatchback.
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 118kW @ 5500rpm and peak torque of 230Nm @ 2750rpm in Sport mode (201Nm in normal).
Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Consumption: 6.5 litres/100km (combined average).
CO2: 155g/km.
Performance: 0-100kmh in 7.4 seconds; top speed 211kmh.
Bottom line: $34,990.

The slick and sporty Abarth 500 steering wheel.
The slick and sporty Abarth 500 steering wheel.


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