BMW teams up with Italian styling gurus at Pininfarina for slick new coupe
500 Abarth review (2008 onwards model)
What – Fiat 500 AbarthWhere – Fiat's Balocco testing facilityPrice – £13,500 (est)Available – early 2009Key rivals – Mini Cooper, Renault Twingo RenaultSport (forthcoming), Renault Clio Cup, Vauxhall Corsa VXR
Abarth is back where it belongs: tuning the Fiat 500. But can this new pocket rocket really live up to the illustrious racing heritage of the past?
Likes: toughened visuals, turbocharging, heritage, fun, safe, economical, great interiorDislikes: wishing it had more power, isn't quite as sharp to drive as it looks, limited UK numbers
Ahh, what an illustrious racing heritage this little scorpion has. Unfortunately you have to look a long way back to find it; Abarth - for that's who the badge belongs to - was most active in the 1950s and 60s, producing its own cars but also modifying and racing others' - most notably the Fiat 500.In many respects, Abarth is to Fiat what Cooper is to Mini. The name disappeared into ignominy for a while but was resurrected just over a year ago, as a wholly owned but independently operating subsidiary of the Italian manufacturer. The first Abarth Fiat, a Grande Punto, arrives in the UK very shortly...
But, as it always was, it is: the excitement surrounding the brand's revival is firmly centred on this car, the Fiat 500 Abarth. The cooking versions of the new Cinquecento, which only launched here in January, have been received brilliantly, picking up accolades everywhere - including a top ten placing amongst MSN's cars of the year.Such an evocatively branded performance range-topper has got to be a hit, right? It certainly looks the absolute business. All the cutesy-ness has been engineered out of it - the Abarth sprouts bespoke bodywork, a spoiler, some tasty badges, and a sweet pair of twin tailpipes. But does it drive as hard as it looks?
Pop the stubby little bonnet and you'll find a crackle plastic engine cover and that arachnid again. The sting (sorry...you knew that was coming, though, right?) is provided by Fiat's excellent 1.4-litre T-Jet turbo engine. 135bhp doesn't exactly sound massive, but it is 35 up on the next more powerful 500.The real benefit to the turbo is extra torque. It kicks out 132lb ft at 2,500rpm, or 152lb ft at 3,000rpm if you've pressed the Sport button (and you would, wouldn't you?), thanks to an overboost function. Pick up is punchy, and it pulls hard right through the rev range.
It isn't going to rip your lungs out through your back, and it is possible to catch the Abarth off-boost if you're lazy with the gearbox. But the exhaust note is a fantastic fruity buzz that's never boomy, and an upshift light helps you wring every last drop of power from the engine.It is infectiously enthusiastic, even as the figures demonstrate it isn't actually that quick by contemporary standards: 0-62mph takes 7.9 seconds, top speed is 127mph. If you do feel an urgent need to go faster, Abarth will be offering upgrade kits to the tune of at least 160bhp. Now that should be really special...
Ride and handling
Abarth chose to launch the car on track at Fiat's Balocco testing facility - which makes sense given the sporting pretensions, the heritage, and because it has every intention of going racing with the 500 again. (You can already order a stripped out "Assetto Corse" 500 with an awesome 200bhp; sadly it isn't road legal.)Two circuits were on offer - tight and tighter - with a pretty comprehensive selection of corner types, including some nasty switchbacks and tricky apexes. We'll give you the bad news first. If you were expecting Abarth to transform the 500 into an absolute go-kart you'll be disappointed.
There are revised springs, dampers, the addition of a rear anti-rollbar, and a ride height drop of 10-15mm. But the 500 is a tall car, and the bodycontrol still isn't firm enough to stop it leaning its way round corners. The steering, brakes and five-speed 'box all lack real cutting-edge precision, too.However, it is very entertaining - especially if you start taking a few liberties and throw it around a bit. The Torque Transfer Control, effectively an electronic limited slip differential, seems a little unnecessary with this amount of power, but may prove its worth on bumpier surfaces. The true test will be British B-roads.
The regular 500's interior can charm the wallet out of most hardened cynics. Sensibly, Abarth hasn't messed about with it very much. The additions are welcome - a boost gauge (incorporating the enormous upshift light), a more deeply cowled instrument binnacle, and some sports seats. Shame these don't hold you in place better.Or sit you lower in the car. But you can't have everything; they look great and remained comfortable all day. The Abarth also includes an Interscope stereo, and a flat-bottomed sports steering wheel. The optional Abarth satnav has a cool telemetry system, but we may not get this in the UK.
Economy and safety
The old 500 Abarth was known as 'small but deadly'. Gladly the deadly part was mostly a reference to its performance. And anyway, the new one packs in seven airbags, has ESP, Anti-Slip Regulation and hill hold control as standard. It also has a five-star Euro NCAP score.The Abarth's environmental credentials are just as impressive. The engine - as with all Fiat 500s - is Euro 5 compliant already, and returns 52.3mpg while emitting a reasonable 155g/km. Abandon the sharper throttle response and heavier steering of Sport mode, and the upshift light also changes from redline warning to economical driving encourager.
The MSN Cars verdict: 4/5
Don't for one minute get us wrong - the Fiat 500 Abarth is an exceptionally cool little car. We love the looks, the badge, the image, the interior, and the engine's extra power. That it also manages to be economical as well as an entertaining performer is a real bonus, too.But we are a tiny bit disappointed that it isn't a sharper drive. Our expectations were high, and it doesn't quite meet them. We can't wait to try it on the road, though, and since only 1,500 are coming here in 2009, at an estimated £13,500, you'll need to act fast if you want one.
Ratings out of five: Fiat 500 AbarthPerformance****Ride & handling****Interior*****Safety*****Price****Practicality***Fuel economy****MSN Cars verdict****
Need to knowPetrol engines1.4 TurboDiesel enginesn/aPower (bhp)135Torque (lb/ft)132/152 in Sport mode0-62 (secs)7.9Top speed (mph)127Combined mpg52.3CO2/tax155 / 19
related stories on msn
Latest Cars videos
MSN Cars' Steve Walker takes the UK's cheapest new car for a test drive to see if it's worth parting only £5,995 for.
Date 23/05/13, Duration 4:17, Views 1400