Ever so often, I drive a car that speaks to me, leaving me with an impression and a definite positive after thought. The original Fiat 500 of the 1950’s and the current model, both pull at the emotional strings of onlookers. Most love the compact dimensions and use the word ‘cute’ with enthusiasm, while others think it’s ridiculous.
The ‘cute’ factor has been replaced with something far more arrogantly cheeky in the Abarth line of 500’s. Though the 500 is unique, it is also rather soft and feminine in standard guise. But the Abarth is the alter ego of the 500. Think of what the ‘M’ badge means for BMW or ‘AMG’ for Mercedes Benz? One word: performance!
The name Abarth, originates with an engineer named Karl Abarth. Back in the day (1949) he collaborated with Fiat, and in 1958 he created the first Fiat Abarth 500. Like then, the current Abarth 500 has revised suspension, engines, gearbox, seats and a host of internal and external cosmetic trim changes over the standard 500 models.
The entry-level manual Abarth on test featured a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, producing 99 kW. The auto version pushes out 104 kW and for an extra R37 000 you could have the “Esseesse” (pronounced SS) pack. It’s the steroid version of the already buff 500 version. The kit literally comes in a wooden crate, elevating the exciting 500 Abarth models to new heights of cool with its cosmetic bling, but more importantly with performance-enhancing fireworks. Power is boosted to 118 kW and can sprint to a top speed of approx. 210 km/h. The entire Abarth range sprints effortlessly to 100 km/h in the 7 sec range.
For reasons greater then the superficial good looks of the Abarth, which are playful yet stylish, retro yet current, I am left with an attachment to the car because of its performance. The engine is zippy, providing enough power to make you smile. The suspension is hard, racing hard, which means your bones chatter over hard bumps. This takes some getting used to in day-to-day driving but with every con comes a pro and the Abarth 500 handles like a Super Model on a ramp. Every corner is a self-discovery of truth or dare, mischief over good behaviour. The Abarth manoeuvres like a roller coaster on rails. Cornering is a playful affair, there is no body roll and with its small wheelbase, this means a go-cart like mirco supercar.
The seats are brilliant, true racing bucket in variety. ‘Bolstering’ is a good word to describe their function, as gravity is no match for the glove in-hand feel they provide your torso. They sit statuesquely in the 500’s interior framed with an array of all the relevant mod cons. Inside is a smarty box of retro meets techno racer. Suffice to say it a vibe!
So the Abarth is a driver’s car! Rarely in life are things perfect, so in the ‘room for improvement section’ the steering feel is wooden, like the feeling of someone tickling the less sensational top of your hand rather then the palm. Anesthetised. The 5-speed gearbox, though mated well to the perky engine feels a soft when changing from gear to gear, I wanted to feel sharper more accurate gear changes like in a performance car. These two drawbacks are pronounced when compared to the playful engine and formula 1 racer suspension set up. It’s like seeing Usain Bolt doing his thing on the track but in tennis sneakers and tracksuit pants. It’s an incomplete picture, one that would slow him down. Just as well he is so damn good, just like the Abarth 500.
The Abarth range is priced from R230 000 to R267 000 and comes with a three-year 100 000 km warranty as well as a five-year / 90 000 km service plan as standard. Pop into the Abarth Performance Centre in Craighall Park with specialised technicians on hand at the dedicated facility for more.
Its competitors are the Mini Cooper, Ford Fiesta, Citroen DS3, and Its cousin the Alfa MiTo. But truly the Fiat Abarth 500 is uniquely memorable with or without is flaws.
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