Track time – Abarth 500 esseesse

I’ve gotta admit, I was a little apprehensive when I first heard the news that Fiat were building a new 500. The old 500 is an icon of motoring, an icon of Italy and an icon of all things fun and lighthearted. In this day of crash safety regulation, emission regulation, mass production and the growing size of cars, how could Fiat possibly do the badge justice? The news worsened when Fiat announced that the new 500 would have an engine mounted at the front, driving the front wheels.

Like the rest of the motoring world, I was genuinely surprised when I saw the first pictures of the new 500. It was a thoughrougly contemporary design, it was small, it was light and it was affordable. It was unmistakeably a Fiat 500. And from the first test drives, word came through that it was also genuinely good fun to drive. It gave the driver a feeling of ‘con brio’, just like the original did. What we had here wasn’t a retro modern car, it was the new Fiat 500.

The 500 Abarth takes it a step further, drawing its inspiration directly from the old Abarth 695 race cars of the 50’s and 60’s. The bulbous front nose has been subtley incorporated into the front spoiler, the multispoke Abarth branded wheels look similar to the old race wheels, and I can just see how the slightly forward leaning rear bumper echoes the famous propped-open engine cover of the 695. And the race theme continues inside – the seats have harness slots, a large tacho takes centre stage of the instrument binnacle and a dash mounted boost gauge incorporates a shift light which flashes bright red when the redline has been reached. The available colour schemes (yes, actual colour schemes) pay homage to the famous Abarth race liveries of the past – black or white with red striping and mirrors.

The Abarth 500 really is a completely different car than the regular 500. The thoroughness of the changes are so great that it is impossible to find a badge, marking or reference to Fiat anywhere on the car – even the sundry small plastic parts are coded as Abarth. The wheels barely cover the large, two piston Abarth callipers (painted red, of course), and the entire suspension package is lower and firmer. It has a new sports exhaust that has a beautiful note and various bits of extra strengthening to the chassis. The mechanical package is significantly changed from the regular 500 too – the Abarth in EsseEsse spec (pronounced “essay essay”, it’s the top range model and the only Abarth model offered in Australia) is powered by a 1400cc turbo charged petrol engine producing 160hp and an astounding 230nm of torque. But you don’t really need huge horsepower ratings, because the impressive thing is that this entire package weighs just 950kg!

Through a combination of being in the right place at the right time and sheer dumb luck, I drove the Abarth 500 at Winton Raceway in Victoria. Getting into the car and sitting behind the wheel, there’s no hiding the Abarth’s city car roots – despite the racing paraphernalia scattered around the interior, the driving position is tall and upright. But the extremely thick rimmed, Abarth branded leather trimmed sports steering wheel feels fantastic. The stubby manual shift leaver sprouts from the dash, and selecting first quickly reveals its short and direct action. It’s like discovering that an obese friend is actually a brilliant swimmer – the Abarth feels as far removed from a sports car when you just sit in it, but it’s all racecar as soon as you begin to use its controls.

Turning out of the dummy grid and accelerating onto the uphill section of Winton’s club circuit start/finish straight, it becomes readily apparent that the little Abarth gets down and boogies. The Abarth has a tiny little IHI turbo which means there is minimal lag and strong pull the whole way towards the redline. The thick wheel is perfectly suited to track work, and turn in is crisp as you point it toward the apex. Applying the power on exit is addictive; the front wheels scramble for traction out of Winton’s low speed back hairpins as you rocket toward the next braking marker. Understeer is minimal – it will understeer if pushed hard enough, but you’ve gotta remember that a small amount of understeer is actually a desirable feature for a road car, which this still most definitely is. Most road cars are just rubbish on a racetrack, even at moderate speeds, and whilst I wasn’t pushing to a hundred percent the little Abarth was very good at our reasonably spirited pace. I get the feeling that you could turn this into a competent track day warrior without a lot of work. The upright driving position actually feels good at speed, although the seats need a little bit more side bolstering for this type of use.

It’s an easy car to drive at speed. There’s enough power to play with, and the brakes are good enough for light track duties. The handling is ideal to learn a new track in – you can feel the car moving around beneath you, but you can easily contain any under or oversteer with a slight lift of the throttle or turn of the wheel. Essentially it’s a car that seems to shun lap times – that is, after a session on the track you won’t give a damn what your time was because you had so much fun out there it doesn’t matter. As you kick into a corner, initiate just a touch of lift off oversteer, listen to the exhaust crack and pop, and then hear the turbo spool up as you power away, the steering wheel tugging in your hand as the front wheels fight for traction on exit you’ll soon forget about those nerdy tenths whilst being perfectly at ease with what you’re doing. I guess what I’m trying to say is… it’s a proper Fiat.

Now the real kicker for me is the price. The whole 500 range had the potential to be hideously expensive, al la BMW New Mini on launch, however Fiat Australia have worked hard to keep them affordable. The Abarth 500 retails for $34,990 – that may sound like a lot for such a small car, but bear in mind that this is the top of the range Abarth model in Australia, it’s jam packed full of features (both sporting and comfort) and it’s a car you can actually take straight to the track and not be embarrassed with. I can’t think of another new car in this price range that offers half what the Abarth 500 does in terms of pure, unbridled fun. And as far as that’s concerned, it’s a bargain.

Note: I wrote this several weeks ago, and just today pricing was announced for the new Toyota 86. With a starting price of $29,990, the 86 looks set to be a similarly capable and enjoyable car for about the same money. I’ve got an 86 booked once they arrive for an hour or two’s quality time with it on the hills roads – look for my impressions soon.






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