Abarth 500 vs MINI JCW

Italian baby looks great value in battle of the trend-setters

In the current economic climate, there’s nothing more fashionable than downsizing. But can performance car fans save money without cramping their style?

The MINI John Cooper Works is a prime example. Our current pocket rocket favourite combines a premium image and great driving dynamics with low running costs.  Listed at £20,980, the MINI delivers giant-killing performance that leaves more expensive hot hatches and coupés trailing. Strong residuals and a great value servicing package add to the appeal. But is it possible to get similar performance thrills for even less?

Fiat certainly thinks so. Take one look at the £16,100 Abarth 500 Esseesse and it would be fair to say it has even greater visual impact than the JCW. A deep front bumper with a huge chin spoiler, gunmetal alloy wheels and large twin exhausts give the car an extrovert appearance. The bold graphics seen on our model are extra, but even without them the Italian makes the MINI look understated.

Apart from its chunky three-spoke steering wheel and 0-160mph speedo, the JCW’s cabin could be lifted out of an entry-level MINI One, although it is well built and has a perfect driving position. Settle into the Abarth’s heavily bolstered, high-backed seat, and the body-coloured dash is pure 500. But it goes much further. There’s lots of vibrant red trim, plus a turbo boost gauge, gearshift light and race-inspired flat- bottomed steering wheel.

The Fiat is a better luggage carrier, too, offering 185 litres of boot space – that’s 25 litres greater than in the MINI. At 160bhp, the Abarth’s 1.4-litre engine can’t get close to the 208bhp delivered by the JCW’s 1.6-litre unit. The MINI manages a 0-62mph time of 6.2 seconds – leaving the Abarth trailing by 1.2 seconds.

Yet on the road, the two are more closely matched. At low to medium revs, the 500 is feisty, and it’s only when you push harder that the JCW’s power advantage helps it stretch ahead. A six-speed box – the Fiat has five ratios – makes the MINI a more relaxing cruiser, too. Seek out your favourite back road, and the Brit still has the upper hand. Its sharp steering and short wheelbase combine to provide incredible agility. Coming out of tight bends, the electronic limited-slip differential kicks in, while strong brakes provide confident stopping.

The 500 can’t quite match the engaging nature, sophistication and finesse of its rival, but it’s still great fun. On top of the sporty visual additions, Esseesse trim includes stiffer springs, larger cross-drilled brakes and 17-inch wheels. For keen drivers, the Sport button sharpens throttle response and increases the weighting of the electrically assisted steering. The Italian car’s main downside is its rock-hard ride. Negotiating potholes and speed bumps is a jarring experience, while hitting sharp ridges at speed can just about catapult you out of your seat!

When it comes to running costs, our contenders make similar demands on your bank balance. Both should return more than 40mpg at the pumps, while the Abarth emits 155g/km of CO2 – that’s 10g/km less than its British rival. The 500 has more generous standard kit, too. If you want your MINI to have the same specification, then you’ll need to select front foglights, Bluetooth phone connection, multifunction steering wheel and a trip computer from the extras list. Ticking the boxes for these cost options would see the price of the JCW rise to more than £22,000.

Even for that money, the MINI JCW remains one of the finest performance cars you can buy. However, if stand-out style is your top priority, the Abarth enables you to get the urban cool hot hatch look for quite a bit less. Anybody who invests in an Abarth won’t end up feeling short-changed.

Verdict

Even after facing the considerable charms of the Abarth 500, the MINI JCW is still our current hot hatch champion. With a punchy turbocharged engine and agile chassis, its driving thrills are unrivalled at virtually any price. Yet the 500 does provide JCW style for less. If anything, the Italian looks even sportier, and wears a badge that arguably carries more kudos. Straight-line performance is nearly as strong, and there’s no denying the Esseesse’s fun factor. What it lacks in terms of handling finesse it compensates for with cheeky character. The 500 can’t match the MINI’s driver involvement, but for a saving of £4,880 that’s a sacrifice many owners will be willing to make.

Look for Less Success?

Yes

Details

WHY: If any model can match the appeal of the MINI JCW, it’s the Abarth 500 Esseesse.

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