500 Abarth

The best value hot hatch you can buy!

Overall Auto Express Rating

5.0 out of 5

Fiat’s Abarth sub-brand was relaunched 16 months ago – and this reworked 500 could well be the model that puts it on the map. The styling extras add real purpose and character to the standard model’s cute looks, while the revvy engine and TTC system ensure it’s as good to drive as it is to look at. If the suspension can cope with the worst our roads can throw at it, this car will be a winner.

It’s small, it’s fast and it’s a hot tip to be a huge hit in the hot hatch stakes. Fiat’s tuning arm, Abarth, has turned the 500 from cute to mean machine – and Auto Express is first to discover what makes it tick!

As you can see, the newcomer looks super-quick before you even start it up. A redesigned front bumper juts forward and provides extra cooling air to the uprated front brakes. Crucially, though, it shrouds an intercooler for the 135bhp 1.4 turbo, too.

Along each flank, the sills have been extended, and the flared arches are crammed with 16-inch alloys as standard or 17-inch versions on our model. The suspension has been lowered to improve the car’s agility through corners.

At the rear are twin exhausts, an eye-catching wing and a new diffuser. There won’t be as much scope for personalisation on the Abarth as on the standard Fiat, and the car will be available in only four colours: white, grey, black and red. The interior gets a neat new boost gauge for the turbo. This incorporates a shift light which shows the optimum time to change gear for economy, or for maximum speed when in sport mode. Racing pretensions are confirmed by the chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel and retro-inspired leather seats.

In addition, the Abarth benefits from a Torque Transfer Control (TTC) system linked to the ESP stability package. This uses the front brakes to prevent wheelspin and maximise traction out of tight bends. However, it does so without cutting the engine’s power, so ensuring maximum speed is maintained.

Manoeuvring is easy as all the controls remain light, which will ensure the 500’s reputation as a great city car is upheld. But those wider wheels and tyres do compromise the turning circle somewhat.

Select sport mode by pressing a button on the dash, and the steering weight is artificially increased. Also, the engine is switched to a higher-performance set-up which liberates more torque. The motor pulls strongly, so we have no doubt the car will match Fiat’s claimed 0-62mph sprint time of 7.9 seconds.

It’s the handling that really impresses, though, with the stiff suspension, wide tyres and TTC system combining to make the Abarth extremely satisfying to drive at speed. Admittedly, the car does slip into understeer once its limits are breached. But given that this 500 is targeted at young buyers with minimal experience behind the wheel, that’s no bad thing. It’s well balanced and very stable, too, and will be a great first step on the performance car ladder.

In fact, the only major concern is that the excellent on-track dynamics come at the expense of ride comfort. The lightweight Abarth’s charms could be tarnished as it’s thrown around on scarred UK roads, thanks to its stiff suspension.

When the 500 arrives here in early 2009, it will cost around £13,500 – and Fiat should have no problem selling its annual allocation of 1,500 cars. The Abarth will be joined by an even more extreme 160bhp esseesse (SS) version, ensuring the newcomer’s success.

Rival: Renaultsport Twingo 133 another pocket rocket, the Twingo features a 133bhp non-turbocharged 1.6-litre engine and a fine chassis. It’s due in September – and at £11,500, it will be cheaper than the 500.

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