Driven: Abarth 500C

PHer Garlick's 'scorpion'-styled steed was two-tone....
PHer Garlick's 'scorpion'-styled steed was two-tone....
When PH gets its hands on a Ferrari, you can rest-assured the entire team has the date inked into their diaries, and will come up with all manner of good reasons why they should drive it. The same can't always be said for some other models from the Fiat group, and using that to my advantage I managed to steal the keys to the Abarth 500C at the last Sunday Service of 2010. And I kept them in my pocket for the rest of the week. he photographed it twice. he photographed it twice.
I'm a fan of small FWD cars and have good memories of my old JCW MINI Cooper S. The Abarth is a similar proposition, with its image being what most drivers will judge before ever giving it a chance dynamically. This being PH Open Season, the 500 we've blagged is the C version, which means it has the almost pram-like opening roof in a style (not dissimilar to the old BMW Baur cars) giving it an open feel. But to be honest, with so much metal around you it's easy to forget it's open at all... Well, compared to my TVR, and our other Open Season drives at least.

So here's another one, courtesy of Fiat...
So here's another one, courtesy of Fiat...
For reasons known only to Abarth, the C version is only available with the automated 'Competizione' gearbox, which gives you a few buttons where the gearstick would be and paddles on the steering wheel. Leave it in auto and you have a fairly jerky change, but point it down a B-road, press the Sport button for a faster shift (it artificially weights-up the steering too), lift off slightly as you change gear and you'll be laughing out loud as the 1.4 turbo whisks you down the road at an unexpected lick. On a run from London to Goodwood we had a ball, as the turbo motor left us feeling there wasn't anything we couldn't pass safely. If the handling feels a little skittish at times, it is completely predictable and the rasp from the twin exhausts is addictive - especially with the roof open.

...and we'll say no more about it!
...and we'll say no more about it!
There is a compromise to all of this fun though, and that's down to the 'C' conversion. You really can feel the car twist and shake when pushing on, which is a shame as the roof-down experience really adds to the character of the car. So in spite of the buzz of listening to the turbo spinning and the exhaust popping, as a true PHer I suspect you might want to opt for the metal roof. It's worth mentioning at this point that the Abarth C has a slightly softer suspension set up than the hardtop too (to appeal to women drivers apparently...), so the hardtop is certainly the enthusiasts' choice.

The looks may divide opinion, but we reckon it looks the part in the colour combination we tested. OK, so perhaps it's over-styled in places and some of the design touches are at the detriment of functionality; the good looking steering wheel is too thick and doesn't adjust enough, you can't read the combined speedo and rev-counter at a glance, the rear window needs a wiper and you can't ignore the fact that sitting in traffic with the roof-down is a touch embarrassing. (Garlick, you love it... Ed.)

(Although frankly...
(Although frankly...
It's not cheap either, and will set you back over £17,000 as standard. Our car came loaded with options - leather seats, climate control, upgraded hi-fi, two-tone paint and painted 17'' wheels, all pushing the price up further. The 1.4 engine delivers 140bhp which equates to a 0-60 time of 7.8 seconds and a top speed of 127mph, but there is an 'Esseesse' pack available which takes this to 160bhp along with Esseesse badging too.

I really enjoyed this car, but I knew that after a week I would be able to give it back. In reality, if you want the open experience in your 500 you really should choose a lower model with a small engine and buzz around town in style, not noticing the shake and flex.'s probably Riggers' fault.)'s probably Riggers' fault.)
If you want the full Abarth experience however (and I recommend that you do) then save yourself some money and choose the non-C version. You'll appreciate the solidity only a roof can offer, it gives you the auto/ manual choice, you get better suspension and you'll have a fantastic looking driver's car. It might not be quite as fast or polished as its German MINI rival, but isn't that all part of the Italian charm?


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Comments (53) Join the discussion on the forum

  • v12v8 11 Mar 2011

    I kind of agree with Garlick. Great car with shortcomings. But then I haven't owned a car that hasn't had any (no wise cracks please). Overall it is a "cheap" experience (steady Viant - this post is about cars, not birds). I've just ordered a 500C SS. Not a massive fan of the auto box, but the wife is. Plus it has been "tweaked" and I can hear the new Monza box. A compromise. And a very happy one :-)Plus DMS will be tweaking it to about 200bhp...just don't tell the missus.... :-))

  • The Crack Fox 12 Jan 2011

    My Abarth adventure at Applecross here ;

    Fun car, but too bouncy for my liking, rear felt disconnected...

  • Forza_Roma 12 Jan 2011

    j333evo said:
    The engine though is a little beauty. Very eager, lots of low down torque, & feels genuinely quick, but at expense of any high end thrills having done it's best work by 5000rpm. They all make more than Fiat quote from standard, more like 150bhp not 135 going on the ones we've stuck on rolling road. Torque figures are on the button.
    Interesting. Has anyone dyno'd an essesse?

  • j333evo 10 Jan 2011

    MonteV said:
    Thanks for the review, Garlick. What's the steering like? I find the steering to be crucial for the feel of a car such as this. Af for the flex, I had hoped it would be stiff enough as it has less roof cut off than normally for a convertible. You wrote it's got softer springs than the hard top. I've seen using soft springs as a way to cover up chassis flex in convertibles. Didn't seem to help with this one. Too bad.
    The steering in the Abarth 500 is best described as poor. It starts with the way to thick steering wheel which has to many panels in it's construction, this makes the wheel have no sensitivity.

    The rack is quick, 2.5 turns lock to lock, but is the strangest electric rack I've ever driven. It offers weight, but zero feedback, in fact it almost feels like your fighting magnets in that it is initially light, then fights you as it trys to add weight, then centres quickly. You have to rely on the belief the wheels are biting as the steering will not tell you it is.

    I don't like the position or the feel of the gearchange which for me felt like the articulation is wrong, like you are reaching over the top to select the odd gears. It also has no mechanical feel whatsoever, it's precise enough if long in throw, but is light weight and feels like the shaft is made of plastic.

    The seats offer no support as you perch yourself apon them in a sit up and beg position, & rather annoyingly the adjustment handle gets in the way of the handbrake.

    The accelerator pedal is set to high being same height as the brake pedal.

    The engine though is a little beauty. Very eager, lots of low down torque, & feels genuinely quick, but at expense of any high end thrills having done it's best work by 5000rpm. They all make more than Fiat quote from standard, more like 150bhp not 135 going on the ones we've stuck on rolling road. Torque figures are on the button.

    Suspension is unresolved. The rear bump stops allow approx 30mm of travel before bottoming out, if you remove them the rear end becomes much more compliant, though it has that typical oversprung under sampered Fiat approach to set ups. If buying factor in buying new suspension either the Koni FSD dampers approved by Abarth or alternatives like AVO coil over monotube set up. The SS cars with lowered springs & the same bump stops have approx 15mm of travel & can best be described as skittish & harsh.

    It's a great little car thats well made, gives a such a good impression of quality that you miss the fact the dash top is the hardest plastic ive seen in years, unless you inspect it and dont get dazzled by the leather cover binnacle and body coloured dash strip.

    But overall it's this impression of solidity and quality & that stand out little powerplant that mark this car out as brilliant at 7 10ths but unravels for more keen drivers.

  • Hairspray 08 Jan 2011

    I'm bombing around in a hard-top 1.2, and it is great fun around town and surprisingly good on the country lanes around here too. I can imagine the Abarth is a right hoot! smile

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