FIAT did a great job of resurrecting the iconic 500 – which has just undergone a rejuvenating facelift – and it gets even better once it has been through the dark arts practiced inside the Abarth shed behind the factory. The Abarth 500 Custom may be the same shape, albeit more aggressive in style and stance, but the regular strength motor has been ripped out and replaced by a 135hp 1.4L turbo with more steroids than a dodgy athlete; it makes all the difference.
The basic 500 sits firmly in the city car sector and is refreshingly different from the herd. It has been well established now that your average city car is far more capable than the name suggests and the same goes here. The Abarth maintains the same proportions and the front seats – decked out in a less-than-subtle red leather (optional) are very comfortable. The problem is the back passenger space in that it’s pretty cramped. Kids are fine, but adults will struggle. I tried it and had to have drivers seat so far forward to get some knee room that driving would have been impossible. On the plus side, the boot is quite generous for such a diminutive motor.
The overall ambience of the Abarth’s interior is bright and attractive with the bulk of the dash painted body colour with large, clear buttons plus the usual collection of tech, USB etc, plus the Blue&Me Bluetooth system. No navigation, but that’s not essential. The steering wheel is a highlight and has rake adjustment but, alas, there’s no reach adjustment. With the seat well back to suit my legs I really could have done with the wheel closer in to avoid that butch ‘straight arm racing driver’ look. Come on Abarth – it will make all the difference for taller drivers.
On start-up the Abarth 500 Custom growls like Gaston the ladybird (Ben & Holly. It’s not just for children you know) and climbing into the red leather seats you realise that this car means business. There’s a supplementary cowled turbo boost gauge on the dashboard top which illuminates the legend ‘Sport’ when that mode is selected to deliver even more responsiveness during acceleration plus an increase in drive torque for more precise steering. The large circular dashboard readout changes too when Sport mode is on or off. This is a nice feature because it offers up a green eco-driving option to help improve on mpg. Officially, you should get 43.5 miles for your gallon but the reality is nearer 37, although that’s not at all bad considering this car is more hot hatch than rabbit hutch.
That’s the point. It’s an Abarth; that means it is all about driving pleasure and that’s available by the bucket load. This pocket rocket gets up to 62mph in under eight seconds and delivers a soundtrack to prove it. The suspension is very firm and on our ruined roads there’s a tendency at speed for the car to bob about like a cork in a rough sea. The trouble is – it’s fun!
This nimble little car cuts through the B roads of Britain with aplomb with crisp gear shifts via the five-speed ‘box. In Sport mode the steering weights up a treat. It seems a bit artificial but is so much better than the current trend for overly light steering with no feel at all. The standard ESC system – with EBD, ABS and ASR – anti slip regulation – to aid grip on slippery surfaces plus hillholder all add up to real handling prowess. The additional TTC button further improves transfer of torque to the wheels for safer sporty driving especially when cornering, to counter understeer. I enjoyed driving it hugely.
But is it practical? Well, yes and no. It is so small that parking is a doddle and, as mentioned, the boot will swallow the weekly shop or a large weekend bag. The front seats are comfortable and two little ones will be happy in the back; so far so good. What’s not so great is the noise. When you’re up for some sporting action then fine, the rorty racket is all part of the experience but even with Sport mode off you can’t get away from that warbling tuned engine and, on a longer trip – as I found on a run out to Oxford – it gets a bit wearing, even when driving like a closet clergyman.
So more scorpion sinner than ladybird saint then. On the plus side, it is a different choice with cheeky Italian styling, decent build quality and a genuinely sporting drive but it isn’t as practical or as frugal as a regular city car. The other downside is price. As you can see from the full specification below the basic price of this car is nearly £15k. Add in the fitted options and the bill is pushing on past £17,000. You can get some crossovers for that money. But then of course, very few of them come with Abarth driving joy built-in.