The past year has been Fiat’s year, after a period of time when it was patently not. It seems, with the 500, it has found its mojo again: building stylish, fun, small cars.
And that successful little brew is about to get even more potent with a new hot version of the 500, the Abarth, which will attempt to do for the car what Cooper has done for MINI by offering drivers a host of performance and retro styling upgrades.
For those not up to speed on Italian racing of the 1960s, Abarth was a tuning firm which turned little Fiats into unlikely racing cars.
It then became part of the Fiat conglomerate, where it languished until now, when the Italians, following BMW’s lead with the Cooper brand, finally worked out what to do with it.
So Abarth has taken the cute 500 and given it a turbocharged 1.4-litre T-Jet engine producing 135bhp, while most of the mechanicals on the car have been uprated: a roll bar at the rear, stiffer springs and dampers, Brembo disc brakes all round and ventilated at the front, ride height lowered by around 15mm and bigger, stickier rubber on either funky 16 or 17-inch rims.
And it’s not just the bits that make it go faster that have had the Abarth treatment.
All the Fiat badges have been replaced by that iconic scorpion, while a few more Abarth logos have been added on the rear flanks, door mats and exhaust.
Then there’s the new boggle-eyed front, housing the intercoolers and radiator and looking just like the Abarth 695 racer of the ’60s, deeper side skirts, a large rear spoiler and a new rear bumper with two menacing pipes and a redundant-looking diffuser.
Pricewise, it is likely to cost the same as a MINI Cooper, while offering user-choosers more power and more individuality, too: only 1,500 will be available annually in the UK.
Behind the wheel
Get in and the thick, contoured, leather steering wheel feels just right. You’ve got a turbo pressure gauge with a gearchange light, heavily bolstered but rather high sport seats, leather gearknob and aluminium pedals.
There’s decent performance, too. With 135bhp, it’ll manage 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds and makes a pleasantly buzzy noise. For prospective buyers used to the sedate accelerative charms of arch rival MINI Cooper, it will feel pretty sparky.
The Abarth boys have tamed the sometimes unhinged ride of the Fiat 500, but what they haven’t done is turned this into a roller skate.
It’s fun, but not hardcore, preferring to understeer safely rather than cling on for dear life at higher speeds, while the brakes are superb.
Fiat hit the spot with the 500, and now Abarth has done the same with its version. Fun without being manic, charismatic without being
a desperate pastiche, well-priced and well specced, it’s a car to bring a smile to your face.