"The Abarth 500 is one of the most eye-catching small cars on the road, and thanks to sharp handling and an eager engine, it has the drive to match."
When Fiat relaunched its Abarth tuning and performance arm in 2007 it started with just one model - a tuned version of the Fiat Punto hatchback. However, only a few cars were sold, and it was only after it gave the Fiat 500 a fiery makeover that the distinctive brand - whose iconic scorpion badges adorn the bonnet - started to become a real success. An Esseesse version, which added even more power, plus bigger wheels, tougher suspension and stronger brakes arrived shortly after the initial launch, and there's also now a cabriolet version.
In standard trim the Abarth uses a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 135bhp. It's a strong performer, completing the benchmark 0-62mph sprint in under eight seconds. It only has a five-speed gearbox, but because the power is available even at low revs, there's no need to keep shifting gears. A tuned exhaust adds to the sense of excitement, and its upgraded suspension and direct steering make it handle beautifully, turning in eagerly, with little body roll. The Essesse kit takes power up to 160bhp, and gives the Abarth 500 a top speed of 131mph.
Because the Abarth 500 uses a totally different suspension setup to the standard car, the ride is extremely firm, which is the price you pay for the grippy handling. It crashes over bumps and potholes, and means the 500 is wearing to drive over long distances. Rear passengers will find space a squeeze, but thanks to special sports seats it's quite comfortable up front, although tyre and engine noise both mean this isn't a suitable car for long-distance trips.
Although small Fiats have a reputation for questionable reliability in the past, there have been no major faults reported on the 500, which uses all the same mechanical parts as the Abarth. Build quality inside is also high, with expensive materials like leather and aluminium used in abundance. Performance cars like this do require more maintenance than most, but there's a dedicated Abarth dealer network on hand to help solve any serious issues as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The 500's 185 litre boot puts it slightly ahead of the MINI hatchback, but that's still only enough room for a few shopping bags. Folding rear seats improve this situation slightly, but are only available as optional extras. Thanks to its compact dimensions, the Abarth is easy to park and manoeuvre, but bigger wheels and heavier steering make things slightly trickier than with your average city car.
Value for money
Prices for the Abarth 500 start in the region of £15,000 - and because of the limited number available, you're unlikely to get any discount. What's more, the bigger, more powerful Abarth Punto is cheaper, which highlights how the company is exploiting the desirability of the smaller model. Add the Essesse pack and that rises to around £17,000 - which is quite a lot for such a small car, when the talented Renaultsport Twingo can be had for much less. There's plenty of standard equipment to make up for that - but all the exterior styling - stickers, decals, chrome etc... is extra, which could push the price dangerously close to £20k.
The 500 still manages to return decent fuel economy despite its fiery performance, getting over 50mpg on the combined cycle. Residual values are also very strong, meaning you should get most of your money back when the time comes to sell it. Servicing is reasonable too, so despite the high on the road price, the 500 is certainly a cheap thrill.