It’s taken a bit of time, and a keener pricing strategy, to persuade buyers that the current Fiat 500 is a fun and funky commuter, and not just an automotive fashion accessory with a limited shelf life. And once you’ve driven one, it’s easy to understand why there are more and more of these little Italians on our roads. But not all 500s are created equal… By DEON SCHOEMAN
The Fiat 500 badge is steeped in history. You have to rewind the newsreels all the way back to 1937 to encounter the very first Fiat 500, also affectionately known as the Topolino (or little mouse).
It was an odd-shaped little car, with a slanted nose, bug-eyed headlights and basic seating. Its key selling point was affordability – and because it was cheap, more than half a million were sold during the two decades it was produced.
The Topolino was replaced by the Nuovo 500 in 1957 – a more contemporary, chunkier design, but still barely 3m long, and propelled by a 479cc two-cylinder engine. Think of it as the Smart of the 1950s – a pioneering city car. And yes, it was still affordable.
A half-century later, Fiat revitalised the 500 badge with an all-new car. But this one was larger, heavier, more powerful – and much more expensive. Targeting fashionistas rather than families, the modern-day 500 was a retro-laced pastiche of the original.
Of course, resurrecting old nameplates is nothing new: Volkswagen tried it with the Beetle, with mixed success. BMW’s rejuvenation of the Mini brand, on the other hand, continues to be a runaway success.
So Fiat must have been bullish about the prospects of the New Millennium 500 and, on the whole, sales have been good, if not in all markets. South Africa is a case in point. When the 500 was first launched locally back in 2008, demand was slower than expected, with the car’s ambitious pricing partly to blame.
But over time, the spec levels and price structure have been adapted to better suit local market conditions, and sales have increased commensurately. Today, the little Fiat is a regular on local roads.
But for some, the vanilla 500 simply isn’t smart - or fast - enough. For these more discerning (and well-heeled) buyers, the 500 Abarth is a more tempting prospect. Abarth is to Fiat what M is to BMW and AMG to Mercedes-Benz. In other words, the 500 Abarth is a performance version of the standard model.
As it turns out, even the Abarth comes in a choice of dynamic flavours. If the Abarth is the equivalent of a strong espresso, the Abarth Esseesse is a double Espresso with a dash of grappa.
It’s not difficult to tell a Fiat 500 Abarth apart from the normal bread-and-butter version. The Abarth gets a racy body kit, an extended nose to make space for the more powerful 1400 turbo engine, and a lower stance, thanks to the sports suspension. But to spot the SS version of the Abarth is a lot harder. Visually, it’s only the Esseesse badge that gives the game away.
The Esseesse shares the standard Abarth’s exterior execution, which means it gets bigger wheels shod with fatter, low-profile rubber, a body kit designed to add some muscle to the sweetie-pie design, and the more aggressive pout of that extended front end, complete with a deeper front airdam and additional cooling slots.
The rear apron offers a home to a racy diffuser and a dual set of bazooka exhausts, and a larger, roof-mounted spoiler adds further spunk. The Esseesse badging provides the only obvious visual clue to this Abarth’s special status, although those with an eye for detail may spot the uprated brake discs, and the even lower ride height.
The interior is also more Abarth than Esseesse. You get boldly bolstered bucket seats, a full array of instruments that includes a turbo-boost gauge with integrated shift light, and a long list of standard features.
But there’s nothing here that alerts you to the fact that this is an Esseesse. Sure, the cabin remains inviting, with the emphasis on retro style and a bright and quirky execution. The trim and finishes are decent, and, in comfort and convenience terms, there’s little to complain about.
If anything, those bucket seats feel almost too bulky for the available space, and you end up perched higher than expected. And since this remains a small car (if not as tiny as the Topolino), rear accommodation is compromised, while luggage space is at a premium.
However, the real focus of the Esseesse is on performance, and it all starts under the bonnet.
The engine is still a 1,4-litre turbo-charged unit as employed in the “normal” Abarth, but in Esseesse guise power increases from 99kW to 118kW, and the torque peak jumps from 206 to 230Nm. That’s 19% more power, 12% more torque shove.
The extra urge is essentially achieved via a bolt-on kit that can even be installed up to 10,000km after the initial purchase of a plain-Jane Abarth. Though the basic engine remains the same, the remapped electronics and extra turbo boost account for its elevated performance. Fortunately, the bigger brakes and new suspension bits ensure that the Abarth can cope with the extra muscle.
The 500 Abarth Esseesse is a real little grin machine. It sounds gruff and purposeful, with a snap/crackle/pop exhaust note that is more race car than road commuter. The short wheelbase translates into lively handling, but there’s a surprising amount of grip, while the revised suspension’s Koni dampers ensure that body roll is well contained.
Those Koni shocks are part of a handling package that also includes new, stiffer springs, and a reduced ride height, which is the key to the little Fiat’s surprising composure. The brake discs are larger, and perforated for improved cooling and bite.
In straight-line terms, the Esseesse rockets from rest to 100km/h in a brisk and breezy 7.4sec, while it’s capable of a 211km/h top speed – stats that won’t raise an eyebrow in sports car circles. But in practice, the little Italian always feels quicker than the figures suggest.
The Abarth Esseesse is like no other Fiat 500 out there but, as we all know, special talents come at a special price. Given that a base-model, non-Abarth 500 1.4 costs about R120,000, the R267,000 asking price sounds steep.
But it’s my guess that buyers of this car will care more about its unique personality than its price tag. And in fun-per-rand terms, this flagship Abarth earns enough grins to make the purchase a tempting one. DM
- Engine In-line four-cylinder, 1,368cc, turbo-charged
- Gearbox Five-speed manual
- Power 118kW @ 5,750rpm
- Torque 230Nm @ 3,000rpm
- 0-100 km/h 7.4sec
- Top speed 211km/h
- Fuel consumption 6.5-litresl/100km (combined cycle)
- CO2 emissions 155g/km
- Retail price R267,000