The first successful small car from Fiat was the Dante Giacosa-designed 500 Toppolino, launched back in 1937. Named after the Italian word for "mouse", the first Fiat 500 sold over half a million cars until 1955, when it was replaced by the more modern, post-war 600.
After only a couple of years, the 600 spawned another return of the 500 nameplate, the so-called Fiat Nuova 500. Also designed by Dante Giacosa, the Nuova 500 became one of Fiat's biggest sellers of all time between 1957 and 1975. Transforming from an inexpensive and simple city car into a cultural icon like the original Mini, the Citroen 2CV or the Volkswagen Beetle, the original 500 raised an entire army of fans.
In the meantime, a Turinese racing car maker founded by the Austro-Italian automotive legend Carlo (Karl) Abarth and Armando Scagliarini was just beginning to make a name for itself. Among other racing and street projects, one of their more spectacular cars were the Abarth-tuned Fiat 500s and later the Autobianchi A112.
Their close ties with the Italian company got the street tuning division to get bought by the Fiat Group on July 31, 1971. Sadly, in just a couple of decades since this happened, the Abarth nameplate began to disappear from view, being slowly buried by Fiat until it completely vanished.
Years passed and a retro revolution began to appear among car manufacturers, with models like the VW New Beetle, the new MINI, the Ford Mustang and others offering a blend of modern technology and an old-school design. Fiat couldn't let this one pass and started work on a retro model of their own.
Previewed by the Fiat Trepiuno Concept from the 2004 Geneva Auto Show, 2007 saw the revival of the Nuova 500 in the Fiat line-up. With a spectacular launch and a waiting list rivaling exotic cars, the latest 500 took the automotive world by storm with its retro design motifs and extensive personalization options.
Abut two years later, another Fiat brilliant idea was to also revive the Abarth nameplate. The first models to receive the "Scorpion touch" where the Grande Punto and the little 500, who also received a more hardcore, SS (Esseesse) variant.
We couldn't let the opportunity to experiment one of the little buggers pass us so we took an Abarth 500 for a test drive. We should probably also mention the fact that Lady Luck smiled upon us and we first got to have a short city driving stint in the esse esse model before jumping in its smaller brother. Read on to check out our opinions about the little retro city racer.
Heavily based on the 2004 Trepiuno Concept, the new Fiat 500, and Abarth 500 consequently, are using so many 1960s design cues that from the distance you might even confuse it with the original Fiat "Bambina".
The Trepiuno and its production counterpart were both designed at the Centro Stile Fiat in Turin, under the supervision of none other than Frank Stephenson, the guy who also penned the original 2001 MINI while working for BMW. The retro motifs all around the car are so well thought-out that even its general proportions are almost identical to the original.
Of course, this having suffered the sting of the "Abarth scorpion", every retro and/or cute design detail is complemented by a sporty one. The first thing that caught our attention was the severe lack of Fiat badges everywhere on the car. Believe it or not, the only Fiat logos we could find on our test car where on the windshield wipers and in the trunk. Everything else was stamped with a Scorpion badge or some other form of the logo, including the not-so-commonly seen rear muffler.
Although for some people they might have looked a bit overdone, the front air vents in the front fenders are actually not just for looks, but fully functional. They actually help bring fresh air to an oil cooler and a small intercooler for the petite turbocharger.
As we mentioned earlier, the front is using the latest iteration of the Abarth scorpion logo instead of a Fiat one, and the car is missing an engine grille at first sight. On second look, however, the lower part of the front bumper is home to a rather huge opening for the radiator and other bits that need cooling in the car's engine compartment.
Our test car was also adorned with a collection of red stickers, including a checkered flag-looking one on the roof. Along with the Abarth badges, the 16-inch multi-spoke alloys, aerodynamically modified front and rear bumpers, the four extra air vents, a small spoiler and a rear aerodynamic diffuser, the stickers really transform the cute Fiat 500 into a monster that looks track ready. OK, a little monster that you want to hug before going to the track with it.
At the rear, the two exhaust vents on each side of the semi-faux aerodynamic diffuser are probably the best details to inform the guy behind you this isn't exactly a Barbie car. All in all, even if you're not a fan of adorable little bubble cars, the Abarth version of the Fiat 500 really did wonders with the car's more... effeminate look. We love the result.
Getting in the Abarth 500, you are first greeted by a sporty, three-spoke steering wheel and a pair of supportive front seats which look like they came off a toy car. The steering wheel is engulfed in leather, with its center hub being complemented by a rather large Abarth logo.
The best looking bit about the dashboard is probably the center rev meter, which right sits inside the tachometer dial. Left from the dashboard is a turbocharger pressure gauge which also houses a rather annoying "shift" indicator. Thankfully, the shift indicator only works when the "Sport" button isn't pressed.
Just like in any other Fiat 500, the center console is part Panda part 500, with more than a couple of details distinguishing the two. In the Abarth version there are two extra buttons though. The aforementioned "Sport" one - which increases the engine torque, makes the steering more direct and increases the accelerator response – and one for the "Torque Transfer Control" function, which is a virtual limited slip differential for those hard corners.
A trio of sports pedals are also part of the Abarth version, while the funny-looking gear shifter is covered in leather. Apart from everything mentioned, the most surprising Abarth addition to the interior are the front seats. Pretty sporty-looking with those red stitches and a red stripe down the middle, our main quarrel with them was the rather low side-bolster support and the fact that they can prove to be a bit uncomfortable on longer trips.
As in any other Fiat 500, the rear bench is a bit cramped for two adults, therefore we would suggest to fit three or four persons inside only for shorter drives. The luggage compartment is just right for this segment, with 185 liters (6.5 cubic feet) of volume with the rear bench in its normal position.
All in all, the interior of the Abarth 500 is a very nice (and cozy) place to sit in, especially while putting the TTC system and those 135 horsepower to good use on some serpentine road. The retro bits from the regular 500 are all there, while the sporty additions complement them just fine.
Even though the Abarth 500 looks and almost feels race-ready, we weren't expecting any problems arising from this during our city driving stint. Turns out we were quite right on this subject. The overall petite size of the car in both length and width makes fitting between cars in a parking lot a breeze.
Also, the overall visibility is better than average since you sit in a rather high position ofr such a small car, while the rear view mirrors are decently sized. Okay, so parking is easy, visibility is great, what about the rest? Well, despite being such a good contender for a city car, the Abarth has is downsides as well.
The biggest gripe we had with it was a surprisingly big turning radius, especially for a car about half the size of a regular sedan. We don't have any official numbers concerning this fact for the Abarth version, but it sure looked to be quite a bit bigger than the 9.3 meters (30.5 feet) required for the regular Fiat 500.
As far as the fuel consumption goes, we were surprised to find out it wasn't that different from the official numbers. Fiat states it should use 8.5 liters per 100 kilometers (US 27.7 mpg). We achieved between 9.1 and 12 liters per 100 kilometers (between US 25.8 mpg and 19.6 mpg), which obviously is depending on the traffic conditions and the weight of your right foot.
Another slight quarrel was the fact that the front bumper sits mighty close to the ground, therefore the ground clearance is just a tad higher than that of a Ferrari. In other words, you should be more careful when parking head on towards a curb or when tackling "sleeping policemen".
Other than that, the 500 feels like it was made for strolling around town in second gear, leaving first from traffic lights and other such types of "hooning". It can also be used just like any other minicar, for doing short errands or shopping without even a single fuss about it. Almost like having two small cars in one. A regular one and its evil twin brother in a single package.
To better appreciate what kind of sensations you can experiment in the little Abarth 500 you're pretty much obligated to drive it like you stole it on the open road. This is where the Italian scorpion can really do some sting damage. We're not talking about quarter mile runs or high speed cruising on the highway, since the Abarth 500 doesn't impress that much with these types of numbers.
For example, the naught to 100 km/h (62 mph) time takes 7.9 seconds, which is a bit far from hardcore sports car territory, while the 205 km/h (127.4 mph) top speed is in the same ballpark as an average econobox. Trust us, if we were to only "test" this car by looking at its spec sheet we would have been as disappointed as you probably are reading this. Thankfully, we also got experiment testing the way the car handles in real life. It's sublime, to put it simply.
The 1.4-liter turbocharged engine might seem a bit puny for the average V8 petrolhead, but when learning it only has to pull a little over 900 kilograms, all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. This is not your average cute, super sixteen present on wheels, but a regular pocket rocket. The exhaust sound is more punk-rock than the death metal/grindcore soundtrack we experienced in the Abarth 500 Essesse, but it's still music for the ears.
The steering is a bit soft, just like in almost any other post-2000 Fiat, but once you press the Sport button it becomes much better. Speaking of the "Sport" button, apart from making the electric-steering effort a bit stiffer, it also adds 20 Nm more of torque via a a preset ECU
programming, while also delivering a much better throttle response. Just like the DNA system present on the Alfa MiTo we tested last year, you can really feel the difference between normal and sport mode, transforming the driving experience to something like having two cars in one.
In other words, to actually have fun on the twisties with an Abarth 500 you need just a few things, the TTC (Torque Transfer Control) on, the "Sport" button pressed and a nice and firm grasp of the Abarth steering wheel. The fun is just seconds away and may last until either your tooshie goes numb or the fuel tank depletes. By the way, during our "dynamic driving" stint on a couple of mountain roads, the fuel consumption was around 15 liters per 100 kilometers (US 15.7 mpg), which was about the maximum we could get with this car.
Apart from the aforementioned part, during which we were extracting just about everything we could from the little pocket-rocket, the Abarth used between 5 and 6 liters per 100 kilometers (US 39.2-47 mpg) via more reasonable driving. On the whole, this is how the little "scorpion" 500 should be experienced. It passed every test we threw at it with flying colors, whether it was serpentine roads and adrenaline-filled driving or long distance fuel economy.