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Fiat’s ready-for-India 500 Abarth Esseesse looks the business. But does it sting like it should?

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It’s a miracle that India still holds elections. It’s a miracle that India somehow has a government. It’s a miracle that Indians somehow lead lives without always having the threat of a terror attack or a military coup. It’s a miracle that Indian roads and infrastructure don’t always collapse into themselves. India has a lot of madness.

But amidst all that, there is some method that keeps things going. In Ranjangaon, the home of Fiat in India, I could see what makes India tick. I saw it at a tea stall at 9 in the night over a little glass of one cutting. A girl, in her teens or pre-teens, presumably the tea-shop owner’s daughter, was sitting with folded legs on the shop floor in front of a cooking stove. She was stirring the pot of hot tea with her right hand while reading a school book placed on her lap, using a portable emergency light illuminating the pages. She is the epitome of how things work in India. We always make more out of less. And the less we have, the more determined we are to make more of it.

It’s why Fiat made the 500 in 1957. It was a car that had to make the maximum out of the minimum. And it did. It was the Maruti 800, the Beetle, the Mini of Italy. And they resurrected it in 2007. What? No. It’s not the car that will resurrect Fiat in India. If anybody is telling you that, ignore them.

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I have given up on Fiat’s  numerous comebacks in India. I have accepted the fact that it makes very good cars, but somehow can’t convince enough people to buy more of them. If the resurrection has to happen, it may be through the refreshed Punto, or the Avventura coming this year. Not the 500. Or this 500 Abarth.

The good thing with this Scorpion-laden car is that it’s properly tiny. The only thing tinier than an Abarth 500 is an Indian driver’s ability to stay off the horn. It’s so tiny, you’d think you could lift it up to your apartment with a friend holding the other end. It’s not as small as the original 500, but with most modern versions of people’s cars bulking up, the 500 Abarth is likeably small.

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What’s also small is the poke from the engine – 158 horses sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t have the verve and spunk you’d get out of a 181bhp Mini Cooper S. And the cabin ergonomics is traditionally and proudly Italian. Firstly, the seatbelt band is way behind the front seat. Which involves a lot of turning and stretching if you have to get to it. Which was worse for big fat me. Then, the handbrake lever and the seat height adjust are within millimetres of each other to the driver’s left. The car’s cute. What happens if you pull one when you want to pull the other will not be cute. And that’s not it. You have a single-pod, circular instrument console. Inside this, the speedo and tacho are ensconced within each other. The speedo needle is in the outer circle, the tacho needle is inside. Try taking a quick glance at your speed or engine rpm with two needles moving differently within the same circle.

Then, there is this annoying hump on the dashboard where the speedo protrudes out. But that’s not as annoying as the hump from the turbo boost binnacle. It gives you unwanted information like how much turbo boost is in use, and recommends when to change gears. It’s as useful as a bunch of marbles on the walkway of a senior citizen’s home. All it does is come in the way of your frontal vision.

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Vision through the A-pillar and the side windows around corners is great, though. But steering feel around corners is not. Which is surprising from a company that makes the Punto and the Linea. The steering, while great to look at and grip, is light for a car like this. Thankfully, pressing the Sport button drastically improves the feel. Immediately, you can sense the steering putting on some muscle, bone and a few welcome kilos, and much better feel. But that additional heft isn’t necessarily helpful. You see, a car like this should dart around like an intoxicated insect. But the steering seems to be set up more for taking tight U-turns. So the Abarth would be great to take one-stop U-turns in Chandni Chowk or Chor Bazaar. But the steering has too much lock to make it fun around winding roads. Something like a Mini or even a Merc C-Class barely needs to turn the steering wheel around tight corners. In the Abarth, though, you have to dial in more steering inputs for routine bends.

The turning ratio of the steering, more than the steering wheel itself, is what keeps the Abarth from bothering the Mini. The standard Abarth, at 135bhp, is less powerful. And with the Esseesse trim here – pronounced Ess Ess – you can get 158bhp with a slight tweak to the ECU. Power isn’t an issue, though. Would just like some more darting ability in the steering. Ride quality is better than the current Mini’s, as is boot space. I reckon that has a lot to do with the sloping back of the 500, compared to the Mini’s rather straight back. But that sloping back also eats up more headroom than the upright Mini’s.

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The gearbox is a five-speed manual. It’s not overly slick with short throws. But it is precise enough. The 1.4-litre T-Jet engine isn’t a hungry-for-revs, peak rpm monster. It has good low-end torque, but it doesn’t sound as rorty as an engine like this should. Dynamically, the Abarth is competent. But it just doesn’t leave you grinning like you did when you watched your first A-rated movie after you turned 18.

Frankly, I had a rather restricted drive of the Abarth, but in that short time, it came across more as a competent, warm hatch rather than a seat-of-the-pants hot hatch. When it comes to India in a couple of months, prices will be upward of Rs 30 lakh (ex-showroom) with import duty. For that price, you get a great-looking car with great personality. But with this engine, it lacks the go-kart-like dynamics that pocket-rocket cars like the 500 Abarth should have. It’s not mental, it doesn’t behave like it escaped from an asylum. There is some method, but barely any madness.

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So if there is a maximum out of a minimum, the 500 Abarth in this spec, at this price, is still not it. Could Fiat rather follow the Indian way, extract the maximum from the minimum, assemble the 500 Abarth in India, and make it cheaper than a fully-imported Mini? Maybe not because  it won’t do the numbers to justify an assembly facility here.

Or, they could get in a more powerful 595 or 695 Abarth. Or else, it’d be like reading under an emergency light. It’s not impossible to succeed in that condition, but it just adds challenges you’d rather not have.

(Words: Sriram Narayanan, Photos: Rajeev Gaikwad)

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Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse

The numbers
Engine: 1,368cc, 4-cyl, turbo-petrol
Power: 158bhp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 230Nm at 3,000rpm
Transmission: 5M, FWD
Weight: 1,110kg
0-100kph: 7.4sec (claimed)
Top speed: 211kph (claimed)
Price: Rs 30-32 lakh (ex-showroom) est.
Expected: Mid-2014

Pros: Lack of size, looks
Cons: Steering ratio set-up, cabin ergonomics, poke and noise from engine

The verdict
It’s full of cool and attitude on looks, but not as full of cool and attitude on the road

Rating: 7/10

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