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Fiat 500 Abarth

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Abarth 500C
7/10

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Road Test

Fiat 500 Abarth C driven

Driven August 2010

Additional Info

The Abarth 500C is the soft-top version of the little hot hatch we took on last month's Big Stig Hot Hatch Group Test. According to TopGear 's well-codified Laws of Fast Cars, this means it should be a lesser car. Hot hatches, the law goes, are tightly trimmed, pared-down machines of speed. By lobbing the roof off, it follows, you lose some of that vital rigidity and add unnecessary weight. Ergo, lesser hot hatch.

This particular Law of Fast Cars doesn't hold true here. The Abarth 500C is, if anything, even more of a hot hatch than the hard-top. To explain why, pray forgive us a convoluted culinary metaphor. Where most fast hatches - and the Clio RenaultSport 200 is the perfect example here - are nouvelle cuisine creations, delicately balanced and minimalist, the Abarth 500 has always been more of an all-you-can-eat, pan-cuisine buffet.

When creating the Abarth 500, you don't get the feeling that the engineers looked at the standard car and figured out what they could remove, but instead how many performancey bits they'd have to stick on before it turned into a hot hatch ("Hey, Giovanni, do you think we can fit a splitter on those wing mirrors?"). Not delicate, not subtle, but satisfyingly over the top. So, to continue the metaphor, by hacking off the roof, far from ruining the harmony of the hard-top, Abarth has added another helping to the stuff-yer-face buffet that is the 500. A dollop of chocolate mousse atop the already-brimmed plate of salad, meat and potato, if you will.

It helps that removing the 500's roof doesn't result in the same sort of structural deficiencies as you get in, say, the Mini cabrio. Like the standard 500C, the Abarth has a fabric roof that ruches back between the fixed roof rails, meaning better rigidity than with a full folding soft top. Not, in truth, that it's possible to determine what's going on in terms of body stability when you're banking the anvil, as you're ensconced in an almighty maelstrom of wind and exhaust razzle and decidedly enthusiastic handling.

The 500C will run up to 123mph. It gets buffety well before that (buffety in the sense of windy, we mean, not like a buffet, which it is also). That's half the fun. You don't buy a 500C to be cocooned in Mercedes-like isolation from the outside world. The Abarth plonks you right in the middle of the action. With the roof down - back, rather - you get a fat earful of the Abarth's parpy, if pantomime, exhaust chorus and a heady proportion of the local region's wildlife in your hair.

Some hot hatches revel in neutral balance and predictable linearity. The 500C does not. The convertible shares its 133bhp, 1.4-litre turbo engine with the hard-top Abarth 500 - the 157bhp Esseesse upgrade arrives late this year - and its slithery handling. Under hard braking or when cornering hard in the wet, the 500C is amusingly wriggly, pitching around the driver and getting eye-wideningly light at the rear. Engaging the electronic faux-diff does an impressive job of cancelling out understeer, and there's plenty of grip, but the 500C's default mode is definitely boisterous rather than locked down. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn't. No, the 500C may not be an object study in weighted precision - the steering, though true, is short on feedback - but it is mighty good fun, a hot hatch to be wrestled through corners rather than feathered subtly on the limit.

The convertible's suspension is softer than that of the fixed-roof 500. This is because, in the engineers' own words, the 500C is the first Abarth that they expect to appeal to a female audience. (In fact, Abarth seems a little scared at the prospect of Actual Human Women wandering into its dealership, as if they might start furiously applying make-up or discussing shoes.) Misogynistic though the reasoning may be, the softer ride is welcome. We only had a chance to test the 500C on the smooth roads of Fiat's Balocco test facility, but it felt less prone to the traditional crash 'n' spring of hot Fiats of past, perhaps a little more fluent than the Abarth 500. A British test will tell.

Less welcome is Abarth's new ‘Competizione' gearbox, which comes as standard on the 500C. It's a robotised manual affair that Abarth describes as ‘race-inspired', namechecking the Ferrari 599's ‘F1 SuperFast' 'box. It's a similar set-up, an automated manual with no clutch pedal and a pair of paddle shifters mounted on the steering column. It's also a similar set-up to the woeful transmissions on the Smart ForTwo and Honda Jazz i-shift, both of which it more closely resembles in application.

The Competizione 'box deals well with downshifts, matching the revs neatly, but - like the transmissions in the Smart and the Honda Jazz - gets itself into a big ponderous mess on full-bore upshifts. Flick the right paddle as you get near the redline, and there's a lurching, heaving pause as the Abarth changes ratios. You can help things along with a slight lift of the accelerator, but it still isn't what you want from a rorty little city car. The hard-top's manual would be far better here: Abarth is still weighing up whether to offer it as an option on the convertible. Do it, guys. They also promise that the Esseesse upgrade will include a recalibration. Here's hoping that fixes the upshift issue.

A couple of problems that afflict the standard 500 persist here, too: there's still no reach adjustment on the steering, and the seating position is still too high. These can be forgiven on a car costing £10,000, but when you're staring a £17,500 starting price in the chops, become increasingly bothersome.

But the 500C overcomes its flaws through sheer force of personality and a shameless dedication to excess. As you've probably spotted, this is the first 500 you can spec with a two-tone paintjob. Done right, this imbues the little Cinq with a Veyron-lite presence. Done badly - a few of the test cars sported a dubious dark-grey-on-light-grey livery with red highlights - it looks like a half-arsed respray. Spec wisely.

Or, in fact, don't. Embrace Abarth's dedication to excess. Implausible colour schemes, raucous handling, masses of noise and wind, that's what this car is all about. The Abarth 500C's greatest strength is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Sam Philip

Performance: 0-60mph in 8.1secs, max speed 127mph, 33.2mpg
Tech: 1368cc, 4cyl, FWD, 155bhp, 152lb ft, n/a kg, 146g/km CO2

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