From the archives: Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse vs Renault Twingo Renaultsport
A throwback to 2009 and a two-car/small power shootout in the Italian Alps
There’s a theory doing the rounds in the Top Gear office. It concerns small, fast, relatively cheap cars, and the fact that we’re starting to appreciate them more than large, very fast, not-at-all-cheap cars. We don’t often do theory, and this one’s not exactly rocket science.
We’re thinking that fast cars are becoming so quick that driving them is simply an exercise in braking. They’re becoming incredible point-and-squirt machines – all you’re doing is tip-toeing round a corner for fear of hedging it, accelerating like a loon to the next corner, brake hard, more tip-toeing. This is great for five minutes – you can’t deny the addiction of accelerating hard in, say, a Mercedes C63 AMG – but it soon gets boring. Especially in the UK, where you can’t find anything other than roads that don’t work – or traffic jamming up the roads that might.
Small cars, on the other hand, haven’t got that excess power, which means that your drive no longer becomes a series of lightning-quick straights followed by careful corners. Thresholds are lower, which means there’s more enjoyment to be had on public roads. There’s more of a challenge to it.
This feature was first published in Issue 187 of Top Gear magazine (2009)
Images: Justin Leighton
And roads don’t come much more demanding than Alpine passes, which is why we’ve come to the mountains north of Turin to test the Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse and Renault Twingo Renaultsport. If nothing else, power and rear-wheel drive is not something I want to be thinking about on these frozen corners. It’s minus eight degrees as we arrive, and cleaning the cars becomes a challenge to dry them before the water freezes.
Neither car is blessed with the catchiest name, but there’s some serious hot-hatch heritage here, and both represent the pinnacle of downsizing. A few years ago, you could only buy a Clio Renaultsport or Fiesta ST, but now car companies are launching hot versions of all the cars that have filled the gap, as Clios and Fiestas get larger with each generation. Which is good news for our theory.
These cars go about hot hatchery in different ways, though. The 500 pulls at the heartstrings and is unashamedly retro – just look at that jutting chin spoiler. Remember the old 500 Abarth? That spoiler is nothing if not a reminder of that. Wander around to the rear, though, and you won’t find the engine cover open. The Twingo is arguably less showy and does with a normally aspirated 1.6-litre engine rather than the 500’s turbocharged 1.4.
Equally, that Renault engine is less tuneable since it hasn’t got a turbo. As such, the Twingo manages 133bhp and 118lb ft, and in ordinary Abarth spec the 500 gets 135bhp and 150lb ft. However, the Esseesse version (a roughly £2,000 tuning pack) boosts power and torque to 160bhp and 170lb ft. The pack also ventilates the brakes and stiffens the springs. The name harks back to the old Abarth, the SS that was launched in the late Fifties.
It won’t come as much of a surprise that the 500 is the quicker of the two. In theory, the gap is 1.3 seconds from 0–62mph, but in practice the margin is larger than this. The Twingo’s lower power levels are handy when it comes to getting out of the snow drifts, but other than that the 1.6-litre Renault engine isn’t strong enough against the Esseesse.
The Top Gear theory might be about low power levels, but there’s a limit to how low you want to go. You certainly need more than there is on offer in the Twingo. Not only does it feel sluggish, there isn’t enough low-down torque and it doesn’t rev easily. The latter is the biggest criticism, because if you’re going to build a naturally aspirated engine, you want it to rev like a Honda. But the 500’s rev counter needle zips round the dial faster.
Both up and down these hills, the 500 is far more fun and needs to be driven hard. Even on the flat autostrada, the Twingo buzzes away like an annoying wasp without the character of the Abarth. The Twingo’s engine simply sounds like a short-geared four-cylinder, with all the inherent NVH criticisms you can level at it as a result. Think Clio Renaultsport 197 without the speed. The 500, on the other hand, burbles away – from the outside, it almost sounds air-cooled. You can’t hear that inside, but it certainly sounds classier and far more sporty than the Twingo. As soon as you turn the key, you’re left in no doubt as to what the 500 is about, but in the Twingo you’ll need to hit a corner at speed to work it out.
From this point of view, they’re closer. The Twingo certainly rides better – the 500 feels bouncy and stiffer. Fiat is looking into a suspension change on the 500 early in 2009, but for now it feels like a slightly better controlled Panda 100HP. It’s more refined than that car, but the Twingo feels more planted on the straights because it doesn’t fidget as much.
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Here’s where the TG theory comes into its own. Up and down this Italian hill, these two cars excel. The straights linking the hairpins are just long enough to start thinking about the next bend, but crucially they become part of the journey, rather than a quick blink link between corners. The brakes are perfectly suited to the cars’ weight, and you don’t feel like you’ll go barrelling into a corner. They’re fantastic fun. There’s enough power on offer for overtaking in the 500 – the Twingo less so – but it’s great to explore the limits of yourself and the car. The Twingo feels like it rolls less through the corners, and you don’t get a slight hopping feeling that you get in the 500. Blame the stiff springs for that. But I still had more fun in the Abarth.
It’s possible to adjust the attitude of both cars on the throttle, but because the 500 is more free-revving it’s easier to do it in that. Both feel seriously well balanced, like they’re pivoting around a central point. Neither feels too nose-heavy. There’s plenty of awareness of what’s going on underneath you.
Only the 500’s steering separates the two dynamically. Not only is the wheel in the Twingo boring to look at (the 500 gets a much chunkier wheel with all the necessary stitching), it also feels too dead compared to that in the 500. The Abarth’s is light at town speeds, but when you go faster, it weights up and has more feel. It just makes the whole car feel more directional. More pointy.
All that power hasn’t riddled it with torque steer either. It’s got a clever electronic differential at the front, so when you plant your foot out of a slow corner, even an uphill hairpin on this route, there’s only a slight tug through the steering wheel. What’s even more impressive is the way the 500 pulls itself straight – it almost feels like a Mitsubishi Evo IX. When you accelerated hard in that car, you could feel all the diffs pulling away to straighten it all up. There’s a similar straightening in the 500, and it tightens its line nicely when you accelerate hard, rather than washing out with understeer.
It’s something that the Twingo is completely lacking in. Not only will it not have the necessary torque to even effect that sort of manoeuvre, I’m not sure it could pull off the trick even if it did. The rest of the car, other than the chassis, simply feels too ordinary. A clever diff would sit at odds with this whole feeling.
It’s all part of an impression of the Twingo. From the moment you step in the 500, it feels special. The fat steering wheel, the impressively sculpted front seats, the turbo-boost gauge, even the chunky handbrake. Little details impress, like the proper scorpion badge on the flanks, rather than a transfer.
You simply don’t get any of that in the Renault. Other than a couple of token bits of decoration on the seats and gearlever, the rest is stock. And the basic Twingo has always been accused of being boring. Hardly a charge you want laying against your hot hatch, but that’s what Renault has built. Just like it took it four attempts to get the Megane Renaultsport working properly, so you can only hope for the Twingo. Yes, it’s cheaper than the Abarth, especially against this SS, but the pricier car is worth it. Renaultsport might have received all the plaudits recently, but the Abarth badge on the 500 is the one to have. Both are perfectly in keeping with our theory, and our trip up the hills proved it. Fun doesn’t require huge power, but it does require character, and the Abarth is the one that delivers.