Abarth is to Fiat 500 what Cooper is to BMW Mini, states Iain Robertson, without a hint of irony, although the tuning firm’s original purpose has been rationalised down to a series of warrantable packs possessing an emotive pitch and an exceptionally colourful and desirable brand badge, which all works with surprising ease.
It is almost too simplistic to attach the expression ‘watered down’ to a marketing proposition designed to ensure brand buoyancy, when it was reintroduced fifteen years ago as something marginally greater than a back street massage. Attaching the Abarth soubriquet and the charismatic black scorpion to the Fiat Punto did breathe life into a tired model line, in the process providing the Fiat marque with a future. Believe me, it IS as important as that.
While Fiat’s revisit to the roadster scene, with its Mazda MX-5 based 124, gained from Abarth parts bin addenda, it is the 500 range that has exercised a broader range of talents, such as powering the equivalent of a pan-European Formula 3 racing programme with Tatuus, while increasingly ‘racier’ road cars have been developed, to keep the consumer chomping at the bit. Face it, access to 180bhp (695 models; 595 manages on 165bhp) is not exactly small potatoes in a chunky wee car the size of the 500. Even the less punchy version will crack the 0-60mph sprint in a modest 7.0s and, if you are concerned about it departing the blacktop, the charismatic, optional Lancia Evo-style tail spoiler can offer a downforce counterbalance.
Much the same for John Cooper, when Carlo Abarth was still alive the number of named and branded tuning accessories was few and far between. If something special were required, they got stuck in (in the workshop), with billets of steel, or alloy, cutting and grinding until the right profile was achieved and the trial and error fitting process could commence. Traditional forms of mechanical engineering created four-pot brake callipers and larger rotors, in much the same manner as holding open the rear engine cover would create the Abarth ultimate engine cooling regime, while deeper oil sump mouldings would also formulate racing details that rivals coveted, which is how a winning name is developed.
It is so much easier today, with Alcantara upholstery, carbon-fibre lightness and off-the-shelf goodies, so much of which can be personalised, overprinted and branded…although, due to the economies of scale, they can be interchanged from one make and model to another. It is all about money. Of course, equipped with thin carbon seats, alloy foot pedals and Sabelt fabric upholstery another illusion can be completed, Koni signature suspension modifications providing enhanced driver control, to make every drive a track day experience. The Abarth driver can get away with it, the car seldom moving off line, even when pushed to its limits, but it is so compact that it makes little difference. The fanciest exhaust system stacks its tailpipes at the rear and uses a switch to sound sane, or to blow off like crazy.
Just remember, this is a four model, multi-trim range of Abarths, which may appear to be overpriced, until you appreciate how few rivals exist. Buying into the line-up demands a modest £21,295, unless you want a fabric roof, for which your pocketbook will be reduced by a further £2,650. There follows an inexorable move upmarket, until you reach the more bespoke of the Abarths, the 695 Competizione, where you will receive £55 change from £30,000. However, tick the specialist options and you might be down by at least another couple of thousand.
Conclusion: The 500, let alone any of the Abarths, has always been off-limits to me, as I possess neither a jockey’s physical profile, nor consider the car to be good value for money. Yet, it has been profitable for Fiat. Finally, on the disability front, a sports folding wheelchair may be slotted into the boot leaving not much space for anything else. Accessibility is good but the shortage of space is a real demerit.