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Reader: Falling for retro chic

2013-08-19 07:46

Robert Daniels

FOR GIRLS ONLY? Wheels24 reader Robert Daniels says the Abarth Fiat 500c is a great little car - if you're a woman. He says burly men should steer clear of the drop-top model to keep their cool points. Image: ROBERT DANIELS

Abarth 500 is to Fiat what Cooper S is to Mini but in a smaller package. They are essentially on their own playing field because, convincing as they are at going really fast, there are faster, more practical and better hot-hatches out there for less money - think Ford’s Fiesta ST and VW’s Polo GTi.

Fiat markets Abarth as a separate brand but, like the normal 500 boutique hatch, it also rides on the Fiat Panda platform. Abarths are produced in Italy while the lesser and more affordable 500 comes from Poland. I think they’re just being silly.


Because Mini and Abarth are considered premium labels they also have high power-to-price ratios and things just become impractical once you factor in the size of these two compared to more affordable non-premium counterparts.

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I wouldn't mind paying the premium for the interiors found on these cars, though, and the focus of this test, the Abarth 500c I was loaned had a sumptuous red leather interior and bucket seats and a cream dash inlay. All very classy and retro chic against the less-inspired cabins of the Fiesta and Polo.

Let’s look past the brand snobbery and labels, though, and one is left with a pretty decent little hot hatch ready for action.

Dainty as it is, the Abarth 500c with its giant fabric Targa-type roof is a real hoot in the tight, twisty stuff. Those 17” petal-design wheels and thoroughly tuned sport suspension is the stuff of legend in tight corners and the giant ventilated and perforated brakes are amazing!

The 1.4-litre, quad-valve turbo engine produces about 100kW but they feel like far more in this small, light car; 0-100km/h takes eight seconds but with the windows and that funny roof down it reminds me of karting and really made me feel like a kid again. It drew more stares than some much bigger high-performance cars I’ve driven simply because it is completely unlike anything else on the road.

The wheelbase being short and the car being narrow and high does hamper weight distribution and the way the car reacts to more demanding physics. It’s a lot of fun to drive but, unlike the Mini, wasn’t created to be a sporty hatch. The 500’s Panda roots make themselves felt when you push too hard and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was sitting too high.


The 500 does however trump the Mini when we start talking real-world comfort and daily life in the car. Many Mini owners won’t mention this but the Mini is very firmly sprung. The suspension is uncomfortably hard and you sit quite low. This is great for handling but not exactly comfortable or easy to live with.

The Abarth is a Gomma Gomma couch by comparison, something anyone could easily enjoy every day, and most sales of standard 500's are to woman, but Fiat is aiming at the gents with Abarth. Everything is there: high-performance exhaust note, turbo whistle, edgy handling and over-the-top looks, so it won’t leave you wanting for anything, but I simply don’t see males driving this car.

I live near a Fiat dealer so I see 500’s all over the place, but never with a man at the wheel. Who knows, the Abarth might change that especially with the cost of fuel these days and the fact that people are scaling down to survive the economic climate. Fiat really is great at building small cars so why not give it a chance and put an Abarth on your wheels shopping list?


At R274 000 the Abarth 500c, as Fiat insists we call it, is not exactly cheap, but most everything is standard: you get a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating which means seven air bags, active and passive driving aids such as anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic brake pressure distribution. It uses less than eight litres/100 if you drive modestly and it really made me ask myself why so many people drive a Mini which, at R341 470, is a whopping R70 000 pricier.

Guys, I suggest you keep away from the convertible because it just doesn't look very manly. I don’t care how many decals they add or how big they make those wheels. The convertible top just ruins any sense of masculinity.

I say go for the Abarth 500 hard top and use the R25 000 you save towards the Esseesse performance package and even bigger wheels! It’s fun, fast, comfortable, safe and will turn heads. It tells people you like performance but you don’t take yourself too seriously, and don’t we all need to lighten up a little?

I loved it and I think it could be a huge success if more people gave it a chance. The Abarth 500 wins among the boutique performance hatches in my book. Yes, the Mini is faster, handles better and might look a bit better, but I loved the little Italian underdog too much to let the Mini take this one.
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