Monday 17 January 2011

Driven #16:- Fiat 500 Abarth

I’m six foot five and there are certain cars I simply cannot fit inside, a Renault Alpine, for example, and a Lotus Exige. Both of these cars have something in common; they were built for enthusiasts. Their drivers would likely put up with a bit of discomfort for the sheer joy of driving. I know I would, I have grazed knees, bumped heads and pulled muscles to savour the experience of a Lotus on a winding road.

Small, naturally fun cars can often be surprisingly spacious. I have met numerous freakishly tall folk who cut their driving teeth in original Minis, a car where literally all the space inside was dedicated to driver and passengers, and where impact safety and bulky comfort enhancements were alien concepts. Not just the Mini, though, this was true of most small cars, including the Fiat 500. The smallest car you could still call a practical everyday proposition.

Developed to mobilize an increasingly aspirational post-war Italian population, the Nouova, or New 500 was inspired partly by the rear-engined layout of the Volkswagen Beetle, but smaller and with something of a Latin flourish to the styling. It was immediately a massive sales success and was just what was needed at such growth times, just as was the case with Britain and the Mini.

There’s been a Nouova Nouova Fiat 500 since 2007, and naturally it has virtually nothing in common with its namesake. It has the same cute little headlamps, the same cute curvy body and even similarly shaped interior switches. They’ve even concealed the air intakes for the front mounted engine to emulate the grille-less nose of the great original. It looks just like the '57 car would after a million pies and simultaneously contracting gigantism and mumps, because the whole festival of retro is draped over the beating heart of a Ford Ka.

We all know this by now, the new Ka isn’t as fun to drive as the old one, yada yada yada. Most of us also know that the Fiat, whilst a little more endearing to steer than the Ford, still isn’t the most bella example of un auto appassionato.

This car, the 500 Abarth, is Fiats answer to this predicament. In recent years the name of the Abarth tuning house has been treated with some disrespect. Formerly the only name in Fiat tuning, and with a long and proud motorsport heritage, the scorpion badge could now be seen smeared liberally along the sides of Fiat Stylos and Bravos. The experts in getting the most out of that ancient flat-twin 500 engine were reduced to being a brand applied to showy bolt-on aftermarket tat.

Fortunately, since the launch of the new 500 Fiat have suddenly awoken and remembered that, since 1971, they’ve owned a fantastic name that they’ve done very little with. Conveniently, this renaissance has coincided with a frenzy of interest in the hot-hatch market. Little, quick cars are big business, and the Abarth is very little and pretty damn nippy.

I was filled with glee, joy and excitement when I heard that I was to spend time with one. Sure enough, when I arrived to collect it my eyes were met by a very pert, very purposeful looking car. Maybe the Abarth badges were a little overdone (I counted fourteen overall, inside and out) but the car hunkered down over its little Campagnola style alloys and gave all the right “tiny but violent” looks. Inside, the seats were nicely figure hugging and there were hints of “drive me faster” everywhere I looked. I was a little mystified, then, when I drove off in what felt just like any other small hatch.

The sports exhaust announces the turbocharged 1.4 litre engine’s intentions from some distance to anybody interested but, at low revs and in town traffic, it really feels no different to a base 500. Or a Ka, come to mention it. But maybe that's a good thing? Maybe around town the last thing you need is a snarling monster ready to tear your face off on your way to Tesco.

Driving around leafy Hammersmith I got so used to all this normalness that, once back on the Great West Road, the fun and games on offer in the rev-counters second and third quadrants came as something of a surprise. And frankly, a bit of a relief. Give the accelerator a determined prod and the little 500 charges forward like a terrier on a postmen-only diet. By Big Powerful Car standards the eightish seconds that sixty takes from standstill won't rock the establishment, but its flexibility and the ability to quickly overtake the traffic that least expects it are key to the Abarth experience.

As too, though, are a number of features I would rather go without, and the first one is the ride quality. Ok, it's rare that you find a proper sports car with a featherbed ride, and handling is usually enhanced when a degree of firmness is dialled into the formula. But here I rather feel they've over-egged the pudding. Not only is the ride (to my posterior at least) excruciatingly uncomfortable, but I actually believe that I'd have more confidence in corners if the suspension had any semblance of give. Those sexy wheels and tyres lend terrific grip on smooth corners, but hit a bump mid-bend and the car can be sent scurrying sideways like a drunken spider.

This could actually end up getting you into all kinds of trouble, because of bugbear number two:- The steering. Again, most of the great drivers cars have steering with a bit of weight behind it, racing Go-Karts have the heaviest, most direct steering and make my shoulders ache like bastards. It is possible, though, to have power steering that still has feel to it, BMW are rediscovering the art lately after some time in the wilderness, but here in the Abarth  Fiat have tried to create feel simply by turning down the power assistance when in Sport Mode, and you can't just conjur feel up from where there is none. All the sensation through the wheel is served by the tyres and suspension, not the steering itself.

As well as exercising your arms, Sport mode also further provokes the engine, allowing more boost and slightly more top-end torque. Think is, I can't quite understand why there would be a time that you'd want less torque. It's not as if the engine is so powerful that it has to be reined in for your safety. How about make it Sports mode permanently, but without the stiff steering that just feels like the hydraulic pump's knackered.

And finally, no out and out sporting car would be complete without being intolerably noisy inside, and here is the 500s crowning glory. The Abarth should never, ever be taken on motorways after a heavy night out, it will lead to anger and migraines. The exhaust note is entertainingly flatulent enough to have some novelty, but it is soon joined by an equal volume of tyre noise and the resultant cacophony leads to listening to the stereo being a futile endeavour. Worst of all is that, once on the motorway in your noisy, uncomfortable Abarth you say to yourself “aha, now the car can redeem itself with animal levels of power and speed”. And then you feel a tidal wave of disappointment when you realise that it simply isn't as quick as you want it to be.

And that pretty much sums the car up for me. Visually and sonically it shouts clues pointing to a mischievous, highly strung personality, but it just doesn't have the power to carry it off, let alone justify that bone-firm suspension.

To be fair to Fiat my car is the Abarth lite, there are many packages available for many thousands of quid, all building on the foundation this car provides. More power, up to 180hp is available, as is, mind-bogglingly, even firmer suspension. What they can't offer me, though, is the 500 I'd want.

My 500 would have the Abarth engine, the base tune will be just fine, but would marry it to the non-sport steering and have some more pliant suspension. It would also have a massive injection of sound deadening to create a quiet environment in which to enjoy the characterful and well-built cabin while travelling at speed. My 500 would then be a quite superb small vehicle for covering distances in. A 500 GT if you will.

I was expecting and hoping for the Abarth to be a properly hardcore car. I was looking for something mental, something unhinged. Instead I got a headache from a car which was far more talk than it was trousers. Earlier I remarked that I would gladly trade a little comfort for some Italian brio, if I must be masochistic I'd love Fiat to give me a little more fun to enjoy with my agony.