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Abarth 500C

Click to view picture gallery“The standalone sporting arm of
  Fiat Automobiles, Abarth are selling
  to well-heeled enthusiasts
with a
  number or Porsches taken in part
  exchange
...”


THE ABARTH HIGH-PERFORMANCE BRAND is a standalone operation within the Fiat Automobile Group and was re-launched two years ago as a brand in its own right using standard Fiat products, namely the 500 Hatch and the Grande Punto Hatch.

Now the Abarth range is being added to with their version of the 500C convertible and the Punto Evo Hatch, which replaced the Grande Punto earlier this year. A snippet of news gained at the Media 'first drive' event this week is that Abarth is planning to add its own models using Fiat family components — so next year we should see Speedster and Roadster type models using the Fiat 500 platform and, in 2012, a hardcore two-seater sports car.

The success of the Abarth brand has been something of a surprise because younger buyers will not know much about the Abarth name; and even we older enthusiasts remember only a little. That hasn't stopped the UK establishing itself as the second largest market in the world — behind Italy — for Abarth. Sales last year were 1,381 cars; and for the first six months of 2010, sales are 735 units — a 20% increase. Even in a recession, motoring enthusiasts young and old have made Abarth one of motoring's success stories — the marque also has the youngest average customer age of any car brand in Europe.

“A top speed of 128mph
and 0-62mph acceleration
in 8.1 seconds — yet the
T-Jet engine is also eco-
friendly, complying with
Euro5 standards and
emitting just 151g/km of
CO2
...
But first, a very brief history lesson. The Abarth company has been built around the principles set out more than 60 years ago by its founder, Karl Abarth. These are to develop the brand through technology by employing cutting-edge materials, innovative design and unyielding attention-to-detail to make automotive sporting excellence available to everyone.

Austrian Abarth (he was renamed Carlo when he took Italian nationality) built his company around tuning; in particular, extracting the maximum performance from a series of Fiats. During the mid-1950s he notched up a string of endurance and speed records but it was his tuning of the original 500 in 1958 — yielding 10,000 track victories and 10 world records — that cemented the Abarth name in the public consciousness. But back to the present...

The Abarth 500C soft-top, priced at 17,500, is an extension of the Abarth 500 hard-top already on the market and further extends the appeal of the popular Fiat 500 range. I fully expected the extra performance in this high-performance convertible to be compromised by the extra power and the loss of body strength because of the lack of a rigid roof and because the suspension has not always coped well with our poor roads.

However, re-engineering has proved this not to be the case and in fact there is no body shake with the canvas roof down and the ride comfort and control is much improved.

The new model was put through its paces over the relatively traffic-free roads (but plenty of sheep!) crossing the North Yorkshire Moors and with a few busier main roads through the Teesside industrial sprawl thrown in for a complete motoring experience.

The engine is the same 1.4-litre T-Jet turbocharged petrol unit that's used on the Abarth 500 hatchback model. However, a reprogramming of the ECU adds another 5bhp, rounding it up to 140bhp. This gives a top speed of 128mph, while the 0-62mph acceleration time is 8.1 seconds. Yet the new engine is also eco-friendly, complying with Euro5 standards and emitting just 151g/km of CO2.

“Just because it’s clean
doesn
t make it boring,
and the racy rasp
of the exhaust note is
matched with urgency at
the wheel
...”
Just because it's clean doesn't make it boring, thankfully, and the racy rasp of the exhaust note is matched with urgency at the wheel thanks to the 152lb ft of torque produced by the engine from just 2,000rpm.

The performance on tap can be adjusted according to the driving environment using the vehicle's Sport button. When Sport is selected gear changes are faster, engine responses are sharpened and the electric Dualdrive steering weights up. At the press of a button, drivers can also select TTC (Torque Transfer Control).

TTC uses the ESP sensors and braking system to mimic a limited slip differential and inhibit understeer — and it sharpens the handling considerably. Spring and damper rates have been tuned to ensure an exciting ride that's also very compliant. It remains predictable and safe at all times yet offers the dynamic responses expected of an Abarth.

An additional welcome benefit is that the 500C is a very safe car. A high level of passive safety, including seven airbags as standard, is supplemented by an array of active safety devices such as Electronic Stability Programme, Anti-Slip Regulation and ABS anti-lock braking with Electronic Brake Distribution.

Unlike the Abarth 500C hatch which has a manual gearbox, the 500C has Abarth's Competizione gearbox. Developed specifically by Abarth engineers, the Manual Transmission Automated (MTA) allows drivers to change gear using paddles mounted behind the steering wheel for a sportier feel. Or, for more relaxed progress, pushing a button on the dashboard console turns the five-speed unit into a full automatic — and a car of this size and price without a gearlever is certainly a novelty.

I found the paddle-shift option to be interesting for short periods of time although twice the downshift hit first gear when third was needed, causing the rev-limiter to spring into life. I found the car performed best in its automated manual mode with the Sport button in operation.

“It’s a fun, performance-
packed, good handling
package that looks
good, albeit at a price
...”
The selection of Sport mode really does add punch to the acceleration; the gear change patterns are better and the steering is also better weighted. And this mode was just as good on the open roads as it was dealing with slower urban traffic.

During our test drive, the Abarth 500C returned 38.1mpg against the official Combined Cycle figure of 43.5mpg which, given our enthusiastic driving, was very good.

There are extra-cost options to be had but as standard the soft-top comes with an electrically-operated fabric hood, electric windows and door mirrors, computer, good sound system, remote locking, climate control, leather covered steering wheel and twin chromed tailpipes.

Abarth expects to sell around 1,100 500Cs in the UK in a full year. Underscoring the Abarth's relative rarity value, the Fiat 500 range has already been a huge sales success with over 24,000 sold here last year (boosted by 'Scrappage' buyers) and this year there is a realistic target of 15,000 UK registrations.

The Abarth 500C's more aggressive exterior styling with larger bumper, side skirts and Abarth Scorpion detailed alloy wheels makes for an attractive picture. But the extra 3,900 for the Abarth 500C convertible over the Abarth 500 hard-top is not so attractive even allowing for the extra-cost automated transmission.

Other criticisms include rear visibility limited by the folded open roof and the paddle-shift auto gearchange which made dubious selections on several occasions. On the plus side, it's a fun, performance-packed, good handling package that looks good, albeit at a price.
David Miles

Abarth 500C
| 17,500
Maximum speed: 128mph | 0-62mph: 8.1 seconds | Overall test MPG: 38.1mpg
Power: 140bhp | Torque: 152lb ft | CO2 151g/km