Abarth has turned up the wick on Fiat’s 500e, but only by a little bit. Does this make it a more exciting hot hatch or is there more to the story?
Many of the hot hatches of today are a far cry from their altogether simpler and less complex ancestors, in some cases costing upwards of $70,000 and having technical specs that wouldn’t look out of place in touring car racing.
Forget about any notion of emotional appeal for a second, and it’s against this current era of the hot hatch where suddenly one powered by electricity doesn’t seem quite so daft. Bigger, heavier, more complex and more expensive – hot hatches were going there anyway.
The Abarth 500e is the first of the electric hot hatch breed, a true pioneer in trying to find out whether one of the most loved and revered types of car can cut it in its transition to the electric world.
As its name suggests and Abarth’s way of making cars dictates, it is closely related to the Fiat 500. Very closely in fact – the two sharing almost all key running gear including the battery and motor.
The motor, a single front-mounted unit, has had more power and torque liberated from it (it’s now rated at 113kW and 235Nm, increases of 26kW and 15Nm from the Fiat) thanks to some optimisation of internal losses and simply making it work harder.
The battery is the same 42kWh floor-mounted lithium-ion unit with some current tweaks, while the single fixed gear ratio has gone from 9.6 to 10.2, for a better balance between acceleration and top speed. The range drops from 320km to 264km due to these revisions (and more to the styling that goes all-in on sportiness rather than aero-optimisation), though the 85kW maximum charging speed is retained.
These changes, says Stellantis’s chief BEV propulsion engineer Maurizio Salvia, are still enough to make the Abarth 500e “quicker everywhere” that matters than the familiar and well-loved Abarth 695, which stays on sale as a petrol hot hatch offering for Abarth, similar to what Fiat has itself done with petrol and electric 500s.
It’s quoted as being a second quicker from 20km/h to 40km/h and again from 40km/h to 60km/h, that same second faster on a lap around Stellantis’s Balocco test track and finally quicker by an unspecified amount in a “traffic light sprint”. The 0-100km/h time is half a second slower, mind, ultimately unsurprising given the extra 21kW, 25Nm and, most crucially, just over 400kg weight surplus over its 1.4-litre turbo-powered range-mate.
There is no radical chassis makeover in the 500e’s evolution from Fiat to Abarth, the days of Abarth bits arriving at your dealer in a wooden crate to be fitted sadly over. Instead, the standard MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension has been given new tuning and the new shock absorbers new rates, while as much dynamic benefit between petrol and electric Abarths will be felt with the 24mm-longer wheelbase, 60mm-wider tracks and an improved front/back weight distribution from 63/37 to 57/43. Bespoke Bridgestone Sport Compound tyres have been developed for the car, too.
The biggest change dynamically, if you can call it that, has been the addition of the Abarth Sound Generator, a big external speaker, multi-channel amplifier and subwoofer mounted under the boot floor where the spare wheel well would be. It sounds like something from the Max Power era and makes the sound of something like that too, its booming exhaust-imitating note being a reproduction of the classic Abarth Record Monza.
Hit the starter button, and the sound from this generator is felt not only in your eardrums but through your backside, too. It’s loud, so loud in fact that Abarth says it’s on the limits of homologation. It took 6000 hours to develop and ‘petrolhead’ Abarth fans were consulted during its development.
The brand is “unapologetic” about its inclusion, Abarth’s European boss Gaetano Thorel saying it’s needed as well to “stir all the emotions”. Whatever you think of it, credit to Abarth for not shying away from the fact that electric performance cars sound poor, and that noise is so central to their involvement.
It’s the Balocco test track where we drive the 500e first, hot on the heels of some sighter laps in the 695. Waiting to leave the pits, once you’re relieved to know that the driving position in the new EV is no longer as comically high as in the petrol car, you can admire the lovely dark Alcantara trim that adorns much of a cabin that’s ultimately entirely familiar from the electric Fiat 500 otherwise. The other addition is some contrast stitching to match the strikingly named Acid Green and Poison Blue new paint colours offered.
The new Abarth is not as alive on the track as the 695, nor a car you ever feel as in tune with. Yet unlike most electric cars it doesn’t feel out of depth on circuit and it is still able to raise a smile with no drop-off in performance as the temperature of the running gear rises.
The steering is lighter and more relaxed than in the petrol car, yet retains the precision. The front end feels sharper and it turns in more keenly, offering greater resistance to understeer that ultimately still wins out.
It feels like you can carry more speed into and out of corners despite not being as fleet of foot. Braking is strong, and done chiefly by the disc brakes (yes, even at the rear, unlike in most EVs) in the Scorpion Track driving mode that limits regenerative braking from the motor.
As the speeds rise, the sensation of that speed oddly doesn’t, perhaps much to do with the fact it’s a single-speed transmission with no real crescendo to accompany acceleration.
It’s fun rather than exciting; objectively faster it might be but the sensations feel a bit slower. As for what all this does to the battery… Expect a range of 80km on circuit.
Eighty kays is about as much as you’d normally fancy in the petrol 695 on the road before it all gets a bit too uncomfortable. Not so in the 500e, which like all the best hot hatches does its best work on B-roads.
It’s a pleasing car to attack a series of bends with, easy to place and precise with its controls, and there’s a good level of driver involvement from the chassis. The ride quality and comfort is an enormous improvement over the 695, with the crashing and wincing of the former replaced by firmness but sophistication now, even on the large 18-inch alloys of our test car.
It’s a well-judged compromise between everyday comfort and driver engagement as required, a bit like a Volkswagen GTI model. Yes, there are sharper and more engaging hot hatches yet there’s nothing in the chassis to perturb you from covering big distances to seek out a favourite road.
That is perhaps apart from the drivetrain itself. After a while you go hunting for the ‘off’ button for the noise as it’s quite droney and actually annoying in the end as you know it’s artificial. To turn it off you have to stop the car and navigate some menus on the instrument cluster, but do so and you’re rewarded with some peace and quiet at least. Yet what’s left behind could be an electric drivetrain from almost any car: it’s quick and has instant responses but so does a Hyundai Ioniq 5. Not even the most fun-spirited of cars can overcome this powertrain engagement challenge.
In addition to the Scorpion Track mode there’s a Scorpion Street that’s the same but with added regen, and this is a nice default mode to drive it in in most everyday circumstances. Its hot hatch credentials might be questionable, but not so the 500e’s city car ones: it’s a real hoot nipping around town in. A third driving mode, Turismo, limits power and makes the car arbitrarily slower. I didn’t drive it in this for long.
Over nearly three hours on the road, the indicated range left suggested a total range of 193km. Not bad for a battery of this size and driven in an enthusiastic manner, and probably adequate for the car’s intended use.
Our test car was the Turismo model, one of two trims offered. It should be similarly specced to the launch edition in Australia that is priced from $52,500 before on-road costs.No local specifications have been announced yet, but this Turismo model tested here includes not only those 18-inch alloys and Alcantara interior but heated seats, parking sensors, a reversing camera and a panoramic roof among lots of other heated and electric-powered things that all come together to make the base trim look a bit stingy in comparison.
Like the electric Fiat 500, the Abarth 500e is offered as both a fixed-roof three-door hatchback model or a two-door Cabrio with a folding fabric ‘pram roof’. The specs of the two models are identical, save for a 25kg weight penalty for the soft-top that allows you to enjoy more of the fake exhaust noise at slower speeds or drown it out at higher speeds driving with the roof down.
The Cabrio did actually feel like it had a slightly softer suspension tune than the fixed-roof version, but when we asked the engineering team if there were differences, they said there were none.
Fun rather than exciting is a phrase I keep coming back to with the Abarth 500e. It has incredible kerb appeal and makes you smile not only for the way it looks but by being a fundamentally good car to drive.
Yet to call it a bona fide hot hatch is a bit of a stretch, at least in regards to reference points we’ve known so long. Maybe we need to change, yet through some novel attempted solutions to problems like sound, you sense that Abarth knows it too.