The new FIAT Abarth 500C, which has just gone on sale in the UK, allows drivers to combine unrivalled small car performance with the thrill of wind-in-the-hair motoring in one stylish and well-equipped package.Abarth’s hard-top version of the 500 has caught the imagination of drivers everywhere and helped cement the return of Abarth to the public consciousness. By thoroughly re-engineering the soft-top 500C, Abarth is planning to attract an entirely new audience to the attributes of the resurgent brand, broadening that appeal and encouraging the discerning driver to enter the world of Abarth.
The Abarth cornerstone is performance and the Abarth 500C embodies that with innovations that transform it into the fastest and most focused soft top of its size. The most radical of these is the Abarth 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, to push a button on the dashboard console, turning the five-speed unit into a full automatic.
The engine is the same 1.4-litre turbo that’s used on the Abarth 500 hatchback model. However a reprogramming of the ECU adds another 5bhp, boosting it to 140bhp. This gives a top speed of 128mph, while 0-62mph acceleration is dispatched in 8.1 seconds. But 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, however, and the racy rasp of the exhaust note is matched with urgency at the wheel thanks to the 206Nm of torque produced by the engine from just 2000rpm. 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 made quicker, 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).
This latter system uses the ESP sensors and braking system to mimic a limited slip differential and inhibit understeer. It sharpens handling that’s already been finely honed. 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 (ESP), Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR) and ABS with Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD).
As well as being extremely safe, the Abarth 500C is also very stylish. The front and rear have been redesigned in keeping with the Abarth 500 hard top. But, in line with Abarth principles, this isn’t just cosmetic. Space had to be created in the engine bay to house the 1.4-litre turbo engine. And that power plant has to be fed with sufficient air to extract the maximum performance. The result is a deep front spoiler with sporty vents to the side, lower side skirts and an extended roof spoiler.
This has been lengthened to improve its effectiveness but still sits on the electric soft top and incorporates the high-level brake light which cleverly remains visible even when the roof is fully open. With a choice of 16 and 17-inch wheels and a wide choice of colours and trim, including new bi-colour paint work, the Abarth 500C should appeal to a wide audience.
Would-be customers should certainly be impressed by its standard equipment, which includes a sporty thick-rimmed flat-bottomed, leather steering wheel, electric front windows and door mirrors, air conditioning, and height adjustable driver’s seat and steering wheel. There are figure-hugging high back sports seats and a radio/CD/MP3 player with steering wheel controls.
The innovative and unique Blue&Me hands-free communication system is also standard. And as an option, Blue&Me MAP can be specified. This employs motor racing technology to help drivers improve their skills at the wheel as well as offering regular satellite navigation.
On top of this there’s a wide range of options. These include automatic climate control, red brake callipers and a leather interior. And for drivers wanting to boost the performance of their Abarth further, an esseesse (SS) performance upgrade will become available too.
This high level of specification doesn’t just ensure open air performance driving will be more comfortable than ever. It should also appeal to the head as well as the heart with the fun and funky Abarth 500C set to join every other Abarth model in boasting excellent residual values.
The Abarth name is synonymous with high performance for an affordable price. To ensure the Abarth 500C lives up to this mantra, it’s powered by an uprated version of the 1.4-litre T-Jet unit used by the hatchback. Thanks to work on the ECU, this version of the engine develops a healthy 140bhp at 5000rpm. And the retractable roof enables occupants to enjoy the engine’s glorious throaty burble courtesy of the twin tailpipes.
But the driveability of this zesty little engine is demonstrated by the 206Nm of torque available from 2000rpm in Sport mode. This leads to a 128mph top speed while the 0-62mph dash is covered in 8.1 seconds, making it the best performing convertible in its class – by far. Just as impressive is the frugal fuel consumption, with the Abarth 500C returning 43.5mpg on the combined cycle.
The 1368cc 16-valve unit uses a fixed geometry IHI RHF3-P turbocharger. This has given Abarth’s engineers the opportunity to let drivers exploit the flexibility of turbocharging. Mounted on the dash is a Sport button which modifies the ECU mapping and turbo boost pressure.
Arguably the most fascinating new feature for keen drivers on this Abarth 500C is the standard-fit Abarth Competizione gearbox. Just like Karl Abarth’s first offering in 1949 which was a racing gearbox, the Abarth 500C’s five-speed transmission allows drivers to swap ratios using paddles behind the steering wheel. Unlike Abarth’s early work of more than 60 years ago, this cutting-edge electro-hydraulic set-up offers drivers a choice in the way they change gear.
The traditional gearlever is replaced by four centre console-mounted buttons: neutral, reverse, first and manual/automatic. The gearbox itself was specifically developed by Abarth engineers and consists of a conventional manual gearbox with its linkage replaced by an actuator that’s controlled electronically by a Transmission Control Unit. This ensures gear changes are swift and efficient with minimal torque interruption. It means gears can be changed manually using the paddles for maximum driver satisfaction, or for a more relaxed ride, the driver can press the M/A button to switch to full automatic.
Pressing the Sport button speeds up gear change times in either auto or manual modes, thereby improving driver enjoyment with a more continuous transfer of the engine’s torque to the front wheels. This five-speed unit helps the Abarth 500C to comply with Euro 5 exhaust emissions standards and return an impressive 151g/km of CO2.
The Sport button also engages Torque Transfer Control and increases weight on the Abarth 500C’s Dualdrive electric power steering, both measures designed to appeal to keen drivers.
For owners who want to upgrade their Abarth 500C, an esseesse performance kit will soon become available to bring their Abarth even closer to the firm’s ‘racer for the road’ ideal. This employs a differently programmed ECU that’s unique to the Abarth 500C. It boosts output to 160bhp and further speeds up shift times for the Abarth Competizione gearbox. It also features a brakes upgrade and the 16-inch wheels are replaced by 17-inch alloys.
To fit in with the principles of founder Karl Abarth, this dealer fitted (aftermarket) kit is delivered in a high quality branded wooden crate which the owner can keep as a charming memento.
Safe yet rewarding, an attractive combination
As well as being rewarding on the road, an Abarth must allow its driver to access the car’s full performance in a responsible and safe way. To achieve this goal, the company’s engineers have worked hard on the Abarth 500C.
The MacPherson strut and rear torsion beam suspension of the hatchback remain, but spring and damper rates have been completely re-tuned to maintain that car’s sporting characteristics yet make the Abarth 500C’s ride even more compliant. This helps keep the handling predictable at all times, and allied to excellent engine response, gives 500C drivers the chance to avoid trouble by driving round it.
Jewel in the Abarth 500C’s crown and a vital weapon in the battle to keep drivers safe is the clever Torque Transfer Control (TTC) system. This is engaged when the TTC button is pressed and mimics a limited slip differential in corners by using the ESP sensors and braking system to transfer the engine’s torque away from the unloaded inner wheel to the loaded outer wheel. The result reins in understeer round corners, making the car safer, yet more fun to drive.
Further dynamic safety features include sophisticated solutions such as Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR) which limits wheel spin when accelerating, and Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) which acts like a safety net, braking individual wheels in fractions of a second to help drivers maintain control.
For stable and highly effective braking, the Abarth 500C has disc brakes all round ‑ 284mm self-ventilating at the front, 240mm at the rear ‑ and the system is supplemented by ABS anti-lock braking. In order that drivers can maximise the power of the brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and Hydraulic Brake Assist (HBA) are both standard fit.
In true modern Abarth tradition, the Abarth 500C comes with very a high level of passive safety equipment. There are seven airbags as standard, two dual-stage front bags, two window bags, two side bags and unusually for this size of car, a driver’s knee bag. For added safety, standard equipment includes Xenon headlights which produce three times as much light as traditional halogen units, giving a beam with greater depth, so making obstacles easier to see in advance.
Looks: a million dollar baby
Shoehorning a turbocharged engine into the tight confines of the 500’s engine bay prompted Abarth engineers to completely redesign the front end, allowing the engine to be fed with sufficient air, and increasing the car’s length by a couple of centimetres, which contributes further to its athletic appearance.
Deep skirts at the side exaggerate muscular wheel arches and give the car an assertive stance on the road. At the back, twin tail pipes don’t just provide a suitable soundtrack for wind in the hair motoring; they frame a rear aerodynamic diffuser with a honeycomb central section that’s been designed to assist air flow cleanly away from the back of the car.
The Abarth 500C is a different car from the hatchback. The windscreen is deeper to accommodate a re-sized upper cross member needed to maintain torsional rigidity. And a more traditional boot lid has replaced the tailgate. The result is a car that has the dynamic characteristics and rigidity of a hatchback, yet is also capable of offering the sun on the face sensation of a soft top.
The roof is electrically operated either by a button next to the interior mirror or the car’s remote control, and can be activated at up to 37mph. It slides backwards along lateral guides making it effortless to transform a cosy cabin into the open air. This also highlights a sophisticated solution to opening the boot. When the soft top is fully lowered and the boot release is activated, the hood is automatically lifted a couple of centimetres to allow the boot to be fully opened. And when the boot is open, the roof can only be closed.
The high-quality double-layered hood doesn’t only give the interior the sophistication of the hatchback when it’s raised, thanks to its glass rear window; it also houses the third brake light in an aerodynamic spoiler. This has been lengthened to improve airflow distribution over the car as well as accentuating the Abarth 500C’s sporty look. This gives the soft top the same class-leading 0.33 drag coefficient as the hatchback.
Hours spent in the wind tunnel have enabled engineers to ensure acoustic comfort is first class by cutting buffeting in the cabin to a minimum when the hood is down, giving wind in the hair motoring a thoroughly 21st Century feel. To further reduce any turbulence, an optional wind stop can be positioned behind the rear head rests.
It’s not just the Abarth 500C’s classic shape and obvious sporting intentions that make it stand out from the crowd. The 500’s wide variety of colour options is carried over to this Abarth model. The roof is available in either black or titanium grey. And on top of the firm’s classic body colours there are two new bi-colour paint schemes. For a strong contrast, a Scorpione Black top section can be paired with Gara White below, while owners after a more subtle combination can choose Pista Grey above with Campovolo Grey below.
The external appearance can be further enhanced with a choice of wheels. Handsome 16-inch alloys are standard, while a choice between white diamond finish with a five petal design and a diamond finish with a five spoke design are available in 17-inch.
As with the rest of the Abarth range, the Abarth 500C has a vast array of colour and stripe combinations to allow owners to build a car to their personal specification.
Hot outside, cool inside
One of Abarth’s defining principles is to offer buyers a highly impressive level of standard equipment, and the Abarth 500C is no different. In fact, the contents of Abarth’s little convertible would look generous on far larger cars.
Handy rear parking sensors help the driver squeeze into the tightest spaces around town. And air conditioning with an anti-pollen filter will help occupants keep their cool on hot days. There are front and rear fog lights and remote control door locking and roof operation. The Abarth 500C also has electric front windows and electric door mirrors with a demist function.
As in every Abarth, technology plays a large part. A radio/CD/MP3 player is standard fit and comes with four 40W speakers and two 30W tweeters. The Blue&Me handsfree system that allows the driver to control the sound system and a telephone, either by voice or from the steering wheel, is another welcome addition to every car.
On top of all this equipment, there’s plenty of style as standard too. From behind the wheel the driver is faced with a racy looking leather-bound steering wheel. This has a flat bottom to give it the racing car look. And to prove that it’s not all form, function is provided by buttons to control the sound system and Blue&Me. Under the leather clad cowl with red stitching there’s a single dial which acts as both speedometer and rev counter. A separate off-set dial acts as the turbo boost gauge. This also informs the driver when Sport mode is activated.
An additional option is Blue&Me MAP. This can act as a traditional satellite navigation device – except it’s portable so drivers can take it with them to use on the move. What is unique to a car of the 500C’s dimensions is this system’s telemetry function. Using know-how gleaned from electronics experts Magneti Marelli, it allows drivers with motorsport aspirations to monitor and analyse their skills behind the wheel.
The screen displays data such as engine RPM, the gear selected, and vehicle speed in real time. And should a driver take to a race track, Blue&Me MAP is capable of pinpointing where the car is on the circuit and show its lap time. All this information from track sessions can be accessed and analysed so drivers can improve their performances and compare and contrast with friends, colleagues and other Abarth owners.
Echoes of motor racing technology such as this can be found throughout the cockpit. Peeking out from behind the steering wheel are two metal effect paddles which give the Abarth 500C’s cockpit a real competition car feel. You pull the right one to change up, the left to change down. The picture from the driver’s seat is completed by Abarth logo-embossed pedals with rubber grips. The view is no less dramatic for the passenger side. Replacing the gear lever with buttons makes the inside feel clean and spacious. There’s a rally car style foot brace in the passenger footwell and the body-coloured dashboard with the 500C logo in the corner adds to the sporty ambience.
It’s certainly a comfortable one with high-back sports seats featuring white stitching hugging the body. Height adjustability on the driver’s seat and steering wheel make getting a perfect position at the wheel easy.
With single body colours, elegant black Axell fabric upholstery is offered as standard, with leather available as an option. Bi-colour models come with a choice of three leather interiors: black, grey or tan.
The glorious past and a bright future
Since its 2008 launch as a stand-alone brand within the Fiat Automobiles stable, Abarth has been one of motoring’s success stories, with the youngest average customer age of any car brand in Europe.
The 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 changed to Italian nationality) built his company around tuning and thus 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, which yielded 10,000 track victories and 10 world records that cemented the Abarth name in the public consciousness.
Born in 1908, Abarth presided over his company until his death in 1979. Despite his demise his business continued, winning its third World Rally Championship in 1980. Now a wholly owned subsidiary of Fiat Automobiles, Abarth inherited all the competition activities of the Fiat Racing Team, including running the Abarth Grande Punto S2000 in European rallying and the Trofeo Abarth 500 GB. This exciting series boasts a field of identical 190bhp Abarth 500 Assetto Corse models competing around some of Britain’s most famous race tracks, including Brands Hatch and Silverstone.