Speed's a must when the devil drives

PETER ATKINSON
Last updated 11:12 09/11/2012

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OPINION: Remember Chucky, the murderous little doll from the Child's Play horror movies? Looked as cute as a button, but on the inside he was totally wicked.

I've just met his automotive equivalent.

To all intents and purposes, you'd swear it was the ever-so-cute Fiat 500 - the modern-day reincarnation of the famous Italian Bambino.

But this is a Bambino with some serious attitude. The Abarth 500 Essesse, to be precise, has got the devil inside. What's more, it will bring out the devil in anybody who drives it.

Few people would ever have thought that about the reborn 500 - a car that is as much a fashion accessory as a mode of transport.

But don't let those innocent looks deceive you. Abarth, the famous Italian tuning house, has given the little 500 a thorough going over.

From the outside you'll only notice the sporty stripes, perhaps the tweaks to the aerodynamic body kit, and possibly the sharp-looking 17-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tyres.

Inside,you'll find some more supportive sports seats and a chunky little steering wheel with the Abarth scorpion logo.

But it's beneath the bonnet where most of the alchemy has taken place.

Instead of the 500's rather placid little 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, the Abarth gets a turbo-charged "T-Jet" version - pushing a potent 118 kilowatts through those little front wheels.

That might not sound massively powerful, but that many kilowatts, plus a gutsy 230 Newton metres of torque in a car the size of a large basketball shoe, delivers some impressive acceleration. Officially it will reach the speed limit in a touch over seven seconds - quick without threatening any true performance machines - but in truth it feels even more urgent than that.

When you talk about cars handling like a go-kart, this one truly fits the bill. It is, after all, just 3657 millimetres in length - its 2.1-metre wheelbase slightly larger than the average adult stride. It weighs barely a tonne.

The combination of tiny wheelbase, brutally stiff suspension and those large rims with unforgiving low-profile rubber are not the recipe for a smooth ride. The Abarth is about as raw as they come in terms of passenger comfort.

The transformation of this machine is quite remarkable. Strictly speaking, it's not even a Fiat any more. The giant Italian carmaker's logo has been completely removed - even though it's still distributed, Down Under at least, by the parent company.

And the name change is fitting because it feels absolutely nothing like the endearing, inoffensive little machine which spawned it.

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The 500, by anybody's measure, is a very sedate piece of kit. It is, dare I say it, a very "girlie" car.

But the Abarth is as harsh and hard-edged as the 500 is smooth and soft.

Even shoehorning a small turbocharger into the 500's already tight engine bay required an entire redesign of the front end, with larger air dams and a restyled grille.

In some ways, it doesn't even have the advantages of a typical small car. Because of its chassis setup, for instance, the Abarth has a turning circle almost as wide as a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

There's not a lot of space, as you might imagine. Sitting in the front seat, it's almost possible to reach back and touch the rear window. Fuel efficiency is a reasonable 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres but even that's not terribly frugal for a car this size.

Add to that the fact it offers next to no leg room in the rear seats, and a fairly minimal 180 litres of luggage space, and its $42,990 price tag becomes a bit hard to justify.

Until you drive it, that is. Then it seems like the best-value performance machine you'll find anywhere. Because this car is fun with a capital F.

You can, of course, drive it quietly if you like. But push it hard into a corner and that evil streak starts to surface. Plant your foot and punch it out the other side of a curve and it will bristle and jump to action.

The only slight disappointment is the transmission - a slightly doughy five-speeder when, one imagines, a notchy six-speed manual would seem more fitting.

This is a very small car with a very big spirit. But you'll need to treat it mean to get it really keen.

Cute, yes. But the Abarth's qualities only really shine when you start throwing it around like - well, like a rag doll. Just don't tell Chucky. AAP

FIAT ABARTH 500 ‘ESSESSE'

Powertrain: 1.4-litre, 16-valve turbo-charged four-cylinder engine. Five-speed manual transmission or five-speed ‘Competizione' automated manual with shift paddles.

Outputs: 118kW at 5500rpm, 230Nm at 2750rpm 211kmh, 0-100kmh in 7.4 secs, 6.5L/100km.

Safety: Seven airbags, five-star EuroNCAP crash rating; ABS with EBD and hydraulic brake assist; electronic stability programme.

Price: From $42,990.

HOT: Looks, spirit, character, performance.

NOT: Turning circle, interior space, comfort.

VERDICT: Deceptively cute, devilishly quick.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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