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ROAD TEST - Abarth 500 1.4T Esseesse
I find it hard to believe that the scorpion on the Abarth badge was inspired by founder Karl Abarth's birth sign rather than his brand's actual performance aspirations as pretty much all of us would have assumed.
Thankfully Abarth's creations were always designed not to disappoint anyone that made the more common assumption. And it's a heritage that stretches back more than half a century of tuning everything from Fiats to Alfa Romeos, Ferraris and Porsches. In modern times the badge is pretty much tattooed on Fiat's arm and this latest creation is every bit the small creature with the big sting in its tale.
Not only is it an unashamed spiritual successor to the 1958 Abarth Fiat 500 but its homage even goes as far as reviving the 'esseesse' badge for those with deeper pockets.
For R37 000 over and above the 'ordinary' Abarth 500's R230 000 sticker price, the 'esseesse' kit (pronounced SS) bumps up the power output of the car's 1.4-litre turbopetrol engine from 99kW to 118kW at 5750rpm. There's also a useful increase in twisting force from 206Nm to 230Nm at 3000rpm.
The official coastal acceleration figure of 7.4 seconds from nought to 100 means that this hot-tempered bambino is not shy in the company of most hot hatches. Expect a top speed in the region of 211km/h.
Flatten the loud pedal and the little Fiat cheers you on with an unapologetically rorty exhaust note and the turbo springs to life without too much hesitation, although the real party starts northwards of 2000rpm. It's more satisfyingly rapid than blindingly quick but it is at least flexible enough to respond on a dime.
The pleasure continues in the way it steers and goes around corners. Steering is very direct and feels meaty enough to satisfy enthusiasts.
A special handling package, fitted to the Esseesse and comprising stiffer springs and Kini shocks with a frequently selective damping valve, ensures that it's really hard to unsettle this tiny hatch. 17-inch alloys (which can be painted white) further this cause yet despite its suspension being on the stiff side of things the ride is not unpleasant by any means.
The 'sit up and beg' driving position could take some getting used to though, especially for those stepping out of larger cars - which would be just about everything else on the market come to think of it. However, the most annoying aspect is that the steering wheel doesn't adjust for reach - only for height.
A long list of sporty visual touches means that, as with the exterior design, you're not going to mistake the 500 Abarth for anything other than a true hot hatch and small but meaningful design touches like the circular turbo gauge popping out from the dashboard like a mushroom add to the sense of occasion.
So you still think the modern 500 is a girly car? Don't say that too loud if you find yourself in close proximity to one with a scorpion on the tail. A bona fide hot hatch in every respect, it's a tantalising little car.
Yet at R267 000 once you've factored in the Esseesse conversion, it's not a sensible purchase but given that it's so lightweight you are getting a lot of get-up-and-go for the money.
Just consider the many other alternatives on the market before signing on the dotted line.
Alfa Romeo Mito 1.4 TBi QV (125kW) - R267 000
Citroen DS3 155 THP Sport (115kW) - R268 400
Mini Cooper S (135kW) - R290 723
OR SOMETHING MORE PRACTICAL?
Opel Corsa OPC (141kW) - R271 600
Renault Clio RS (148kW) - R259 900
VW Polo GTI (132kW) - R269 500