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Battery-powered 500 gets a dose of venom to blaze an electric hot hatch trail

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It often looks like modernity is killing the hot hatchback. Car makers are looking for bigger profit margins and thus to larger and taller cars. No more Fiesta means no more Fiesta ST; developing fancy bespoke suspension for something that needs to be affordable – well, there’s no point, really.

Meanwhile, rules for fleet CO2 averages mean that manual, non-hybridised cars with high-performance engines sold in relatively large numbers could get car makers in hot water. So we’ve ended up with no hot Renaults or Peugeots, a Golf GTI that’s going auto-only next year and a £49,090 Honda Civic Type R – which you can’t buy because it’s sold out. Praise be to Hyundai for keeping the flame alive with the excellent i20 N and i30 N.

But there’s a glimmer of hope that modernity had to kill the hot hatch in order to reinvent it and bring it back: enter the electric hot hatch. 

Emissions legislation isn’t a problem with EVs. Extra power is easy to come by – crank up the motor or get a bigger one off the shelf. An EV’s weight isn’t ideal but the silver lining is that many of them have more sophisticated suspension as standard.

Perhaps there is still hope – and the first potential flicker of that optimism is the Abarth 500e, the go-faster version of the already surprisingly enjoyable Fiat 500 Electric. It’s the first quick version of an EV hatch to be very obviously positioned as a hot hatch, but it doesn’t quite have the market to itself. There’s still the Mini Electric, and in the class above sits the sweetly balanced Cupra Born and the 429bhp MG 4 XPower. Next year, we’ll see the Abarth’s most direct rivals, the all-new Mini Cooper E and a Renault 5-based Alpine A290.

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The range at a glance

MODELS POWER FROM
Fiat 500 70kW 94bhp £28,195
Fiat 500 87kW 117bhp £31,195
Fiat 500c 87kW 117bhp £34,195
Abarth 500e 152bhp £32,195
Abarth 500e Convertible 152bhp £37,195

Abarth insists that the 500e isn’t just a Fiat, but of course it is the sporty version of the electric Fiat 500. As before, that remains available with a 24kWh or 42kWh battery, although because of inflation and the death of the plug-in car grant, the prices have ballooned considerably. The trim structure has thinned out as well. For an extra £3000 on top of the 87kW Fiat or the Abarth, you can have the convertible, with its retractable roof. The Abarth’s trim structure is very simple: there is the standard one and the as-tested Turismo.

DESIGN & STYLING

The Abarth 500e is obviously the fast version of the electric Fiat 500. That means it’s based on the same EV platform that FCA developed before the merger with PSA into Stellantis. The plan was to use it in a whole range of models, but things have turned out differently post-merger, since it became clear that the PSA architectures are the future for the group. Jeep’s new small electric crossover, the Avenger, sits on e-CMP2, and so does the 500’s big sibling, the upcoming 600.

So the Abarth 500e, like the Fiat base car, is a bit of a technological dead end, but that’s because circumstances conspired against it, not for any major shortcomings. It isn’t the most mechanically sophisticated EV, but hot hatches are often brilliant because of their simplicity rather than despite it.

There are MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear. The springs are stiffer than the Fiat’s and the dampers have been retuned. The standard 500e gets 17in wheels, while the Turismo sits on 18s. Both wear EV-specific Bridgestone Potenza Sport tyres.

Much of the Abarth’s hardware is shared with the Fiat. That includes the 42kWh nickel-manganese-cobalt battery and, more surprisingly, the single front motor, which produces its additional 35bhp thanks to some optimisation of internal losses and simply by working harder. To help it along, the reduction ratio has been shortened from 9.6:1 to 10.2:1, trading some efficiency for acceleration. In theory it lowers the top speed, too, but the car is electronically limited to 96mph, so it’s a moot point. 

The extra power and lower ratio don’t alter that this is still a tiny car, with a small frontal area and a relatively low kerb weight. Our test car weighed 1395kg, with 58% over the front axle. That’s heavy for an A-segment car but light for an EV. 

Aside from the wheels, the Abarth is distinguished from the Fiat by a more aggressive front bumper, a diffuser insert, side skirts and a different headlight ‘eyebrow’, which is an LED running light on the Fiat but a black trim strip on the Abarth. And while the Fiat comes in four disappointing hues, the Abarth is available in fun colours such as ‘Adrenaline Red’, ‘Poison Blue’ and the ‘Acid Green’ of our test car. 

INTERIOR

Abarth 500e front cabin

The interior makeover that turned the Fiat 500 into the Abarth ticks all the hot hatch boxes. Sports seats are the most obvious change, and while they get height adjustment as standard, they don’t solve the Fiat’s overly raised driving position. Although head room is adequate, taller drivers will feel quite perched and have the rear-view mirror too prominently in their vision.

A three-spoke steering wheel replaces the Fiat’s two-spoke item, and Poison Blue accents include a strip on the steering wheel marking the straight-ahead and loops to fold the seats forwards.

Turismo-spec models such as our test car also get lashings of Alcantara on the seats, steering wheel and dashboard. A standard 500e instead gets cloth, leatherette and plastic, respectively.

The Abarth-specific materials generally feel expensive, and the neat Easter eggs from the Fiat are present here too: there’s a print of a classic Fiat 500 in one of the door grips and the wireless phone charger has the skyline of Turin. However, some of the hard, scratchy plastics that were acceptable in a car that started at £21,995 when it was launched feel rather out of place in one that is nudging almost double that.

Becoming an Abarth naturally doesn’t change anything about the 500’s general compactness. There’s plenty of stowage space in the front, though. The wireless charger is ideal for a phone or even some glasses, while the centre console has plenty of deep bins, as well as a ‘secret’ pop-out cupholder.

Front leg room is limited, though, and some testers needed the seat in its rearmost position. Rear leg room behind an average driver is only suitable for children. At a push, and with the front passenger seat fairly far forwards, the 500 is a 2+1.

The flat floor and the glass sunroof in Turismo spec bring some welcome airiness, and then there is always the Convertible with its folding canvas roof.  The boot volume doesn’t change, either. At 185 litres, or 550 litres with the seats folded down, it’s a useful size for a car this small, but in practice it is also reduced by having to house the charge cable(s).

Abarth 500e digital touchscreen

Multimedia system

The Abarth 500e uses the FCA-developed UConnect system rather than the PSA-developed one that is being rolled out in Peugeots, DSs, Citroëns and others. The same system is used in Jeeps, the Alfa Romeo Tonale and even the Maserati MC20, and we like it quite a lot even though everything is controlled via the responsive 12.25in touchscreen.

There are a lot of menus, but after you have set everything up to your liking you can ignore most of them, as phone mirroring is slickly integrated and there are plenty of shortcuts. TheJBL stereo has a rich enough sound, but its work is cut out competing with the road noise on the motorway.

One point of criticism is the built-in TomTom navigation, which didn’t always recognise points of interest and wasn’t very clued up on the traffic situation during our test. It also keeps warning you that you need to recharge to reach your destination, even when you are predicted to have 20 miles to spare. The charge points it suggests are often the slow chargers that seasoned EV drivers know to avoid, so it’s not to be relied on.

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Abarth 500e under the bonnet

By piston-powered standards the Abarth 500e’s pace is somewhere between warm hatch and junior hot hatch. On the test track, it didn’t quite match its quoted 7.0sec 0-62mph time, needing 0.3sec more. 

Meanwhile, its 0-60mph time of 6.9sec is a little behind the Ford Fiesta ST’s 6.6sec but appreciably faster than the Volkswagen Up GTI’s 8.5sec. Its 6.4sec 30-70mph time also splits the difference between the Fiesta ST and the Up GTI. 

If the sound generator lures some EV sceptics to the Abarth showroom, then that’s fine with me, but I can’t help thinking that giving an electric car an ersatz burbly exhaust note is like an early adopter of the car putting a fake horse’s head on their horseless carriage. It clearly didn’t stick.

Of course, with the 500e being electric, the exercise feels a lot less frantic. As the traction control can’t be fully disabled, the front wheels remain entirely untroubled by the motor’s 173lb ft. Thereafter it zooms silently to its 96mph limiter. We did the instrumented testing with more than 80% in the battery, but even with less than 20% it didn’t feel like the 500e had lost much, if any, power, which is impressive.

If you’d rather the 500e wasn’t silent, there is always its party piece: an external sound generator. It’s a large circular speaker that’s waterproof and mudproof, hanging where you might expect an underslung spare wheel to be. Apparently more than 6000 hours went into tuning the sound, and Abarth is keen to point out that it got very positive reactions to it from its UK owners’ community, which is why it is standard on every 500e in the UK. It does make a noise quite a lot like that of a petrol Abarth’s exhaust, but because there are no gearchanges, it sounds like it is stuck in second gear. On a B-road, never mind the motorway, it sounds like it’s revving far too high. All testers turned it off in short order.

There are three drive modes: Turismo, Scorpion Street and Scorpion Track. They mainly affect the maximum power, the regeneration and the strength of the power steering. In Turismo, power is capped at 134bhp with slightly lazier throttle response. That’s still more than the Fiat 500 and generally adequate for normal driving. It also ramps up the regen and enables one-pedal driving. Scorpion Street liberates full power, while Scorpion Track reduces regen to a low level and turns off one-pedal driving. This arrangement works reasonably well, but we would have liked to see an option to separately turn off the strong regen. 

The brake pedal is progressive for an EV and a 44.6m stopping distance from 70mph is very good.

Abarth 500e rear cornering

Track notes (Hill Route, Millbrook Proving Ground)

Millbrook’s Hill Route didn’t reveal any hidden depths or expose any flaws: it just confirmed our mostly positive impressions from the road.

With more speed and more road to play with, you can load the front and lean on the grip of the Bridgestone Potenzas. The steering weights up progressively and gives confidence. 

The only disappointment is that when you lift off the throttle in a fast corner, nothing much happens. The Abarth gently tightens its line, but there is no hint of adjustability on a trailing throttle. There’s a traction control button, but there might as well not be given the safe balance. Even with it pressed, the stability and traction control intervene eventually. But traction is strong, and the systems act smoothly and in a way that won’t slow you down.

If you use as much regen as possible when slowing down, the 500e still returns about 2.3mpkWh on track, giving a range of 86 miles –plenty for the average track day.

 

RIDE & HANDLING

Illya 11

If the Abarth 500e really is to be regarded as a true hot hatchback, this is where it needs to shine, especially as it doesn’t have the option of engaging its driver with a manual gearbox or a sweet engine note. Not a believable one, anyway.

The Fiat 500, with its short wheelbase, taut suspension and immediate responses, is as good a starting point as any, and the Abarth improves on it in a number of meaningful ways.

I’d be curious to try an electric Fiat 500 on some sporty tyres. I wouldn’t be surprised if they added a bit of meat to the steering and as such got you most of the way to the Abarth for quite a bit less outlay.

The Fiat’s main weakness was lifeless steering, but here that has clearly been addressed because the Abarth’s set-up has both more weight and more feel to it. Now you can actually feel how much grip there is, rather than having to trust that the front will stick. The slightly faster rack adds to the car’s dartiness, too, but without overcooking it. Scorpion Track mode adds a touch too much weight to the steering, and we wished it was possible to dial that down to the level of Turismo without also losing power or adding regen.

The 500e is one of the smallest real cars you can buy today, and that makes it ideally suited to British B-roads, narrow and hedge-lined as they often are. In other words, there is much more room to play with and more leeway for dodging obstacles and potholes. That in turn means you can drive the 500e harder than most other cars and have more fun. 

Unfortunately for the Abarth, the average B-road also has plenty of bumps, and that’s where the 500e can come slightly unstuck. It is stiffly sprung and damped and doesn’t have an abundance of suspension travel, in turn making the ride constantly busy. You need a truly evil road for this to become a real problem, but when the 500e is caught on the hop, it does dent your confidence.

Abarth 500e side cornering

Comfort & Isolation

The stiff suspension does present a problem for everyday ride comfort. It never manages to settle down, not on the motorway and certainly not around town. Every bump is felt, and while that may be fine when you’re in the mood for a blast on a twisty back road, it can get wearing the rest of the time.

For some testers, the 500e’s relentless firmness was simply too much, although others could just about forgive it given its overt billing as a sporty A-segment car. It also redeems itself to an extent because its damping is at least sophisticated enough that it never feels harsh. Even despite the 40-aspect tyres, the secondary ride is actually quite good. 

Clearly, being based on a city car, the 500e was never designed for outright comfort as such, and it comes with a few other compromises, too. For one thing, it doesn’t have the noise isolation of a larger car, which makes longer motorway journeys more tiring.

As already mentioned, the driving position is also far from ideal, particularly for taller drivers. But to make matters worse, the 500e’s right-hand drive conversion is quite poor, with intrusion from the centre compromising the footrest and generally making the footwell quite narrow. The seat is set fairly high and the 500 has quite a traditionally Italian long-arm, short-leg driving position, which forced some testers to have the seat back too upright, further adding to the discomfort on long drives.

 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Abarth 500e front lead

With a starting price of £34,195, the 500e is expensive for a small car with a short range. Turismo trim is £4000 more, the Convertible is £3000 extra. With the 239-mile MG 4 XPower costing £36,495, the 500e’s price might be hard to swallow.

The Abarth remains expensive on PCP because of weak predicted residual values. The silver lining is that you might as well have the Convertible. Because it should hold on to its value slightly better, it is only £17 a month more than our test car, despite a higher list price and a much lower deposit contribution.

I'd probably go for the convertible. The residuals will be stronger and the dynamic drawbacks negligible.

If you want an efficient car regardless of power source, find something small, relatively light and not too powerful. The 500e is all three, so despite a suspiciously low official economy figure of 3.4mpkWh, we managed 3.8mpkWh over a week that included laps of a test track, performance testing and lots of motorway miles, for a real-world range of 142 miles. Gentler driving returned over 4.0mpkWh, so the WLTP range of 158 miles should be achievable. Given how small it is and that we couldn’t have wished for better weather, we hoped for a little more still, but even so, the 500e is one of the most efficient EVs we have tested.

The 500e (like the Fiat 500) can charge at a maximum of 85kW, which is actually pretty good for a battery of this size. It ultimately has a higher weighted average than the 100kW Citroën ë-C4 X because it maintained 80kW until 40% charge then stayed at 67kW until 60%. Not a bad result. A battery of this size can also realistically be charged on a three-pin plug, although a lead to do that is a £200 extra.

VERDICT

Abarth 500e parked

When we road tested the Fiat 500, we reckoned it was ripe for an Abarth version to lead the way for pocket-size EV fun. And the 500e accomplishes its main goal of being fun to drive. It’s small, nippy, responsive, chuckable and with decent steering, so you can have an awful lot of fun attacking B-roads without upsetting the dog-walkers with exhaust noise. Although you can do the latter too, if you choose. 

It’s dripping with style, and it has the sensible stuff licked, such as multimedia, usability and economy. And it’s just as great a city car as the Fiat on which it’s based.

We just wish the engineers had let the chassis off the leash a bit more and allowed the car to exhibit some old-school hot hatch attitude. Yet at the same time, the ride is uncompromisingly firm. And an entry price of £34,195 is also a long way from the affordable fun that hot hatchbacks are meant to provide. 

The Abarth 500e is a very creditable attempt at an electric hot hatch, but it’s not quite a fully formed one. It’s expensive, too. We look forward to the recipe being refined with updates – and perhaps by rivals.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.