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Based on Fiat’s electric 500, it brings greater immediacy and even broader smiles

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This is more like it. Not ridiculously fast, but small, chuckable, responsive and slightly bouncy in a puppyish way. Yep, unlike the MG 4 XPower I drove last week, this Abarth 500e feels more like an electric hot hatch. But is it a good one, and does it work on UK roads?

All right, this particular Abarth 500e isn’t strictly a hatchback, because it’s the convertible, with the fabric roof that folds back, but they’re the same car. We’ll get to the roof.

Every UK Abarth 500e has the sound generator as standard. It does sound like a petrol Abarth, just one that’s stuck in second gear. To me it feels a bit like sticking a fake horse's head on your horseless carriage, but you can simply turn it off.

The Abarth 500e is the sporty version of the electric Fiat 500 (which confusingly isn’t called the 500e) that came out about two years ago. While that might not sound like a logical progression if you’ve never driven the Fiat, the little electric car has always been surprisingly good to drive. It was ready for a bit more power, some better steering, grippier tyres and some sportier touches.

And that’s exactly what the Abarth has got. The 42kWh battery remains the same, but the front motor has been upgraded to 152bhp and the gear ratio has been reduced, sacrificing some range and for acceleration. The springs are stiffer and the dampers have been retuned, and there are 17in or 18in wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Potenza Sport tyres.

Visually, Abarth has made much more of an effort than MG. Aside from the new wheels, there are more aggressive bumpers front and rear and a range of unique colours, while inside there are Alcantara bucket seats, an Alcantara three-spoke wheel and Alcantara dashboard trim. Hope you like Alcantara.

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The extra power, shorter gearing and stickier tyres do hurt the range noticeably. The standard Fiat 500 is (very optimistically) rated for 199 miles. For the Abarth, that drops to 164 in the base hatchback and 150 in the Convertible Turismo.

The good news is that from my experience, in good weather, if you drive it even somewhat conservatively, you will see miles per kWh economy in the high-3s, making it possible to actually get those 150 miles. The bad news is that 150 miles is still not very much, and it will soon become much less if you drive it at all like a hot hatch.

Do so, though, and you will discover that this Abarth is great fun on a UK road. It’s one of the smallest cars you can buy, which gives you more road to play with. That’s true of the Fiat as well, but the Abarth has a useful amount more power, so you’re not to the boards all the time.

Compared with the Fiat, the Abarth’s responses are even more immediate, and the steering has both slightly greater texture and a little more weight to it. It’s a noticeable improvement on one of the Fiat’s main weaknesses and gives the driver a good sense of front grip levels.

Of which there’s a decent amount, but I wish Abarth had been a bit braver with the handling balance. It’s always the front that runs out of grip first, while the rear stays firmly in line. There’s not much sting in this scorpion’s tail, then. When you attack a twisty road, you’ll also wish for some more lateral support from the seats.

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With its short wheelbase and stiff suspension, the Fiat 500 was always quite a bouncy thing on a bumpy road and this Abarth is a bit firmer still. You need a totally evil road for the suspension to truly run out of ideas, and it’s very well damped, so it’s never harsh. However, you wouldn’t call it comfortable: it’s permanently busy.

All of this applies to both the hatchback and the convertible. Because the latter isn’t a full convertible – the pillars remain – there’s no discernible penalty in rigidity. But folding the roof back adds some welcome airiness to the small cabin. The turbulence isn’t too bad either, so you might as well have the convertible.

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The convertible is £3000 more than the hatch. That sounds quite a lot, but because it has better residuals, it’s only a tenner more on most monthly contracts. There’s no denying that any Abarth 500 is very expensive, though, particularly when you can get almost three times as much power and a good chunk more range from that MG for around the same money.

Abarth’s people say the 500e is a premium and slightly niche product that’s built in Europe. It’s true that it’s much cheerier and more likeable than the MG, and it comes across as a more thoroughly developed car with fewer rough edges. But those numbers will be hard to overcome, particularly as the 500e feels more warm than hot hatch.

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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.