In a world full of fun and fizzy hot hatches, the Abarth 500 is one of a kind. Dinky but hilariously aggressive, as well as unashamedly firm and noisy, it’s a crazy kind of car – in a good way.
Along with the timeless styling, it is this unbridled enthusiasm that serves as one of the biggest differences between the Abarth 500 and rivals such as the MINI Cooper S, Citroen DS3 and Volkswagen Up GTI. It is also why the 500 has been such an enduring success, both in terms of critical acclaim and sales.
Combine this popularity with the fact the Abarth 500 has now been on sale for more than a decade, and what you end up with is a vibrant used marketplace for these cars. With prices for early examples starting at around £5,000, it’s a wickedly tempting option…
You will, though, have to consider which Abarth 500 you want to buy, and specifically whether you’re happy with the one that has 133bhp from the standard 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine, or if you want the power hike to 158bhp that came with the Esseesse (pronounced ‘essay-essay’) upgrade. Go for the latter and you’ll also get stiffer suspension, uprated brakes, and bigger 17-inch alloys.
Then there’s the choice between a fixed roof example and the convertible 500C with its full-length canvas roof. Finally, to add one more twist to the tale, in 2016 Abarth abandoned the 500 name in favour of 595 (and the even more exclusive 695). The good news is, whatever used 500-based Abarth takes your fancy – and whatever your budget might be – it is looking like a great buy.
The Abarth 500 is a terrier of a car to drive; scrappy, boisterous, and happier the harder you play. Sure, fling it into a corner with more optimism than realism and you’ll be handed armfuls of understeer, but at anything less than a rampage the front end should be pinned-down and grippy, giving you confidence to revel in the pointy handling.
Just be aware that the restless, bobbing, and occasionally crashing way the 500 deals with scruffy roads can become wearing, especially in Esseesse models with their firmer suspension and bigger wheels. Or, put another way, the Abarth is not one of those hot hatches that also dishes out high levels of refinement and comfort. But if you can live with that you’ll find a car that is frothing with fun.
Mechanically speaking, the Abarth 500 has a solid reputation for reliability. Official service intervals are an unusually huge 18,000 miles, but time and experience has shown that it’s wise to do an interim oil change at 9,000 miles, so look for that as a marker of a car that’s been really cared for.
Tuning upgrades are common, as plenty of buyers wanted more poke and a smoother power delivery without the stiffer springs and cost of the Esseesse kit. That’s no bad thing, as long as it’s a reasonable power jump to a maximum of 170bhp. Go beyond that, and the brakes and suspension should also be upgraded.
Trim is the weakest area. Door handles can come loose, washer jets can rattle themselves to pieces, and the infotainment system felt dated at launch and is even worse now; on early examples you’ll even need an adaptor to play music from an iPhone.
Other points to bear in mind are that the cambelt should be replaced every 75,000 miles or five years, although parts are inexpensive and the Abarth is also relatively easy to work on if you’re a handy DIY mechanic. And on the suspension front, drop links can wear, and top mounts were prone to rusting on early models.
Other than that, as long as you’re not looking for a roomy interior or laid-back commuter car, the Abarth is a spectacular cut-price hot hatch.
Abarth 500 / Esseesse
Built: 2008 – present / 2009 – present
Power: 133bhp @ 5,500rpm / 168bhp @ 5,750rpm
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds / 0-62mph in 7.4 seconds
Top speed: 127mph / 131mph
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