First Drive: Abarth 500e 2023 Review
From the kid sticking a piece of cardboard to flap in the spokes of their bike, to the supercar owner spending thousands on a fancy titanium exhaust system, the emotional connection between sound and speed is deeply embedded in us all. And that's a problem for car manufacturers whose internal combustion powered heritage depends on it as we transition into the era of silent electric propulsion.
Sure, ludicrous acceleration is now a given in everything from superminis to saloon cars. But how to make that punch to the gut stir the heart at the same time? Step up Abarth and its twist on the all-electric Fiat 500 Electric, complete with a 200mm woofer in the rear bumper amplifying a simulation of the sound of the Record Monza exhaust fitted to lairier versions of the internal combustion powered Abarth 595 and 695.
Hearing it ‘ticking over’ at a bassy fast idle and then ‘rev’ in response to prods of the throttle is certainly something a bit different in EV world. But is it anything more than a gimmick? More on that in due course.
- Stylish inside and out
- Fun to drive
- Successful reinvention of a much-loved brand
We don't like
- Noise generator’s drone on a cruise
- Forward visibility at junctions
- Cramped inside
Abarth’s traditions for souping up Fiat 500s both classic and modern are well established, and visually it’s not a huge stretch translating that to the electric version of the new-school cinquecento. The familiar scorpion logo has gained a lightning flash to symbolise the electrification and is joined by the Abarth name spelled out in long-hand across the bonnet and bootlid to reinforce the performance sub-brand as something distinct from the Fiat roots.
The ‘Poison Blue’ and ‘Acid Green’ of the cars on the launch certainly stand out, the Abarth 500e sitting squat on 17- or 18-inch wheels and gifted a more muscular stance thanks to the revised front and rear bumpers. It does the trick, the horizontal split for the headlights where the clamshell bonnet bisects them giving the Abarth a more aggressive face, while those going all-in can opt for the amusingly named Scorpionissima. That sounds like what you’d get if you asked ChatGPT to create an Abarth trim level but actually turns out to be a set of loud’n’proud side decals and ‘certificate of authenticity’, whatever that is.
Fresh but familiar, overall the Abarth 500e is a successful if shamelessly retro-inspired twist on the brand’s legacy for this newly electrified 500.
Performance and Handling
Under the lairy paint and scorpion logos there are worthwhile engineering changes intended to put extra spring in the Abarth version’s step. These include the usual tuning to suspension, tyres and handling, ‘Scorpion Track’ and ‘Scorpion Street’ driving modes and various tweaks to the battery, motor and control systems to eke out every last kW. This sees power increase from 118PS (87kW) on the most powerful version of the regular 500 Electric to 152PS (114kW), while a lower 10:2 final drive ratio for the gearbox cuts two seconds off the 0-62mph time.
That's impressive, but, perhaps unwisely, Abarth let us razz round the Balocco test track in the outgoing 695 Competizione in an attempt to validate its work on the electric 500 and the comparisons weren’t entirely flattering, at least for the more enthusiastic driver.
Sure, the ICE version is a bit long in the tooth, raw in power delivery and handling, and far from perfect. But you sure as hell feel the extra 300kg weighing down the electric version and, while this helps calm the jiggly ride, it fails to replicate the riotous acceleration and thrilling sense of naughtiness that characterises the petrol-powered predecessor. The quest for a more mature and refined vibe also presents as a less dynamic experience at the wheel, with stubborn understeer replacing the previous throttle adjustability.
Fair to say none of this will likely trouble the target audience, for whom the much improved comfort over broken tarmac and more relaxed driving style will likely be of more relevance on the city streets it’s designed for. Trading top speed for punchier acceleration via the revised gearing feels like the right move for the car’s expected role as well, and if not ultimately as fast as the ICE 695 it still feels sufficiently spirited to wear those scorpion badges.
While there’s no escaping the blunting effect of those extra kilos, electrification has been successfully weaved into the Abarth 500 narrative, with slick calibration of throttle, steering and braking both regenerative and conventional, and genuine one-pedal driving in Scorpion Street and Turismo modes. In short this feels like a quality product set up by people who know what they’re doing.
While technically a four-seater the Abarth, like its Fiat cousin, is really more for trendy urban dinkys than family drivers, leg- and headroom in the rear most definitely on the cosy side if you’re sitting behind a fully grown adult in the driver or front passenger seat. No surprises there, to be fair.
In style it’s less overtly retro than the regular 500 Electric, with one-piece seat backs and (on the fancier trim levels) more ‘technical’ black Alcantara for the dash, door cards and upholstery. These and the touchy-feely bits like the steering wheel all have impressive tactile quality on the flashier Turismo and Scorpionissima trims but the rest of the fixtures and fittings feel decidedly cheap, so overall it’s a mixed bag and still not as premium feeling as the Mini Electric that may also be on your shopping list.
Technology and Features
With its standard-fit JBL speakers, digital instruments and fully functional screen-based infotainment system the Abarth 500e seems well attuned to the tastes of the younger target audience it’s aimed at. Wireless charging for your phone on a little shelf under the screen is matched with cable-free connection whether you’re an Apple or Android user as well. It’s quite a big leap from the base 500e trim to the Turismo spec with things like the Alcantara trim, heated seats, that aforementioned wireless phone charging, 360-degree parking cameras and driver assist systems most modern buyers probably expect but one worth making if you want your Abarth to feel sufficiently premium for the price.
The biggest technological talking point is, meanwhile, the standard equipment sound generator. While fake engine noise pumped over the speakers is nothing new in the ICE car world for builders of electric cars it’s more of a challenge, or perhaps opportunity. BMW has gone full future tech with its Hans Zimmer scored orchestral swells in cars like the iX and i7, but Abarth has taken another route and literally simulated the sound of the rorty Record Monza exhaust system fitted to noisier versions of its petrol powered 595 and 695 via that speaker under the rear bumper. As such you get ‘engine’ noise inside and outside the car but, while it builds convincingly with throttle input and speed, without gears to punctuate it you’re left with a steady drone that sounds like you’ve forgotten to shift up out of first gear. You won’t be surprised to hear the novelty of this wears off pretty quickly. The fact you can’t just toggle it on and off with a single switch (or, indeed, on the move) is also annoying.
While we appreciate the motivation and effort, we can live without the gimmicky fake noise, so will keep that switched off in favour of the silence of electric propulsion. In all other respects Abarth’s twist on the 500 Electric is a successful reboot of the brand’s traditions for the electrified era. The funky looks and sporty character have been successfully reinvented and, if perhaps not as raw or fun as the petrol-engined predecessors, the Abarth 500e has wider appeal.
True, you trade a bit of range and efficiency for the performance compared with the 500 Electric, with official range dropping from the 198 miles of the Fiat to just 157 miles in the Abarth. Pays your money and takes your choice there, and while it didn’t look like we’d get much over 120 miles with our lead-footed driving style, a more moderate approach should get you closer.
Parking our petrolhead preferences for a moment, the more refined ride quality and conservative handling than previous Abarths are probably sensible compromises for a more mainstream audience, and the 500e’s style and charisma seem matched with suitable level of engineering rigour. Which Abarth needs, given its head start in the electric hot hatch market will soon face stiffer competition with the pending arrival of a new Mini Electric and Alpine’s hot take on the new Renault 5.
|Powertrain||Single electric motor|
|Torque||235Nm (173lb ft)|
|Transmission||Single-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive|
Reviewed by Dan Trent