Usually when a test car shows up for me, the delivery person takes me round so I can familiarise myself with the controls. Usually this task is uneventful, but when I was taken down the road to meet my Abarth 500e in its “Acid Green” paintwork I uttered out loud “on my God” – which I appreciate is a dated if not cliched phrase, but I hope makes the point about the Abarth’s visual impact, and indeed its wider socio-economic function.
For it is a very arresting thing indeed, the Abarth 500e. It’s based on the cuddly Fiat 500e, but this is the Mr Hyde to the Fiat’s Dr Jekyll, and the designers have done an exemplary job on the detailing which makes the cars surprisingly distinct.
Aside from its lysergic acid diethylamide-inspired appearance, as if a poisonous Amazonian frog on giant alloy wheels, the name ABARTH is picked out in big black letters along the front, and the Abarth “scorpion” badging and detailing is exquisitely executed. If this is what they call “badge engineering”, then it is badge engineering in the hugest of forms.
There is a nice blend of the full-colour Abarth scorpion shield and a stylised stripey graphic that suggests someone has spent a good deal of time and creative energy on the task of making this thing look funkadelic. (The scorpion logo, by the way, is an unusual astrological reference in the car world – the co-founder of the Abarth tuning house, Carlo Abarth, born under the sign of Scorpio).
They’ve mildly re-engineered the electric Fiat 500e to endow the Abarth with reasonable performance. Compared with the most boisterous version of the old, petrol-powered model (and this new Abarth is all-battery only), it’s mostly not as fast and has a lower top speed – but being electric it delivers a huge but controlled punch from rest, thanks to the inherently torquey electric motor, upgraded for the Abarth. There is a choice of driver-selectable modes – Scorpion Track and Scorpion Street, for a bit of go, or Turismo if you want to eke out the most from its range on a charge, say 140 miles.
Even better, they’ve made the car sound like a “real” Abarth, by giving it an external soundtrack just like burbling highly-strung Abarths traditionally enjoyed in the age of the internal combustion engine. This time the recorded soundtrack emanates from a speaker round the back of the car (weatherproofed apparently). The tone rises and falls with how hard you drive the vehicle, so it can startle onlookers aurally as well as visually. Obviously, it adds to safety, compared to the gentle noise made by most battery electric vehicles, so it’s good for road safety too.
Now, some people have mocked the sheer silliness of this, and compared the sound to a cow going through a difficult labour, but it seemed OK to me, and, via a button on the steering wheel, you can just mute it if children are pointing and laughing at you. This is, needless to say, not a car for the bashful.
All this, plus comfortable Alcantara-trimmed cabin (faux suede that is), intuitive controls and a just-about acceptable ride make this a highly significant product from the sprawling corporate giant Stellantis, which owns Peugeot, Vauxhall, Citroen and many more brands as well as Fiat and Abarth.
Abarth 500e Turismo
Price: £41,975 (as tested; range starts at £34,195)
Drivetrain: Single electric motor, powered by 42kWh battery pack
Top speed: 96mph
Fuel economy: 2.4kWh/ml
CO2 emissions: 0
You see, Stellantis have invested a lot in battery electric vehicles, and they, and the industry as a whole, have to counter the notion that electric cars are dull, like washing machines or microwaves. By making a little hot hatch (also available as a cabrio) about as much fun to own and drive as most performance derivatives of small cars in the past, the company will be doing its bit to boost the image of the products and persuade petrolheads that they can enjoy being electricheads too.
I’m not saying this Abarth 500e is as exhilarating as any VW Golf GTI, say, but it’s a start. When Mini, quite soon, launch their performance versions of the next generation all-electric Mini Cooper they’ll be faced with a similar challenge.
So, enhancing the image of the electric vehicle and making one actually enthusiastic about the technology is something the Abarth does with aplomb, and it’s life-affirming. Unfortunately, it comes with the usual electric car premium – about £40,000 for really not a lot of metal (though what there is, is quite a talented package). There are a few bargains to be had in the new/lightly used electric car market because of some distortions caused by the government’s disjointed electric car sales mandate, which makes shopping around highly advisable.
But the fact is that one way or another electrification is pushing the cost of motoring up, leastways in the short run. There’s always a sting in the tail, you see.