Caffeine&Machine cultofmachine Chasing the Cult of Machine Abarth 500e: a very difficult Italian job

Abarth 500e: a very difficult Italian job

4 August, 2023

With its artificial exhaust noise, the Abarth 500e has been nothing if not controversial. Is this a true EV hot hatch, or does it serve a new purpose?

The new Abarth 500e features a little easter egg tucked moulded into the rubberised plastic of the interior door pull. Nestled into a little storage bin – the sort of place that ends up full of loose change and crumbs – is a silhouette of Dante Giacosa’s iconic original Fiat 500, and the words ‘Made in Torino’.  

See, in an attempt to stay relevant in a car market that’s increasingly turning away from the kind of cheap, cheerful cars Fiat has built itself on, it’s capitalising on its biggest selling point: its Italian-ness. That’s why we’ve bought this little green slab of Italian joy to Coventry. No, seriously, stick with us. 

Coventry and Turin both lie in the industrial heartlands of their respective nations, and have deep-rooted connections with their national automotive industries. As a result, they’ve both been political hotspots over the years, and have produced their own automotive icons. Both, too, had their historic city centres changed beyond recognition by bombing raids during the Second World War.  

The city in the British Midlands has even doubled for the one in northern Italy on the big screen. While most of the chase sequence from 1969’s The Italian Job was filmed in Turin, the iconic scene where the Minis escape through a sewer was shot in a real-life sewer tunnel beneath the streets of Coventry. Really, the two cities are kindred spirits, so if the 500e works in Coventry, then it’ll work in its hometown. Probably.  

This is the car that’s tasked with propelling Abarth – Fiat’s in-house tuning branch – into the electric age. It’s a big task for a company whose modern history has been written around affordable, no-frills fun and rorty exhaust notes. 

We’ll tackle the former of those things later, but first, the noise issue, because it’s the single biggest talking point around this car. Yes, the 500e makes a fake exhaust noise. Created around a recording of a petrol-powered Abarth 500, the synthesised noise – what Abarth calls a ‘Sound Generator’ – plays from speakers inside and outside the car. 

It fires into a loud and lumpy ‘idle’, it ‘revs’ as you accelerate (though without the noise being punctuated with artificial gearchanges), and it tails off as you back off the throttle and the regen braking kicks in (although, with the regen switched off, the sound instead stays at a flat pitch when you ease off – a slightly odd and not entirely pleasant thing to adjust to).  

At times, it’s genuinely convincing, and you might forget when you’re bumbling around town that what you’re driving doesn’t actually have an engine. Out in the open, it can become a little droney and from the outside, it’s surprisingly loud – think petrol Abarth with an aftermarket exhaust. Get up close, though, and it becomes clear it’s being produced digitally and not through burning petrol. Clearly, Abarth want to make it the centrepiece of the car – switching it off is a time-consuming process that involves diving into several layers of menu. 

A gimmick? Probably. One that will win over the Abarth faithful? That remains to be seen. A missed opportunity for Abarth to crib from its Stellantis stablemates and give you the option of having a little electric city car that sounds like an Alfa GTV-6 or a Maserati GranTurismo? Almost definitely. 

During the several millennia that they’ve been on sale, petrol-powered Abarth 500s (or 595s, or 695s) have never particularly been the hardcore driver’s choice amongst little hot hatches. They’ve amassed their sizeable cult following because they sound naughty, look cute, offer relatively affordable thrills, and radiate that frenetic, joyful Italian energy. These are the essences the 500e will have to capture to be successful. 

We’ve covered sound. In the looks department, we think they’ve nailed the brief. The standard Fiat 500e is a good starting point, a chic and coherent bit of design that nicely updates both Dante Giacosa’s iconic original and Frank Stephenson’s 2007 revival. 

The Abarthification has imbued it with a level of swagger that belies its diminutive dimensions and bubbly profile, especially on the 18-inch alloys of this range-topping Turismo model. Paired with the chunky bodykit, it looks like a proper little streetfighter. 

The interior, too, is visually and texturally wonderful, if lacking a little of the old car’s retro charm. There’s an excellent pair of bucket seats, and the dash is slathered in Alcantara. Even though it’s at the comparatively cheaper end of the EV spectrum, the basic electric Fiat 500 is a strong starting point, with an airy, premium-feeling cabin. 

Ergonomically, it’s less successful. The driving position is classic small Italian car, placing you high up, bent-legged and with arms extended. It’s okay for nipping about town, but for taller drivers, it can get uncomfortable after a while. The bottom of the centre console also intrudes unhelpfully into the space where your redundant left foot wants to naturally rest. 

Like most little electric cars, the 500e is brilliant around town. It zips about, riding a wave of low-end torque, and it’s possible to cruise around without touching the brake pedal at all with the regen dialled up. With the Sound Generator cranked and finished in eye-searing Acid Green, though, it’s not a car for blending in. 

It’s out in the countryside where cars like this can fall apart, but the little stylised scorpions that are found all over this car signify at least some sporting intent. Indeed, pitch it into a corner and it hangs on remarkably well, finding a deep reserve of grip even in wet, greasy conditions. 

The steering is nicely weighted, but almost entirely devoid of feel, all the frenetic writhing, wriggling and torquesteering that characterises the best front-drive cars carefully dialled out. It also self-centres in an unpleasantly artificial way. It’s quite bizarre to whizz around with that soundtrack and not have a stumpy manual gearknob close to hand. 

Like nearly all EVs, the 500e whips away from a standstill gamely, but acceleration tails off quickly. Power is quoted at 152hp, coming in below the 165hp that now marks the entry point to a petrol-powered 595. It will outdrag its combustion sibling to 60, though – 6.8 seconds for the 500e compared to 7.1 for the 595. Top speed is just 96mph, but very few of these little urban-focused EVs have any need to breach three figures. 

The quoted range is 164 miles – more than ample for the kind of journeys this car will spend most of its time doing, and stronger than rivals like the Honda e and Mini Cooper SE.  

Frankly, the 500e is likely to be a bitter pill to swallow for hardcore fans of the petrol-powered Abarth. It’ll always be tricky for an EV to capture that kind of fizzy cheekiness. The synthesised noise and the darty handling go some way, but they’re probably not enough to appease the old Abarth diehards. The comments on Abarth’s social channels whenever they post about the 500e seem to confirm this. Luckily for them, the petrol-powered 595 remains on sale alongside the EV for the time being. Affordability isn’t exactly its forte either – the basic car starts at £34,195 – a bump of over £10k over a petrol car – and rises to £38,195 for this Turismo model.   

Viewed outside of the context of its predecessor, though, it’s a seriously convincing little urban EV. It looks great and it goes well. It’s hard to find fault with around town, but it’s nice to know that if you do have to take a trip out to where the roads are twisty, it can still handle itself. Crucially, though, it makes you smile. It’s a happy little car, and brings a little slice of Italian colour to whatever environment it’s in – from Coventry to Turin. And if you do happen to live somewhere sunny, then there’s more good news: it comes as a convertible too.  

Share This