It all started with an email. A running TradeMe search for “Fiat” turned up this listing which got me thinking about a way not to replace the Fiat Bravo HGT which is my daily drive. I should also credit, blame, Sam “Seen Through Glass” whose numerous Abarth YouTubes. many I (re)watched over Christmas/New Year, contributed to the Abarth being on my radar again.
Love the Bravo, but time for a change?
I’ve owned this 2001 car since 2008 and it has 252,000km on the clock. Although reasonably reliable minor mechanical problems can cost a lot to fix thanks to next to no room in the engine bay. I knew that when I got the car and offset a ridiculously low purchase price, no finance costs, and almost no depreciation, against higher running costs. Although not exotic they are rare in New Zealand, probably less than 20 still on the road. I really like driving it and it offers a good mix of performance and economy in a practical (for me) package.
However, a recent gearbox repair led me to think it was time to consider something newer. This photo from the garage was a bit of a sign. That's the subframe, engine & transmission out of the car. In the end it was only a few hundred dollars parts, gearbox bearing & engine mount, but labour to get them in there was quite a bit more…
But which new(er) car?
The problem with me getting a new(er) car, in NZ, is I have a rather limiting set of criteria:
- Italian | I prefer Italian cars, even if they are not exotic. A history of owning Fiat 127, 128, Uno 45 and Bravo HGT is a bit of a clue
- Manual | Yes, I have driven modern autos… yes, with paddle shifts… yes, I prefer manual… yes, even commuting in Auckland traffic.
- Hatchback | It is just more practical (see 5)
- Four seater, if not four doors | Although I commute alone four seats are a must for family transport. I don’t have children but the seats need to be usable by elderly relations.
- Can fit a bicycle in the back | I don't like bike racks of any type. Apart from the security hassle (when parked) I don't like the bike being out in the exhaust, wet & road grime, blasted by slipstream while driving.
I have been looking for a while and the most likely candidate was an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. It really is a cousin to the Bravo (or more correctly its Stilo successor) as shares a similar Fiat Group platform. Although it’s a five door hatch the hidden rear door handles (in a black panel at the end of the window) means it looks more like a three door. Problem is a decent used one would still be around $20-25,000 (the Bravo is worth little as a trade). Although newer, it really offered no more performance, space or fun than the old Bravo and I didn’t really want to spend that sort of money on a car.
The other alternative which fit my criteria was even further outside the budget!
A new Commodore helped me decide, to keep the old car.
I had a Holden V6 Commodore rental for a week in Australia. Although it had all the supposed improvements of a new car – touch screen, cruise control, auto transmission, Start/Stop button, Keyless doors etc – I didn't find any of them very compelling. In fact I thought keyless entry and engine start/stop button were just annoying. At least with a key you know where it is and have somewhere convenient to store it. A week of driving an auto, especially on some ‘interesting’ rural roads, convinced me I really don't like them at all.
I found the Sat Nav in the dash was worse to use than than a phone in a holder, nearer your line of sight, and touch screen input in a car is just horrible. The other thing I found surprising was, width aside, how much room there wasn't in a much larger car. In some respects the Commodore felt smaller inside than the Bravo!
A bike ride, A call
The email had me thinking and for me the best place to contemplate something is cycling. By the time I got to this seat (overlooking the Waitemata Harbour & Tamaki Estuary) I decided to make a call. The asking price of the Abarth meant I could get it well within my budget and keep the Bravo as a project car. After a decade of commuting, clear coat aging due to being parked outside in the NZ UV (at work, garaged at home), a small carpark ding and stone chips it needs a respray to be good as new. The Abarth wasn't available to view that day but I arranged to see it the following, Monday, evening.
So, what’s an Abarth 500?
Take a Fiat 500 1400, add turbocharger and intercoolers, electronic limited slip diff, replace the suspension with racier firmer components, uprated brakes, 17 inch wider wheels and a higher spec interior and you have an Abarth. It is Fiat’s performance brand; like Mercedes AMG or BMW M compared to their standard models. This short launch video shows a bit of the Abarth heritage it is a homage to.
A test drive, the pre-purchase tick of approval
They say don't buy a car on a wet day but after weeks of fine weather my first drive was in drizzly rain. It was apparent this car had a devoted owner, immaculate condition for age & kilometres, and the country roads near its ‘home’ were the perfect test environment. However, for my first drive in a powerful (for its size) turbo car I didn't own it seemed prudent not to get too ‘enthusiastic’. I saw enough to decide it was certainly worth pursuing, the next step, the skeptical German test!
The owner was accommodating enough to bring it over to my regular garage, about 30km away, for a pre-purchase inspection. They mostly service BMWs so the little Fiat caused some interest but it also had some interesting company. You can see it below on the hoist beside someone else’s impulse buy: a rare 1938 Alvis! There was little to quibble over — lightly kerbed wheels and a brake fluid change needed as it failed the moisture test. Seemed odd as the car was only weeks past a dealer service (double checked with two testers) — so a deal was quickly done!
Perhaps this old sign, lingering in the garage from the owners 1980s Fiat 125 racing days, was a sign…
Wheels fixed and a bit of history
Soon after picking up the car I arranged to get the wheels sorted. WheelFixIt are near work and did an awesome job refurbing my Bravo wheels a couple of years ago. In one of those small world Kiwi things their service manager knew the Abarth as used to work at the dealers where it was sold and serviced. In an even smaller world thing he also worked at the (different) dealer where I got my Bravo in 2008 and told me more about that. It was sold to clear space to process one of the early batches of Fiat 500s.
The result of their refurb, done in a day ,is four good as new wheels. I told him was very happy with the work but hoped I never need to see them again!
Update 2020-07: I have been back, sadly, but not for kerbing as a hidden slump on a West Coast South Island road took it's toll on one wheel. Was surprised not to get tyre damage, or puncture, but was OK and Wheelfixit worked their magic again with a repair.
I now have a car Powered by Windows, but it needed some help with the phone. My phone paired easily for calls but the Fiat/Microsoft system has never handled Bluetooth media. Remember this system dates back to 2007 when car media meant an iPod or you copied mp3 files into the cars system!
Fiat had an expensive adaptor to connect to your iDevice but I found Noel Leeming sell a neat little Bluetooth receiver, the Griffin ITrip Clip Bluetooth Headphone Adapter, which works fine with the car’s USB and Aux in ports. The unit itself sits in the cupholder next to the cup’like (forever to be unused) ashtray. It pairs separately to phone audio so that still works just fine. Media Sorted!
Stress testing phone holders
The other unexpected challenge was finding a phone holder which worked. My Samsung windscreen mount one was out of reach because of the cab forward screen base, rake of the screen and seat position, even with my short legs!
I tried a ‘Smaak Fuse’ dashboard mount wireless charging holder which stuck to the dash well enough but didn't grip the phone hard enough. The Esseesse suspension is firm and cornering plus bumps had the phone flying out of the still solidly mounted holder!
I changed to an Adonit Auto-Clamping Wireless Car Charger which is more rigid and holds on to the phone solidly. Wireless charging is ok with my S7 but I find in ‘normal operation mode’, GPS running plus podcast playing, it only just keeps up with the phone. You might even lose a couple of percent battery per hour but it certainly doesn’t recharge. If I turn off the GPS it will slowly charge. On longer trips I’ll just put the cable power direct into the phone as get full function with recharging then.
Update 2020-07: I gave up with the Adonit as found wireless charging (for my S7 at least) could not keep up with the power drain of running GPS + Podcast apps, my usual mode. Reverted to the old basic Samsung holder as they are more rigid and failsafe. Have to plug in power but that's a minor hassle and no problems with running any number of apps running off the lighter plug with an adaptor.
And a new plate to remind me how to say Abarth
There is no getting away from the fact that this is a ‘cute’ little car and with its FYE… number plate I tended to think of it as Faye! There were funds left in the car budget for a custom plate so I decided it had to have a new ‘name’.
I’ve known the brand Abarth since watching the Fiat 131 Abarth rally cars in the 1970s as a kid. I’ve always said, heard it said, “AH-BATH’ but while researching this car discovered that was not really correct. Karl Abarth was Austrian but when he moved to Italy changed citizenship and altered his name to the Italian equivalent Carlo. I’m not sure how the Austrians would pronounce it but the Italian pronunciation of Abarth has a silent ‘h’, more like AH-BART or AR-BART. As the ABARTH plate was already taken (on a Abarth 124 in the Waikato) I moved the H along to a phonetically correct AHBART!
Seemed a bit ‘mean’ to leave my faithful old car on its regular plates and they were a bit scruffy. When I got it in 2008 I looked at getting the model as a plate 155HGT, BRAVO was already taken, but never did. It was still available…
A short history of the “new” Fiat 500 and its Abarth cousin:
The ‘new’ Fiat 500 has been on sale (in NZ) for about a decade but the design concept dates back to long before that. First hint was the Trepiùno concept, by Roberto Giollito, introduced at the 2004 Geneva Motor Salon. It was an homage to the 1960s Fiat 500 (Bambina in NZ!) but adopted a modern front wheel drive platform and, ultimately, two, three & four cylinder engines.
It was a productionised, with design by Frank Stephenson (who also did the BMW Mini), as the Fiat 500 which was released in 2007 (2008 in NZ) as a stylish, if expensive, little town car. They ranged from $27-33,000 for a top spec model in NZ when the Panda (it shared a platform & drivetrain with) was nearer $20,000. There were rumours of a ‘hot’ Abarth version but it was not seen in Europe until 2008.
The Abarth 500 arrived in NZ in 2011, it cost about $43,000 and only came with the ‘Esseesse’ performance package.
“The Abarth 500 is offered in other markets with a 1.4 turbocharged engine producing 99kW and 206Nm. The Esseesse upgrade is then purchased literally as a box of bits which the dealer fits. It consists of upgraded brakes, 17 inch alloys, a sport suspension kit, high performance tyres, a BMC air filter and a re-mapping programme for the engine ECU, taking power and torque out to 118kW/230Nm. The front wheels are driven through a 5 speed manual gearbox”
“Due to legislative requirements Down-under, which would deem such daring upgrades as modifications requiring engineer’s inspection and certification, the decision was taken by Australian and New Zealand Importer Ateco to have the cars factory built with the Esseesse goodies, the only markets in the world to do so.”
The Esseesse name is a tribute to the 1960s Abarth 695 SS (below). More recent models have also adopted the 695 badge too.
Although plainly based on the Fiat 500 you see the Abarth name and Scorpion logo everywhere. The only place I have seen Fiat branding is briefly on the stereo display as it turns on.
It’s a hoot to drive, strong performance and incredible grip/handling mean you can maintain high average speeds without speeding. The ride is very firm, but well damped, and the short wheelbase means you notice every ripple in the typical Kiwi highway but I found it fine for touring. Certainly notice the difference getting back in the Bravo which has a more relaxed ‘GT’ feel.
The Scorpion was Carlo Abarth’s birth sign, sigh, but rather appropriate for his little cars with a sting in their tail!
The instrument binnacle and body colour on the dashboard are reminiscent of the original 500. The shift position looks a bit odd but works really well. Love the shift feel, it seemed familiar but quicker due to the short lever, then read it uses the same gearbox as my Bravo!
The concentric speedo & tachometer in the main pod are unusual but actually work, and read, really well. The little pod on top of the dash is a Turbo Boost gauge and shift light. In normal mode it tells you when to shift for best economy, press the sport button and it indicates shifting for best performance. Sport mode also alters the steering feel (weight) and throttle sensitivity to the point where I don’t use it for motorway rush hour commuting as it is too touchy! No touch screen, the display is controlled by a single button on the end of the wiper stalk, and simple buttons for all the commonly used controls.
It is a pity the 30km/h speedo increments don’t match many NZ speed limits (50/70/80/100 most common) but I have audible limit set on my phone (why I prefer the Here We Go drive app over Google). The small multi-function display has water temp and fuel ‘gauges’ and a text display with range, two trip functions (each with distance, time, avg speed & avg consumption), clock, media (Station/Title/Artist) and instant consumption. Range estimation is a bit useless as, depending how you drive, consumption varies wildly from about ~6-9l/100km, shows 25 l/100km at full throttle! A mix of normal city/hwy gives about 7-8 l/100km but the tiny 35 Litre tank means frequent, if cheap, fills. My best commute, religiously obeying the economy mode shift light, is 5.9 l/100km (about 49mpg in the old measure).
It’s impressive how much performance you get from a 4 cylinder 1.4 Litre Turbo, some variants of the Abarth go up to 134 kW/180 Hp, and mine is similar to the 5 cylinder 2.0 Litre Bravo. It has a power output of 113 kW (154 Hp) vs BART’s 118 kW (160 Hp) but much less torque — 186 Nm vs BART’s 230 Nm — and the Bravo is about 150kg heavier. Some once said the HGT stood for ‘Hasn’t Got Torque’ and, while it goes fine, I do notice that more now!
I’m keeping the Bravo, as my more practical car, but the Abarth back seats are ok for short trips. Rear seat leg room is fine but the curving roofline means headroom is a bit tight. The boot is ok and, seats folded, I can get my bike in there but do have to take both wheels off (vs one in the Bravo).
Given the firm ride I’m impressed how solid the interior and trim are. It’s an eight year old ‘Fiat’ with no rattles. The only real sign of age related wear was a bit of scuffing on the headliner near the passenger hand grip, clinging on?, and the embroidered Abarth logo on the drivers floor mat. I got a near new mat set on TradeMe and use the old ones to protect the only ‘cheap’ looking part of the interior. The back of the rear seat is just painted black metal. When folded that becomes the load surface so I protect it with the old mats.
It’s easy to park, short as!, but for the size has a huge turning circle (~11.8m). I guess its the a result of a bigger engine/gearbox and wider tyres than the normal 500s (9-10m). For real world comparison it’s about the same as a BMW 5 Series sedan!
In summary it’s a fun, cute, quick little car which makes me grin every time I turn the key. Most of these photos were taken on a drive north of Auckland, to Kaikohe, to ride the Twin Coast Cycle Trail. Its next mission, in late April, is a road trip to Christchurch to join another cycle trip with a route favouring fun driving more than shortest distance. It is not the first time I’ve driven the length of New Zealand in a little white Fiat, back in 2004 it was an Uno 45!
I blogged about the ‘new’ 500 long before owning one:
- It's a new Fiat 500? | 2007-03
- The Fiat 500 is coming to New Zealand! | 2006-12
- New Zealand, the Fiat 500 model range & pricing is out! | 2008-01
- Lucire’s Car to Be Seen in for 2008 - Fiat 500 | 2008-06
- Fiat 500 Abarth, the people’s supercar! | 2008-08
- The ultimate CAD/BIM accessory, a Fiat 500 Mouse! | 2009-07
- The Abarth 500, arriving soon in New Zealand | 2011-02
- The best small car that isn’t a Fiat 500, is? | 2011-03