Bet there aren't many people out there who can brag about sharing a race track experience with famous Formula 1 racing drivers, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa... Well, I can because all three of us have driven the sizzling new limited edition 500 Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari on a race track.
If you want one, you'd better get your name on the list. Now!
OK, so we were not on the same race track at the same time, nor even in the same country and they actually own their cars while I just got to do three laps in the car around the Zwartkops race track near Pretoria, but it's a nice thought anyway.
Only 25 lucky South Africans will become owners of these scorpion-badged beauties because that's the total number of cars allocated to this country. Besides that, not many people have the wallet and the willingness to part with the rather hefty asking price of R550 000 for one of these limited-edition cars that are sure to become sought-after collector's pieces.
But the good news is that the well-known red, yellow and black scorpion badge is back in South Africa and there are also a few less expensive Abarths variants on offer.
This one's for the man from Mars
The new Abarth is the brand's interpretation of the standard Fiat 500 but the local Fiat distributors are adamant that Fiat and Abarth are two entirely different entities. The 'normal' Fiat 500 range varies in price from R141 000 to R223 000 and by far the majority of owners hail from Planet Venus whereas the naughty Abarth is aimed directly at those lads from Mars who would be prepared to cough up anything from R230 000 to R255 000 for an Abarth.
More shunt per grunt.
The cheeky new 500 Abarth has got all the naughty-boy appeal that fuel-blooded lads enjoy, starting with a hot 1.4-litre turbocharged oven tucked in under its stubby bonnet. This keen to rev engine will kick out 99kW when pushed to 5500rpm and 206Nm from around 3000rpm when clicked into 'Sport' mode (In 'Normal' mode power drops to 180Nm to turn it into an economical commuter).
While on paper these figures might not have the kick of a Stroh rum chaser on the race track they translate into a pretty spirited gallop, accentuated by the smallness of the car and the determined and confident way it clings through the bends.
Fast enough to see you in court
Top speed is around 205km/h and the Abarth will do the standard 0-100km/h dash in 7.9 seconds. Yet, in spite of the fact that it's a pleasantly rapid bit of metal it is impressively frugal, sipping just 5.4-litres/100km over a combined cycle. Having said that, I cannot see many owners being content to drive this sporty Abarth in granny fashion and I'm not sure these frugal figures mean much in Abarth real time.
Ehhh... Wadda da beauty.
The 500 Abarth is available in standard format and also as a cabriolet, equipped with a retractable roof for those who favour more of a poser's wind-in-the-hair cruising drive style. The drop-top's engine produces slightly more power, with 103kW on hand at 5000rpm when fitted with an MTN transmission.
Go for manual - it's the automatic choice
While on the subject of transmissions it's worth mentioning that the auto box fitted to the standard Fiat 500 drew widespread criticism and this might well happen to the Abarth which has a similar set-up - so, if you are interested, do take a test drive in both the manual and auto options. From a personal perspective the two are poles apart and I would opt for the manual any day.
But back to the Cabriolet, which really impressed on the race track with its stability which is not really a trademark of open roof cars. I drove it for a few laps around Zwartkops with the top down without a hint of buffeting and it felt great.
Other good news is that Abarth is offering a serious go-faster kit for both the hard and soft top versions. Called the esseesse it boosts performance, safety and dynamics and although pricey at R37 000 it does a great job and is worth serious consideration. For example, it pushes power up to 117kW and maximum torque to 230Nm, top speed up to 209km/h and cuts down the zero to 100km/h drag to 7.6 seconds.
What the system also brings to the party is an upgrade in braking with high-performance ventilated discs, better cling with Koni shocks and red springs set lower than on the standard Abarth, 17-inch alloy wheels in white or titanium, a set 205/40 ZR17 rubber all round, four sensors to monitor tyre pressures, a special air cleaner and look-what-I-got esseesse badges for the engine cover and tailgate to give even more bragging rights to the already desirable Scorpion badging.
Dressed only to do da business
Not that the Abarths are not already dressed to kill and destined to bring back sweet memories of the 1950s and 1960s when car cool was measured in cubic inches until along came Abarth and caused mild hysteria by converting the little Noddy car Fiat Topolino into a V8 eater. This was when the phrase 'small but deadly' was born... a image that lives on today with the same grin-inducing pleasure as AMG, M Class, S Class, CTi, GTR and other tar-shredding badges.
Here's that racing pedigree: unique Abarth instrumentation, which includes analogue gauge to measure the turbo pressure and which also tells you when to swap cogs.
Even from the rear the latest Abarth grabs your attention with its swish bumper, aerodynamic extractor, twin exhausts, tailgate spoiler and, of course, the legendary scorpion logo printed above the silencer, just as on the historical Abarth exhausts.
The front end is equally don't-mess-with-me with its big air intakes and two symmetrical 'nostrils' on either side of the bumpers that correspond exactly to the position of two intercoolers and are there to boost airflow to where it is needed most.
Factor in the sexy alloys, the eye-catching decorations that come with the extras kit plus the cocky squat of the Abarth and you have an automotive little bull terrier spoiling for a brawl on the race track.
Nice touches in the living quarters
A quick glance inside reveals more racing pedigree: unique Abarth instrumentation, analogue gauge to measure the turbo pressure and which also tells you when to swap cogs, a three-spoke, flat-bottomed steering wheel with moulded grips, aluminium pedals and leather tipped gear lever and hand brake. Other nice touches include wrap-around racing seats available in a choice of two black or red specifications, or in two types of cloth.
Peace of mind safety features include ABS disc brakes with EBD and HBA and seven airbags plus a very clever Transfer Control (TTC) system that functions like a limited slip differential in corners by using the ESP sensors and braking system to transfer the engine's torque away from the unloaded inner wheel to the loaded outer wheel - all of which works well but it does bring in quite a bit of understeer which some enthusiastic drivers like and others don't.
I certainly felt the benefits of TTC on the tight Zwartkops track, which brings me back to the star of the show, the seriously cute little red Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari. What a lovely little car this turned out to be, armed as it is with 132kW piece of fine-tuned metal that shoves the Tributo Ferrari from standstill to 100km/h in under seven seconds and on to a top speed of about 225km/h. All this is done to the tune of a cracking symphony from a special 'Record Monza' exhaust system which goes from gurgle to loud when the rev counter flicks past the 3000rpm mark.
Snazzy, sporty and hugely appealing.
Also immediately noticeable were the brakes which function much, much more efficiently than those of the lesser-powered Abarths and the Tributo's extremely confident cling through the corners.
Inside, too, things are on a higher level - snazzy, sporty and hugely appealing, right down to its kick plates and a plate bearing the vehicle's unique series number.
Sadly though, the few laps were not enough to really get the hang of the car's strange transmission which, even when operated via the paddles on the steering wheel, didn't quite do it for me, an opinion shared by a few other motoring journos.
But hey, nothing can really alter the fact that the new 500 Abarth brat pack is really very special and when it comes to zip and fun it is right up there with some of the best and even better than others who play the retro game.
If Fiat, sorry, Abarth can get its dealer network in place don't be surprised if the brand sells more than the 100 cars they are projecting to sell in South Africa this year. Moreover, Abarths will sell because they are delightfully different and lots of fun to drive and NOT just because it's a retro brand name.
Meanwhile, here's to you, Fernando and Felipe, you lucky so and so's...
Bizcommunity.com motoring editor Henrie Geyser () has worked as a journalist in Cape Town, London and Windhoek for the Argus Company (now Independent Newspapers) and spent 12 years at The Cape Argus in Cape Town. He then owned and ran a public relations consultancy for 13 years. He joined the online publishing industry through iafrica.com, where he worked for five years as news editor and editor. He now freelances for a variety of print and online publications, on the subjects of cars, food and travel, among others; and is a member of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists.
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