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Arbarth 500 Esseese


A back injury is the last thing you want when you have the Arbarth 500 Esseese on test; Steve Vermeulen grins and bares it to see if Fiat’s motorsport heritage shines through in this hotted-up Fiat 500.

I have the distinct displeasure this week of finding out that a serious back problem, is a debilitating, Voltaren-immune, nausea-inducing kind of pain that makes even sitting still frustratingly uncomfortable. An excitable wee performance car with genuine racing heritage and jack-hammer ride, then, is not what I need. But then, this is the aggressively-styled, Arbarth 500 Esseese that just begs you to drive it. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Originally an independent performance house, Arbarth has gone hand in hand with Fiat since the '50s, eventually being brought out by Fiat in 1971, but remains a brand in its own right; in fact, you won’t find a Fiat badge on this car at all. And here’s something to impress (read: bore) your mates with, the ‘h’ in Arbarth is silent.

The Esseese nomenclature is also pretty iconic. Instead of getting the conventional Abarth 500 (99kW / 206Nm) that’s on sale elsewhere around the globe, lucky New Zealand buyers are offered only the top dog 118kW / 230Nm Esseese version. It’s an enthusiast’s car, but $42,990 for a little gumdrop seems quite reasonable for the heritage and fun factor that it offers. But you think this is a car for brand tragics? A handful of limited edition Ferrari Tributo versions have also been allocated for New Zealand. Their price? Ahem, $79,990.

Yeah, it’s small, but don’t be fooled, this is every bit a sports orientated car. The front end is slightly longer than a standard 500 as it houses a turbo so large it wouldn’t fit without the modified bodywork. Ducting cools twin intercoolers and crossed-drilled brakes, the lightweight 17” alloys are shod with high performance rubber, and the significantly lower stance comes via ridiculously firm suspension. In my case, the ride is, literally, spine-crushing.

Whinging aside, with such a short wheelbase and almost no perceivable body roll through corners, the drive reminds me of a Mini JCW, less a bit of horsepower, but with even greater rigidity.

It's great fun, capable of an aggressive turn in that cocks a rear wheel on tight turns - for a road car this would make for an excellent track-day vehicle. You feel like you’re travelling much faster than you really are with the short wheelbase skipping over bumps like a go kart, but ideally a little more suspension travel would help the day to day road commute.

Arbarth’s motorsport pedigree is pleasingly evident: 0-100 comes in 7.4 seconds, the performance brake pads come alive with a bit of heat, the close gear ratios are engaged with a reassuring snick, a sixth cog would be appreciated, but hardly a deal breaker on a car this size and already capable of such impressive economy (6.5 l/100km). The exhaust note gives you the odd rewarding cackle on overrun or pops when you hit the redline, which all adds to the sensation.

Steering is firm and an electronic torque transfer diff can be engaged to reduce torque steer. To be honest, torque steer isn’t a huge issue, but with the TTC engaged you do get improved drive out of a corner and greater traction in the wet.

It’s teeny tiny and only has three doors. Obviously it’s not sold on its practicality, and speaking from experience having to pluck an infant from the back seat is awkward and doesn’t do your back any favours. But you do get five-star safety and comfortable sport seating, and if you don’t need all the throttle response and sporty acceleration you can flip the vehicle out of sport mode and tone down the performance. This means it makes a cool second car Mum can get around town in and an engaging driver’s car Dad can have a pre-dawn blast in or take to the occasional track day.

Just consult your chiropractor first.

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