If you don’t find yourself in uncontrollable bouts of laughter after just a few minutes behind the wheel of the Fiat Abarth 500C Esseesse, then it’s a pretty sure sign you’re in need of a defibrillator.
First a little background information on the now legendary Abarth nameplate. The company was started in Bologna in 1949 before moving to Turin. What started as a performance exhaust upgrade and carburettor kit for Fiats become a fully fledged racing enterprise. And the rest is history.
At $38,990 (before on-road costs), it’s $4000 more than the Fiat Abarth 500 Esseesse three-door hatch and a whopping $18,190 more than the standard Fiat 500C in its most expensive Lounge trim.
This special 500C Esseesse, (derived from ‘Super Sports’ or ‘SS’) is powered by the same 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine as its hatch sibling, producing 118kW of power (at 5500rpm) and 201Nm of torque (at 2750rpm).
An extra 29Nm is available at the same engine speed when the Sport mode is engaged, and we suggest you make that your default setting.
But while the hatch uses a standard five-speed manual gearbox, the convertible is only available with Abarth’s five-speed Competizione automated manual (a semi-automatic clutchless unit), with steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters. It's the same transmission as that used by the former $69,990 range-topping Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari edition.
Rival models that offer this level of city car spice and verve are few and far between, particularly with a drop-top. But the $32,990 Citroen DS3 Cabrio (DSport version) is a worthy contender, offering a similar smattering of ‘cool’ and performance thanks to its 115kW/240Nm turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine.
There’s also the $45,500 Mini Cooper S Roadster, which generates even more power (135kW) from its 1.6-litre turbo four-pot unit.
By peeling off the Abarth’s roof to let both the sun and that grin-inducing crack of its quad exhaust pipes in, you access the most raw Abarth experience available.
However, the Abarth 500C Esseesse isn’t a fully-fledged convertible, rather a car that closely resembles the hatch body, but with a concertina-style retracting fabric roof that tends to diminish your rear visibility when completely opened.
As my first ever 500 tester, I was half expecting a manual winder like the similarly minuscule Citroen 2CV of old, but instead, the Abarth gets an electrically-operated roof mechanism complete with a glass window and rear spoiler.
The roof section can be opened at any driving speed at the press of a button, while the rear-most section can be completely lowered at speeds up to 60km/h for that full open-top experience.
There isn’t much to it’s construction though (it feels a bit flimsy), so noise insulation isn’t great. No such issue with its water-resisting capabilities, with our high-pressure water hose test revealing no leaks whatsoever.
It’s no easy task to make a cutesy Fiat 500 look like a bonafide high-performance machine, especially in convertible guise (its got far too much charm for that), but the Abarth treatment is at least convincing. There are the obligatory scorpion logos (five including one on the engine) along with Abarth decals and special bodywork including big side skirts, bumpers and a Venturi-style rear diffuser that seems less purposeful than the front-mounted cooling ducts.
Other telltale signs include the racing-style white 17-inch alloys wrapped in top-shelf Michelin rubber and red brake callipers, contrasting side strips and mirrors.
Inside it is less ‘Abarth’ and more like a standard Fiat 500, though all the good bits are there.
The leather-wrapped sports bucket seats are both nicely cushioned and well bolstered, but first time drivers will most likely confuse the seat height adjustment lever with the handbrake.
There’s also a fancy three-spoke flat-bottomed steering wheel complete with another scorpion badge that, unbelievably, isn’t adjustable for reach, meaning it can be hard to find the right driving position. That steering wheel has no cruise control stalk branching from it, either, which could be frustrating for long-distance commuters.
Other Abarth touches include a dash-mounted turbo gauge, the aforementioned Sport mode button, and racing-style aluminium pedals. We also like the body-coloured splash on the console, although there are plenty of hard plastics that tend to cheapen this Abarth version. The single best bit about the interior is the analogue turbo boost gauge perched on the dash - it's just begging you to mash the right foot and watch it sweep. It’s old school, but it adds to the behind-the-wheel fun with the Abarth.
It isn’t overly well appointed, however. There’s no large screen or satellite navigation, but there is a USB port and Bluetooth phone connectivity with voice control. The Interscope sound system is nothing to write home about, particularly given there is no Bluetooth audio streaming capability.
The rest of the Abarth’s interior is pretty much generic 500, meaning space is tight, and it has what has to be one of the smallest boots in the business. Rear-seat legroom for the two spaces in the back isn’t much better, but at least the rear seatbacks offer a split-fold function.
It’s also difficult to reach the driver’s side seatbelt and it’s a task best undertaken before shutting the door, otherwise you’re going to need the flexibility of a Yoga instructor.
But for many (this tester included), none of the Abarth’s numerous foibles matters once you strap in and fire up the Esseesse.
While it might not have the grunt of it’s Mini Cooper S rival, there’s no denying the characterful exhaust note of the Abarth’s 1.4-litre turbo, which is especially boisterous from 3000rpm on up through the rev range.
From lower revs there’s some delay in throttle response, but it will still scurry from 0 to 100km/h in a respectable 7.4 seconds, although you’ll need to hit the Sport button if you want to get close to that number.
It never feels blisteringly quick, but it’s certainly punchy and more a case of its bark being more fun than it’s bite.
Punch through the gears at full throttle and you’re rewarded with a riotous snap, crackle and pop exhaust note, though it comes at a price.
When it comes to that automated five-speed transmission it - quite frankly - is an awful piece of engineering that has no place in any Abarth-tuned model.
Each and every upshift is accompanied by a nasty whiplash-inducing lurch that can only be addressed by the driver lifting off the throttle at the precise shift point. But that also means no ‘crackle’ from the quad exhaust pipes.
It's not that economical, either, with our test car only averaging 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres on a combined cycle. That's not good given the Abarth's small 35-litre fuel tank capacity, and well above Fiat's claim of 6.5L/100km.
Braking power is impressive, and there’s little in the way of fade, no matter how hard you lean on them. Matching the more powerful engines, Esseesse-equipped Abarth 500 models also come with larger stoppers -284mm ventilated and drilled discs up front and 240mm drilled rotors down back.
With regard to the ride comfort, I was anticipating the worst. Make no mistake, it’s firm, but there’s more pliancy over uneven surfaces than I expected.
The trade-off is a pocket rocket than steers and handles, as well as it goes. There’s next-to-no roll even under heavy loads and on decent roads is feels glued to the surface.
There’s a nice meaty feeling to the steering, though, that weights up whenever the Sport setting is engaged, and its reasonably quick, too. But it does suffer a terrible turning circle that doesn't make sense for a car of this size.
Front-wheel grip is excellent, with any hint of torque-steer and wheel-spin kept in check by Abarth’s Torque Transfer Control (TTC) System that apportions power between the wheels depending on traction levels.
It might be an ultra-small package, but the Abarth 500 Esseesse gets the full compliment of active safety kit, as well as seven airbags including driver’s knee airbag.
We’re the first to admit there are better all-round hot hatches than the Abarth 500C Esseesse. Many are faster, handle better and ride more comfortably.
Others offer more power for less money and are more lavishly appointed.
But few, if any, are able to offer the same character-filled fun-factor in an open-air package.