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Work or Play!

Work or Play!

There is nary a soul in our country who will have not heard the name Fiat 500. The “Topolino” or “Little Mouse” was first produced in 1936 as one of the smallest cars in the world at the time. The ‘500’ referred to the displacement (albeit rounded down) of its engine – a 569cc four-cylinder water-cooled engine that produced all of 13 horsepower. The more popular “Nuova” 500 was launched in 1957 and that featured an engine more true to the name – a 479cc air-cooled twin that matched the 569cc’s power output.

Fast forward exactly fifty years and Fiat launches a new 500! Two door, four-seat and a shape that harks back to the original – albeit grown in every dimension and front-engined now. A convertible joined the range in 2009, Abarth worked their magic on the car too, and an electric variant, the 500e was sold in the US market (although it is claimed that Fiat lost over US$ 10,000 per car!)

Come 2010 and a two-cylinder powerplant was offered! The 900cc TwinAir gets help from a turbocharger and can produce up to 105bhp – not bad!

The 2015 Abarth we have here is the pride and joy of Kalpika Abayasekara. A Honda fan, he decided to take a leap of faith after his cousin Oshan Samaranayake encouraged him to try something totally different. He took a leap of faith and hasn’t looked back since.

The driving position is slightly upright but you have great visibility all round. The Record Monza exhaust ensures that the engine is heard the moment you fire it up, and when you thumb that Sport button, it makes itself heard even more! Oh joy, a proper three-pedal and manual gearbox car to test, after a carousel of Automatics. Perfectly weighted clutch and a gearlever with a short throw set the tone for the ride. On releasing the clutch, the engine revs up a little to aid getting underway, without you needing to touch the gas – such a simple aid in our stop-go traffic, why can’t other manufacturers do this in their cars?

The engine may be only 1.4 litres, but with the turbo’s help and Abarth’s tuning, it kicks out 180bhp and gives you a nice surge. There’s power everywhere (except a slight lag at low down RPMs that you won’t notice unless you nit-pick). The engine likes to rev, and I bounced off the limiter more than once. Tenacious little thing!

Kalpika pointed out there was launch control too! However, it was a rainy day and since he hadn’t used it yet, I didn’t want to be the one to take its “launch control virginity”, so didn’t touch that button. The Sport button, however, was touched. A lot. Particularly when we wanted to avoid unnecessary attention caused by that Record Monza exhaust. It doesn’t get especially loud as you rev it, but you will hear it among a sea of hybrids, trishaws and mo-bikes.

More on that Sport button – I have rarely encountered a car that has such a personality transformation with it ON. The steering firms up, not noticeably but significantly. The throttle response sharpens to the degree that if you engage Sport with some throttle on, the car leaps forward! It’s such a pleasure to hustle around corners, exhaust roaring behind you and a smile on your face.

The suspension is surprisingly pliant for the daily run too (which Kalpika does, as this is his daily driver), and you can settle into cruise mode with the AC cooling you off and some tunes playing on the stereo. The stereo does lack a bit of bass though, and an under-seat subwoofer would address that. It’s a non-standard size, so replacing it may be tricky.

The Abarth enjoys a lot of custom bits. Comfy yet grippy Sabelt seats, that aforementioned Record Monza exhaust, up-rated dampers, Brembo brakes, sport pedals, leather wrapped steering wheel on top of the usual creature comforts that the 500 range gets that includes Blue&Me, CD/MP3 radio, automatic climate control, tyre pressure monitor, electrochromatic rear view mirror, digital meter cluster and Bi-zenon lamps.

Average Sri Lankan-sized adults can fit in the rear seat if desired (although I wouldn’t recommend taking a Colombo-Jaffna jaunt in them). You get a decent boot, which can be made larger by folding down the split-fold rear seats (50-50 split). There are some oddment cubbies and trays around the cabin too.

There are some quirks, though. For example, you can adjust the seat back knob (adorned with the Abarth scorpion) only if the door is open – with it closed, your hands can’t fit the gap to grab it. The centre console has an area between the seats for a mobile phone – if that phone was from 2009 and had a four-inch screen.

I also noticed that the digital cluster doesn’t change noticeably when you put it in Sport mode – unlike other cars that turn red, glow furiously and pulsate, the 595 simply adds a chequered flag graphic on either end of the rev counter’s sweep. However, the centre of the dash-mounted Boost gauge glows SPORT in red, so I guess that’s more than enough to announce the fact.

Kalpika got this 2015 model down from the UK with around 9,350 miles on it. It was brought down by the Italian Thoroughbred Motor Company (ITMC) who are well known for bringing down all variety of Italian exotica that our enthusiasts can enjoy.

The Fiat 500 range from ITMC starts at Rs. 4.5 million up to around Rs. 9 million, it depends on the mileage and spec of the car, So head down to ITMC and talk to them if an Italian itch is coming on.

Ashraaq Wahab