Fiat Grande Punto Abarth Esseesse (2008) review

Published:01 August 2008

Fiat Grande Punto Abarth Esseesse: CAR drove it up the hillclimb at Harewood in West Yorkshire (pictured)
  • At a glance
  • 3 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

We've just driven Fiat's new Grande Punto Abarth pocket rocket on UK soil – and back to back with the Mini Cooper S – for CAR's definitive verdict. Has Fiat given the Abarth badge enough credibilitly to woo hot-hatch buyers? Or is the new Grande Punto Abarth just a hollow marketing exercise designed to open our wallets, but not our hearts? Read on for CAR's full first drive Abarth review.

Fiat Grande Punto Abarth: a quick recap

You're reading CAR Online, so you'll already know about famed Austrian engineer Carlo Abarth. He founded the eponymous racing and tuning company in 1949, which was later subsumed within the sprawling Fiat empire in 1971. Cue some great small cars – and the occaisonal duffer. Even the marketing bods at Abarth admit now that the recent Stilo Abarth was the nadir of a sparkling brand.

All that's history now, though. The newly confident Fiat group is relaunching the Abarth brand with a pair of tearaway tots: the Grande Punto Abarth tested here, and its smaller cousin, the achingly cool 500 Abarth (click here for our review and video of the hot Cinquecento).

We've already driven the Grande Punto Abarth in Italy, but only on Fiat's closed test track. Which is rather like trying out clothes in front of a flattering mirror. Time, then, to see how the Abarth fares on a mixed batch of real UK roads – from spaghetti twisties across the Yorkshire Moors to the A1 motorway.

Click 'Next' to read the rest of our Fiat Grande Punto Abarth reviewTalk me through the technical spec of the Grande Punto Abarth

Take one Grande Punto, remove all Fiat branding and apply the Abarth scorpion logo liberally. We counted 11 of the pincered blighters on the outside of our test car, including stickers and tax disc holders. But this is more than just a branding exercise with a sting in its tail: Turin's engineers at Fiat's newly installed Abarth HQ have also devised a programme of styling and mechanical mods to differentiate your hot hatch Punto from your cooking 1.4 Active.

The Grande Punto Abarth comes with just one engine – the 16-valve 1.4-litre four-pot, blown upon by a Garrett fixed-geometry turbo running 1.3 bar of boost. That's enough for a mild 155bhp and 170lb ft of torque on the basic Abarth car.

155bhp? You call this a hot hatch?

Don't forget the Abarth experience is all about choice. You can take your lukewarm hatch in £13,500 Abarth spec, which brings 155bhp/170lb ft, or you can go the full hog and order the Esseesse spec. We drove both on this week's UK launch. It's all a bit baffling, but that name is the phonetic description of the SS (for Super Sports) tag. Which essentially brings more muscle.

A new air filter, freer flowing exhaust, remapped ECU, different injectors and a higher 1.5 bar boost bring 180bhp and a stout 201lb ft of twist on the Esseesse. This is a genuine hot hatch contender, then – a car to take the fight to Mini's Cooper S (175bhp), Renault Clio 197 (197bhp) and Vauxhall Corsa VXR (189bhp).

What else does the Abarth premium bring?

As well as enough scorpions to worry young children, there are numerous visual changes to distinguish the Abarth pocket rockets. The track is widened by 6mm, delectable 17-inch alloys are new and the snout adopts a fresh bumper design with gobbier air intakes and a dark headlamp surround. Sideskirts, wheel arch extensions, twin pipes and a subtle roof lip spoiler complete the muscly makeover.

We like: the Abarth kit is not too OTT and brings some welcome visual excitement to the Grande Punto. Our test cars were remarkably well judged for those who prefer their hot hatches to juggle sporty with subtlety.

Click 'Next' to read the rest of our Fiat Grande Punto Abarth reviewFiat Grande Punto Abarth: on the road

The regular Grande Punto Abarth first. First impressions are of a decent warm hatch – it rides comfortably despite those 17-inch rims, where our long-term Mini Cooper S on similar-size wheels rattles and bounces over corrugated road surfaces. There's also decent fizz from the 1.4 turbo. Tap the 'Sport Boost' button on the dash, and you unleash an extra 18lb ft on the overboost; slim pickings, but you can actually feel a more urgent throttle response with it depressed.

However, you'll have to step up to the Esseesse Abarth model for the proper hot hatch experience. Although the top model's 180bhp is no longer class-leading, it does provide the Grande Punto with enough firepower to be remarkably good fun. And whoever positioned the pedals deserves a medal – they positively encourage heel-and-toe gearshifts, so it's a cinch to keep this eager engine on the boil, blip-changing before any downshifts.

And when you come to the first corner?

It might ride better than a Mini, but the Grande Punto Abarth sadly can't quite match the electric turn-in of BMW's baby. The regular Abarth model sports MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear end, whose anti-roll bars are thickened and springs stiffened by 20 percent, while the ride height is dropped 20mm closer to the tarmac.

Does it work? The car is agile enough, but this is a very competitive sector and the basic car just doesn't have enough dartiness or instant steering response to challenge the lithe Mini rivals or the Clio Renaultsport missile. There's a slight hesitation before the Abarth responds to the helm and not as much feelsome response as the class best, but the beefed-up Brembo brakes impressed, with an initial firm pedal feel and then plenty of stopping power.

Confusion alert! You can tune the suspension too...

The Abarth cars don't come off the peg at the factory. You must order your chosen kit (which arrives in retro wooden crates) and have it dealer-fitted at one of the ten chosen Abarth outlets in the UK – up to a year or 12,000 miles after the car is first registered. Your choices are:

Boggo 155bhp/170lb ft Grande Punto Abarth (£13,500)
The above with the Assetto handling kit (£2200 est)
Top 180bhp/201lb ft Grande Punto Esseesse (£17,000 est)

The Esseesse packs the Assetto suspension changes as standard; the 18-inch wheels and lowered, tauter suspension sharpen up the Grande Punto's responses, with a significantly improved turn-in and a weightier steering feel.

Click 'Next' to read our verdict on the Fiat Grande Punto AbarthSo what's the Grande Punto Abarth like inside?

The Abarth's cabin works well, although it's not the last word in quality. There's some questionable grey spotty plastic on the centre console and surrounding the dials, but the key elements are all in place: the chunky leather steering wheel feels right and, in fact, all the key touch points are trimmed in leather (handbrake, gearlever) or metal (pedals). The branding department has gone a tad overboard with eight Abarth mentions in the cabin, however...

Moreover, being a Grande Punto, it is indeed very spacious inside compared with my long-term Mini Cooper S. You can even slot weekend gear into the decent boot without recourse to a taxi for the rest of your belongings. And the standard sports seats are first rate – comfy for a long three-hour stint at the wheel and supportive in all the right places.

Verdict

The Grande Punto is a cracking first effort at reinvigorating the Abarth brand. It goes, steers and stops like a proper junior hot hatch and we're impressed by the approach adopted by Fiat, which could easily have gone Over The Top. Instead, it's launched a well judged hot hatch that's a worthy contender for your hot hatch pound.

My only reservation is over the Abarth's price and dealer experience. Fiat argues that Subaru Impreza drivers enjoy tuning and retuning their cars, but I'm not sure if hot hatch buyers will want to have a dealer-fit kit when all rivals in the supermini sector offer simple, factory-built cars.

And the basic Abarth costs £13,500 (120bhp Mini Cooper £13,325) while the Esseesse kit is estimated to cost £3500 – meaning the top model will top a heady £17,000 (Mini Cooper S £16,245, Renault Clio 197 £15,995). That's punchy pricing and Fiat may struggle to win many fans, despite having a decent contender on its hands.

It's a sting of the wrong sort in the Grande Punto Abarth's tail and might explain why Fiat plans to sell just 800 in its first full year.

Specs

Price when new: £17,000
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 1368cc 4cyl turbo, 180bhp @ 5750rpm, 201lb ft @ 2750rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 0-62mph 7.5sec, 133mph, 40.9mpg, 162g/km (NB mpg and CO2 quoted for regular Abarth)
Weight / material: 1185 kg/steel
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4041/1721/1490

Rivals

Other Models

Abarth Grande Punto Cars for Sale

Photo Gallery

  • Fiat Grande Punto Abarth Esseesse: this is the upgraded 180bhp Esseesse version running 1.5 bar of boost
  • Fiat Grande Punto Abarth: the Esseesse version comes with the Assetto kit which brings a 20mm ride drop, special front brake pads and 18in alloys
  • There's only one problem with the Esseesse version of the new Grande Punto Abarth: it's going to cost £17,000. Which is more than the Mini Cooper S or Renault Clio 197...
  • Esseesse badge = SS, or Super Sports. It's the fastest Abarth on sale today, but there could be more in the pipeline
  • The 1368cc four-pot is breathed on by a Garrett turbo. Esseesse model develops 180bhp, regular Abarth 150bhp
  • Fiat Grande Punto Abarth interior is a comfy place to sit – with only a few gripes. We don't like that speckled dash trim, for example
  • Abarth badge: the Grande Punto is absolutely festooned with them!
  • This is the regular Fiat Grande Punto Abarth – not much different to the Esseesse, but it's 20mm taller owing to standard suspension

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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