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Abarth 500e Convertible review: bonkers, frustrating and of limited use – yet somehow very likeable

Abarth 500e Turismo Convertible
Abarth 500e Turismo Convertible

The temperature is nudging freezing and I am pelting down the road in a convertible with the roof down. I’ve always thought this is one of the singular joys of convertible motoring; one of the most invigorating things you can do.

Naturally, in order to be able to do so, you need a good heater. Fortunately, the Abarth 500e has one – not to mention heated seats, too. But there’s a catch. Given this little convertible hot hatch is powered by electricity, setting the heater to maximum carries some… consequences.

Remember when drivers of big, thirsty sports cars used to talk of being able to watch the needle on the fuel gauge dropping? That’s the feeling I get as the range counter falls. This is a car, then, in which a spirited winter drive can’t involve straying too far from home.

But do the inevitable compromises of its small battery render the Abarth 500e useless? Not completely, for this is still a brilliantly fun way to do the electric car thing. But there is one major downside – and it might well be a dealbreaker.

Pros

  • Genuinely fun to drive

  • Smart interior and styling

  • Only convertible EV on sale (for now)

Cons

  • Eye-wateringly expensive to buy

  • Short range

  • Not very efficient

A sting in the tail

Inside the Abarth certainly feels the part. Our test car is the posher Turismo model, so it gets fixed-back sports seats embossed with the Abarth scorpion logo and clad in suede-effect fabric, matching that which swathes the dashboard (the regular cars get pinstriped cloth seating with an odd carbon-fibre-effect finish on the dash).

Space in the front is plenty for two adults, but the rear seats are another matter. They’re so small as to be completely useless for all but the most petite of adults; kids, meanwhile, will just about be OK as long as their child seat isn’t too chunky. Fiat seems to have realised this, adding Isofix points to the front seat, so that your child can ride in the front with you.

The rear seats are so small as to be completely useless for all but the most petite of adults
The rear seats are so small as to be completely useless for all but the most petite of adults

The boot is similarly vestigial. Not only is its 185-litre capacity all but useless save for a couple of shopping bags, but you also have to stow the charging cable in there, as there’s no under-floor stowage nor a nook in which to do so under the bonnet.

The 185-litre capacity boot
The 185-litre capacity is just about big enough for a couple of shopping bags – but don't forget the charging cable

Thankfully you can fold down the rear seats; in fact, given how cramped they are, you’d almost be better off keeping them folded and thinking of the 500e as a two-seater with a decent-sized boot.

It’s when you start the 500e that you encounter one of its most unusual features. It’s called a sound generator and it is, to all intents and purposes, a loudspeaker on the underside of the car to mimic a rorty petrol car’s exhaust note.

Fake noise

Abarth is not the first to provide some sort of synthesised engine note to add to the feeling of acceleration, but the way it’s usually done is to play a suitably gnarly attempt at the internal sound of a petrol car through the internal speakers.

The Italians have gone one further. To make the noise more authentic (and, the cynical among you might say, realising that buyers of its 595 and 695 hot hatches like the whole world to hear their fruity exhaust notes), there’s a dedicated speaker beneath the rear, where the exhaust would be, which plays an approximation of a raspy, warbly external soundtrack.

Even putting aside the cringeworthy try-hardery, and the irony inherent in attempting to make a fake engine note sound authentic, there are several issues with this.

The first is that the engine sound isn’t quite right. At idle, there’s an odd monotone drone, like someone operating a petrol-powered chainsaw in the distance. When you pull away, you expect this note to rise, but it doesn’t; instead, it’s joined by a second tone, admittedly more realistic, but because the first remains at a constant pitch, what you get is two oddly discordant sounds until the car is going fast enough that the first is drowned out.

The second issue is that there are no simulated gearchanges (being an EV, there’s no gearbox), which means this second tone’s pitch rises in relation to the road speed. So by 30mph, it sounds as though you’ve forgotten to change out of first gear, while by 70mph the background noise is constant, high-pitched and irksome.

But does it add some audio interest to the hitherto silent EV driving experience? Yes and no. Certainly, it’s quite nice to have a bit of parpy flimflam when you’re pressing on, but because the pitch rises more slowly than it does with a petrol engine (remember, no gearchanges), it can have the effect of tricking your brain into thinking the car is accelerating less rapidly than it actually is.

Light and dark

Which is a shame because, thanks to its small battery, the 500e is relatively light for an EV at just over 1.4 tonnes, so it punches forward pretty well.

The 62mph benchmark comes up in seven seconds precisely – a fifth of a second slower than in the hatchback due to the extra weight associated with the cabriolet conversion – and the 500e feels relatively light on its feet.

True, you get a little bit more body lean than you find in one of its petrol-powered, Abarth-badged predecessors (actually, that isn’t quite accurate, given the 595 and 695 remain on sale), but on the whole the 500e is a giggle to drive, changing direction swiftly and accurately, with plenty of grip.

At just over 1.4 tonnes, the Abarth 500e punches forward pretty well – though the effect is spoiled by the wind noise  from the fabric roof
At just over 1.4 tonnes, the Abarth 500e punches forward pretty well – though the effect is spoiled by the wind noise from the fabric roof

Traction is a little more of a problem; on the cold, wet roads of early January, there wasn’t much of it and in these conditions the 500e can scrabble for grip. Out of tight bends, this becomes frustrating, as you really want it to gain a foothold and fire off down the road; instead, the traction control cuts in and halts all the fun. In warmer, drier conditions, though, it has to be said that the tyres grip rather better, so this becomes less of an issue.

You’d expect some firmness to the ride quality in a car like this; indeed, Abarth’s little hot hatches have always been divisive in this regard, giving little compromise to comfort in favour of driving thrills. The 500e is a little more pliant, though. It’s still very taut, but there’s a veneer of softness even over sharper bumps at low speeds, while on a motorway it smoothes out to such a degree the Abarth becomes a half-decent cruiser.

The effect is spoiled somewhat by the wind noise, from the fabric roof. That’s not the only issue. The Abarth 500e doesn’t have a heat pump, so heating the car isn’t as efficient as it could be. In addition, all the heat being generated, using up available range as it does so, seeps out through the roof pretty easily, which means cold temperatures have a doubly deleterious effect even if you’re driving with the roof up.

Inefficient dynamics

You can see this in the efficiency figure. 3.6 miles per kilowatt hour (mpkWh) is fairly average for a family-sized electric SUV. For a diminutive city car with a lightweight battery, it’s pretty poor. For context, Volkswagen claims 4.7mpkWh for its new ID.7 – a 4.9-metre-long executive fastback weighing more than two tonnes.

A few days after my top-down countryside romp, and with the temperature about 4C, I pre-conditioned the car before leaving on a longer motorway trip (this time with the roof in place). I was pleasantly surprised to find it suggesting it could do 123 miles on a full charge. However, 69 miles later, I was pulling in for a top-up with 23 miles left on the range readout, a predicted total of only 92.

That doesn’t compare favourably with the 150 miles the government tests suggest the 500e can do in ideal conditions. And while in theory its small battery shouldn’t take too long to charge, the 500e’s maximum charging speed is 85kW, which isn’t great (many small cars can achieve 100kW now). That means a 10 to 80 per cent charge will still take 25 minutes and still only add 90 miles of range.

It’s not ideal for long motorway jaunts, then. Does that matter? After all, this is intended primarily as chic, fashion-conscious urban transport. It doesn’t need a long range.

If all you want the Abarth for is chic, fashion-conscious urban transport, then the short range shouldn't matter too much – but style comes at a cost
If all you want the Abarth for is chic, fashion-conscious urban transport, then the short range shouldn't matter too much – but style comes at a cost

Which would be a cogent argument if the 500e cost, say, £25,000. The trouble is, even in standard form it’s priced at just over £37,000, with this top-spec Turismo more than £41,000.

For context, an entry-level Tesla Model 3 costs £40,000. In other words, this Abarth forces you to pay a staggering premium just for a bit of individuality, a convertible roof and a loudspeaker making weird noises behind the rear bumper. Not to mention sacrificing a huge amount in terms of space, range and charging speed.

The Telegraph verdict

It is, in short, terrible value. And that, really, is all there is to it.

Except that it isn’t. Because people, for some reason, are wont to pay extortionate sums for cars that are objectively worse than their rivals, simply to drive something that makes them stand out from the crowd.

Will that be the 500e Convertible’s saving grace? Or is it just a step too far? Either way, this is a car that oozes fun from (almost) every pore. But it’s also one that, especially in winter, makes you pay far too much for the privilege.


The facts

On test: Abarth 500e Convertible Turismo

Body style: three-door convertible (also available as a three-door hatchback)

On sale: now

How much? £41,195 on the road (range from £34,195)

How fast? 96mph, 0-62mph in 7.0sec

How economical? 3.6mpkWh (WLTP combined)

Electric powertrain: AC permanent magnet synchronous motor with 37.8kWh (usable) battery, 85kW on-board charger (average DC charge speed 67kW), Type 2/CCS socket

Electric range: 150 miles (WLTP combined)

Maximum power/torque: 150bhp/173lb ft

CO2 emissions: 0g/km (tailpipe), 25g/km (well-to-wheel)

VED: £0

Warranty: 3 years/unlimited miles

Spare wheel as standard: No (not available)


The rivals

MG Cyberster

335bhp, 323 miles, £50,000-60,000 (TBC)

MG Cyberster
The MG Cyberster might just be worth the wait, offering so much more for your cash

This hotly anticipated MG is the only other electric convertible. It’s more expensive than the Abarth, but not by as much as you might think – and just look how much more you get for your cash, both in terms of power and range. Worth the wait? It might just be.

MG 4 EV XPower

429bhp, 239 miles, £36,495 on the road

MG 4 EV XPower
Even if you compare the MG with Abarth hatchback, there's a stark difference in terms of power, space and electric range

Granted, it’s not a convertible, so it’s fairer to compare the MG with the hatchback version of the Abarth, against which it is similarly priced – but even when you do so, the stark difference in terms of power, space and electric range is… well, stark.

Mini Convertible John Cooper Works

231bhp, 38.2mpg, £35,695 on the road

Mini JCW
The Mini JCW offers far more power than the Abarth for much less cash

There’s still life in a petrol convertible yet. The Mini JCW is not long for this world, but even on its way out it offers a huge amount more power than the Abarth for so much less cash – and a real exhaust note, to boot. And it’s every bit as fashionable as the Fiat/Abarth 500e.