I don’t think I’ve ever experienced quite the same level of peace as when I located the right sub-menu to turn off the Abarth 500e’s fake sound. Silence had never felt as sweet as it did at that moment.
Abarth Sound - which plays a synthesised version of a 595’s internally combusted noise through an external speaker - apparently took 6,000 hours to develop. Unfortunately, it seems no one took two minutes of those many thousands of hours to question whether or not it might get a bit irritating during a motorway cruise.
I didn’t really want to start this review by having a good moan about Abarth’s very good intentions in developing something to keep petrolheads interested in the absence of an actual engine, but after being infuriated for 95 miles and the best part of two hours by the system, I feel compelled to air my grievances.
The problem is there aren’t any simulated gearshifts like what you get on the new Hyundai Ioniq 5 N. The pitch just keeps on rising, so if you’re pootling along at motorway speeds, it’s like you’ve left it in third gear. It’s infuriating, particularly because there’s no way of turning the noise off on the move, and when you are at a standstill, the option is hidden in a sub-menu accessed through the digital instrument cluster.
It’s a loud noise, too, piped out of that speaker at the road legal noise limit for real exhaust noises, so when you fire it up, you feel a little self-conscious. There’s even, ridiculously, a ‘guitar sound’ (inverted commas as it doesn’t sound like that at all) that plays when the start button is pushed. It’s all a little silly, and a bit needless - as soon as you turn it off and concentrate on what the car does well, it all makes a lot more sense.
With a somewhat unruly power delivery through the front wheels, bouncy suspension and the agile feeling only a short wheelbase can give, the 500e really does feel like a petrol-powered Abarth. It exudes that same slightly scrappy, unrefined mindset that makes it damn good fun on the right road and when you’re in the right mood.
The fixed-rate dampers do a good job of keeping the body flat-ish during hard cornering, and although they can be a bit harsh at lower speeds when negotiating speed bumps, the ride settles with speed. There’s not a lot of life to the steering, as is the norm these days, but the weighting is good, and the ratio is more than quick enough.
The 500e doesn’t feel hugely fast in a straight line, even in the ‘Scorpion Road’ and ‘Scorpion Track’ driving modes that unlock the angriest throttle response and the car’s full power output. That’s because power levels are fairly modest, with the 500e’s single-motor powertrain putting out 149bhp and 173lb ft of torque. A reasonably small 42kWh battery pack keeps the weight down to a fairly low (for an EV) 1,400kg or so, but regardless, the 0-62mph time is a modest seven seconds dead. That said, the car is a second faster than a more powerful 595 at Fiat’s Balocco test track.
A small battery means a limited range of just 157 miles according to the WLTP cycle. We tested the car in cold conditions and covered a lot of motorway running, which resulted in only about 125 miles for a full charge. Rapid charging capability of 85kW makes a 10 - 80 per cent top-up possible in about 25 minutes, easing some of the pain. It’s not the sort of car you’re going to buy if you’re regularly doing long jaunts across the country, but still, the range is going to be a stumbling block for many.
While the driving experience is somewhat reminiscent of an Abarth 595’s, there’s one area that’s completely different, and in a good way - the cabin. Gone are the questionable ergonomics and general feeling of cheapness. In the plug-in Abarth, there’s a much more premium space featuring a slick design and high-quality materials.
You get a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system that works nicely, and a neat, seven-inch digital instrument cluster. Yet despite all the modern stuff, there are still proper, physical climate controls.
It looks great on the outside, too, deviating little from the ethos of the petrol-powered Abarths. We’re particularly fond of the ‘Poison Blue’ paint, complemented well with the bright green Abarth scorpion badges, which feature the iconic arachnids getting zapped with electricity. Lovely.
A plush look and feel inside and out should be expected given the price, though. 595 prices have been creeping up in recent years, but the 500e blows even the most bougie versions out of the water, with a starting price of £34,195. The Turismo version we tested, which adds various bits of equipment including 18-inch alloy wheels, 360-degree parking cameras, a fixed glass roof and a wireless phone charging pad, is £38,195, or £41,195 as a drop-top.
But hey, that’s the way with electric cars still. And despite the punchy cost and the 500e’s more challenging elements like the silly sound generator and the limited range, it’s hard not to come away from a week with this car feeling positive. After all, it’s one of only a few EVs that gives a petrolhead a reason to hope for the future.