Can electric cars provide a thrilling driving experience? While EVs are recognized for their smoothness, quietness, and efficiency, creating an enjoyable driving sensation remains a unique challenge. This challenge becomes particularly important when it comes to electric hot hatches.
The market for electric hot hatches places a high premium on qualities such as excitement, feedback, and character. Therefore, for an electric hot hatch to truly stand out, it needs to be something extraordinary.
Enter the Abarth 500e, one of the initial genuine electric hot hatches available. To determine if it possesses the necessary qualities, we’re pitting it against one of the most enjoyable compact electric cars we’ve encountered.
The MINI, in all its variations, is an endearing city car that also shines on twisty back roads. So, which of these contenders comes out on top? Our real-world test will provide the answer.
Abarth has a rich history of taking ordinary Fiats and infusing them with a dose of excitement. Take, for instance, the original rear-engined 500 from the 1960s, where a more potent engine was squeezed in the back. The updated Abarth 500e, in contrast, maintains its bonnet’s ability to close like the standard Fiat version but offers a substantial power boost. It boasts a total of 113kW, an improvement over the base model, with a torque figure of 235Nm, an increase of 15Nm. While these figures might seem modest, the 500e is relatively lightweight for an electric vehicle, tipping the scales at 1410kg, just 49kg heavier than a petrol-powered Volkswagen Polo GTI.
Abarth hasn’t delved into the specifics of how they’ve enhanced the 500e’s chassis in comparison to the Fiat version. Nevertheless, they emphasize that it features unique spring and damper settings, a revised throttle map, and a new gear ratio for the single-speed transmission.
To access the Abarth’s full power, you must switch to one of the two Scorpion modes; the latter includes milder regenerative braking. In Comfort mode, the power is limited.
The Abarth 500e hasn’t undergone Euro NCAP testing, but its Fiat counterpart has achieved a four-star rating in 2021, with the highest score of 80% in the Child Occupant category.
The standout feature of the Abarth is its chassis setup. It delivers a tremendous amount of enjoyment in corners while maintaining sophistication in behavior, which positively impacts both ride comfort and handling.
Right from a standstill, the 500e showcases its character, exhibiting eagerness to accelerate when you touch the pedal. It sprints from 0-50km/h in a quick 2.9 seconds, making it an excellent city runabout due to its lively pace and compact dimensions. Additionally, the Abarth’s ride, though firm, manages to cushion sharp bumps, a feat achieved only by finely tuned dampers.
The fun continues as you pick up speed. With a 0-100km/h time of seven seconds, it’s not far off from the Hyundai i20 N. Traction is excellent, allowing you to exit corners with enthusiasm.
However, it takes some time to fully appreciate the chassis, initially hindered by an overzealous stability control system. Disabling it reveals the agile, adjustable, yet predictable chassis that delivers excitement without being intimidating.
What could be improved is the brake regeneration options. The regen strength is tied to the drive mode, and it’s extremely strong in both Comfort and Scorpion Street modes, making smooth driving a challenge. As a result, we opted for Scorpion Track mode most of the time, where regen is milder.
In terms of range, the Abarth 500e has a WLTP-tested range of 253km, a reduction from the Fiat 500e’s 320km. Longer journeys will require careful planning, and a cruise at 110km/h will yield a shorter range compared to the 243km we achieved in mixed environments during our test.
Several upgrades have transformed the Fiat 500e’s interior into a sportier space for the Abarth variant. Notably, the color scheme has changed. Instead of the light and colorful seat fabrics, you now get part-leather, part-Alcantara upholstery with bright stitching accents. The same treatment extends to the dashboard; where the Fiat features a full-width body-colored panel, the Abarth opts for Alcantara.
The three-spoke, flat-bottomed steering wheel is a delight to hold, but the overall driving position is relatively high. While this provides a clear view ahead, it doesn’t exude a particularly sporty feel. Furthermore, there isn’t a proper rest for your left foot; instead, there’s a small step in the footwell that’s not wide enough for comfortable support. Additionally, there are some lower-quality plastics on the doors and lower dashboard, but on the whole, the cabin feels modern, funky, and sporty.
For a vehicle of this size, interior storage is reasonably generous. The glove compartment is spacious, and lifting the central armrest reveals a deep cubby beneath it. In front of that, a long sliding lid reveals another substantial storage area containing two cup holders. However, the cup holders are set low in the space, making it challenging to retrieve smaller cans and coffee cups. The smartphone shelf, which includes wireless charging in Turismo trim, is large and situated high on the dashboard, while the door pockets can accommodate larger bottles.
Measuring just 3.6 meters in length, the Abarth is among the smallest cars on the road, and interior space isn’t a priority, nor a strong suit. Getting into the back seats can be tricky because the front seats have limited forward adjustment, and they don’t always return to their original positions. The rear seats are suitable for two occupants only, but the sloping rooflines make space a bit tight, and knee room is restricted, even for average-height adults.
However, there is ample foot space under the front seats, and the front passenger seat is equipped with Isofix, eliminating the need to wrestle with fitting a child seat in the back.
With a capacity of 185 liters (or 550 liters with the rear seats folded), the boot is small, and the opening isn’t particularly large. Moreover, much of this space is occupied by the charging cable and its bag.
One significant difference between these two electric hot hatches lies in their development. While the Abarth is based on a platform designed explicitly for electric vehicles, the MINI’s structure has been adapted from an existing internal combustion platform.
The MINI, at 3850 millimeters in length, is 177mm longer than the Abarth and 44mm wider. It’s still a compact package, but it accommodates a significant amount of electric technology. Beneath the iconic MINI nose is a motor producing 135kW and 270Nm, surpassing the 500e’s figures, and it powers the front wheels.
However, the MINI lags behind in battery capacity and charging technology. It has a gross capacity of 32.6kWh, which is 9.4kWh less than the 500e’s capacity, resulting in a 227km WLTP range compared to the Abarth’s 253km in the same test. Its charging speed is 50kW, lower than the 500e’s maximum of 85kW. The MINI stores its battery under the rear seats and within the car’s floorpan, which is where the exhaust would typically be in combustion-engine models.
The MINI Electric hasn’t undergone Euro NCAP testing, as its internal combustion counterpart was assessed in 2014. Since then, testing standards have become more rigorous, and the car’s original four-star rating is only valid for six years. All models come with traffic-sign recognition and all-round parking sensors as standard.
Despite its compact size, the MINI conveys the solidity and composure of a larger car, enhancing its fun handling. It’s unfortunate that the small battery and limited range don’t provide ample opportunities to fully appreciate it.
The MINI excels in this urban environment, offering agility comparable to the Abarth while feeling more solid. The firm ride does an excellent job of insulating the cabin from bumps and jolts, and the damping effectively controls body movements. Throttle response is slightly softer than in the Abarth, so it doesn’t feel as lively off the line.
Compared to the Abarth, the MINI exhibits slightly more playfulness and adjustability. While both cars have minimal body roll, the MINI feels as if it loads up its outside tires slightly more, providing a better sense of available grip.
However, our test car had less grip than the Abarth, which we attributed to the Goodyear tires fitted. Like the Abarth, the MINI features direct steering but offers less feedback when turning in, diminishing the driving enjoyment in comparison to its rival.
Given the MINI’s relatively short range, it’s not well-suited for regular highway use. Its consumption rate of 5.8km per kilowatt-hour results in an expected real-world range of around 165km. If you need to travel longer distances, the MINI’s larger dimensions make it feel more planted than the Abarth.
In our test, we’re driving the MINI Electric in the special-edition Resolute trim, which incorporates several cosmetic enhancements compared to the standard model. Most notably, the exterior ditches its chrome trim, which will be standard on future MINIs, in favor of a bronze finish found on the headlamp bezels, door handles, grille surround, tailgate, and side trims. The roof and door mirrors are white, and the bonnet features a pair of gold stripes.
Inside, the seats’ centers feature lively checkered fabric with leather bolsters, although a more subdued full-leather option is available at no extra cost. The dashboard panels boast curved gold pinstriping on a gloss-black surface.
Despite a new MINI on the horizon, the current model’s cabin remains modern, solid, and ergonomically sound. The large, chunky dials facilitate on-the-fly adjustments to the air conditioning, while the toggle switches feel reassuringly robust and contribute to MINI’s distinctive character.
Rear-seat passengers benefit from three shared cup holders, but storage options up front are somewhat limited. The door pockets are relatively slim, the glovebox is a good size, and there’s a small pocket under the central armrest and another ahead of the gear selector, though it’s not quite large enough to hold a smartphone.
Both cars are unlikely to be purchased based on their rear-seat accommodations, but the MINI offers a slightly better experience in terms of space and comfort. While the difference is minimal, the MINI provides slightly more room in the back, with longer seat squabs offering more under-thigh support. It also boasts more headroom, even though the narrower glass area makes the interior feel a bit darker compared to the Abarth, even with the standard sunroof. The MINI’s boot, at 211 liters, is marginally larger than its rival’s. The lower load lip makes it easier to load items inside. The 60:40 rear seatbacks fold down to create 731 liters of space, but they leave a pronounced step in the boot floor.
Winner: Abarth 500e
The 500e emerges as the winner because it aligns better with the hot hatchback category. It outpaces the MINI, albeit narrowly, and exudes a livelier and more eager character. Its standout qualities include its vibrant personality and a contagious sense of enjoyment, regardless of your driving speed.
However, it’s not without its flaws. The primary drawback is its relatively high price. Nevertheless, more competitive monthly financing options could help it reclaim the extra half-star we’ve awarded it in our initial encounters.
Runner up: MINI Electric
Considering its age, the Mini still puts up a strong performance against its newer rival. It boasts nearly the same straight-line speed, matches the Abarth’s playfulness on winding roads, and offers a cabin quality that feels a notch above its competitor’s.
Nevertheless, the limited range on a single charge poses a significant compromise, primarily restricting its utility to city driving, where its entertaining handling is somewhat less relevant. In this context, the Mini might appear a bit pricey, especially if considered as a second car.