The Fiat 500 shucks off its cutesy image with the purposeful Abarth 595 versions. Jonathan Crouch reports on the revised range.
Ten Second Review
There's something just so right about a beefy engine in a tiny car. The Abarth 595 models take that formula and really amp up the details. Whether you choose standard, Turismo or the Competizione models, you get a 1.4-litre T-Jet turbo engine driving the front wheels in a lightweight body that spells fun with a huge F. Turismo versions come with 165bhp, but there's also an uprated 180bhp Competizione model too.
The Abarth name might be a bit of a mystery to some younger buyers who won't remember it being plastered over hot Fiats of the Seventies and early Eighties. In case you were wondering, the Abarth name has been owned by Fiat since 1971, but it was originally the racing team of Karl Abarth, founded in Turin in 1949. A long and illustrious competition history lent the Scorpion badge quite some kudos and those of a certain age will go a little dewy eyed remembering cars like the Autobianchi A112 Abarth and the Fiat 131 Abarth. In later years, Fiat used the badge sparingly, although it appeared on some fairly undistinguished vehicles like the Fiat Stilo. These days, Abarth is a separate division, housed in the old Mirafiori factory. It's responsible for these Abarth 595 models, probably the best cars to wear the badge for many a year.
There's a choice of power outputs with Abarth 595 variants - 145bhp in the standard version, 165bhp in the Turismo variant and 180bhp in the Competizione model. In the great scheme of all things hot hatch, these kinds of outputs aren't huge. You can get performance hatches with more than double that kind of power, but as recent developments in sports car manufacture have shown, more power isn't always analogous with more fun. There has to be a point somewhere that is just about right for the target market and originally, Abarth reckoned this lay at about 145bhp in the form of its Abarth 500 model. Some potential owners though, it seemed, wanted more, hence the introduction of the 165bhp 595 Turismo series models, then the subsequent announcement of a Competizione variant with an uprated 180bhp output. Flog the 165bhp version off the line and the 1.4-litre T-Jet turbocharged petrol engine will deliver 62mph to you in a mere 7.1 seconds en route to a top speed of 127mph. In the 180bhp Competizione derivative, those figures improve to 6.7s and 140mph. That should be quick enough to get your jollies, especially when peak torque is achieved at a mere 3,000rpm. Useable power in a small package? Brilliant. The engine uses an over-boost function which modulates the amount of available turbo boost and is activated by a sport button on the steering wheel. Carried over from the 500 model is Torque Transfer Control, which helps to improve the transfer of torque to the driven wheels. The car is fitted with a five-speed manual gearbox as standard or you can choose the MTA paddle-shift gearbox.
Design and Build
It's hard to go too far wrong with a donor vehicle as pretty as the Fiat 500, but making it look convincingly mad, bad and dangerous is an altogether tougher task. The essential character of the car changes from something a little bit cutesy and twee to something that is decidedly malevolent in its intent. The Competizione is identified by its 17" alloys, red or yellow brake calipers, record grey paint, dark tinted rear windows and an optional opaque Abarth racing side stripe. Go for the Turismo instead and you'll get front brake discs which are cross-drilled and ventilated, while the rear discs are cross-drilled. For a more unique touch, there is the option to specify either red or yellow calipers. Over the brakes are the exclusive 17" Abarth alloy wheels featuring the scorpion detail. Available exclusively to the 595 Turismo is the Abarth special two tone paint available in Grigio Pista (Racing Grey) or Rosso Officina (Works Red). The detail continues on the outside with titanium grey finished detailing of the front and rear grilles. The interior is snug, with the front two well supported by sports seats, though the rear chairs are best left for bags or very small kids. The boot is a paltry 185-litres and even when you fold the rear seats and load the car to the roof, there's only a little bit more room than you'd get in the boot of a BMW 7 Series.
Market and Model
While it is possible to spend well over £20,000 on these cars, especially if you opt for one with a paddle shift gearchange, you can get all the fun for a saving of more than £2,000 below that figure if you opt for the entry level 595 Turismo model, the version that seems to represent the value in the range. That's if you don't accept the argument that for around £15,000, an ordinary 145bhp Abarth 595 variant offers most of what the Turismo and Competizione variants can deliver. That's an argument for another day. Whatever variant you choose, there's the option of a Convertible bodystyle at a £2,000 premium. All versions are equipped with Uconnect 5-inch DAB Radio with touchscreen and Uconnect Live services as standard equipment (also with built-in navigator on request). Uconnect 7" HD, a fast platform complete with a high-def screen, navigation and DAB digital radio, also appears for the first time on the range. The Uconnect 7" HD system comes with high-def screen and Abarth Telemetry for gauging driving performance on preloaded circuits to study driving style and improve it.
Cost of Ownership
You should find that day to day running costs won't break the bank as its 1.4-litre T-Jet powerplant is one of those modern turbocharged engines that actually returns really good fuel economy if you're not constantly making the turbo do manic hamster wheel impressions. The quoted economy figure for a manual Abarth 595 Turismo is 52.3mpg on the combined cycle and even around town it'll manage 33.2mpg. Emissions are pegged at 155g/km. The manual Abarth 595 Competizione 180bhp manages 48.7mpg on the combined cycle. Residual values will be good if previous hot versions of the Fiat 500 are anything to go by and reliability seems to be improving after teething troubles with early cars. Expect insurance starting at group 26 for the standard variant.
Abarth has hit this nail squarely on the head. If you want the most stylish and funky warm hatch on the market, this is unquestionably it. The Abarth 595 looks great and is quick enough to entertain, yet not so overblown that it brings with it massive bills. In short, it's perfectly pitched, even if you can only afford the base 145bhp model. Citroen's DS3 comes close, but Abarth has really upped the standard and offered all of those cool design cues in an even more distilled form. Of course, there will be some who sniff at the relatively modest power outputs and claim that this car could be faster, ignoring the fact that extra power would probably ruin its delightful handling balance. Whether you choose the standard, Turismo or Competizione variants, hard top or soft top, manual or MTA paddle shift gearbox, it's hard not to find a place in your heart for a car this cheeky. You'll need to keep an eye on the price you end up paying when looking at option packs, but other than that, there's not much cause for complaint here.