Fiat Abarth 595 50th Anniversary Review

Hitting 50 is a big milestone for any marque, and the Fiat Abarth 595 birthday edition throws quite the party.

It’s not often that a car nameplate spans five decades, but when one does there’s reason for celebration. Enter the Fiat Abarth 595 50th Anniversary edition – cake, candles and scorpion at the ready.

While it may only resemble the cutesy, bug-eyed original 595 of 1963 if you squint, there are plenty of Abarth hallmarks plastered across the body of the limited edition model, including five – yes, five – scorpions on the bodywork (plus three inside the car and one on the key fob), not to mention the three-layer pearl white paint, big sunroof and the retro angled Fiat Abarth badge on the bootlid: a simple but thoughtful touch.

Only 56 examples of the Fiat Abarth 595 50th Anniversary edition model will be sold locally, of a total production run of 299 worldwide, with local pricing set at $45,000 – or $10,010 more than a standard 500 Abarth Esseesse.

Styling enhancements include 17-inch alloys with red lining, xenon headlights and a sunroof. Inside it gains red leather sports seats with white inserts and red stitching, a black leather steering wheel and kick plates, climate control, rear parking sensors and an Interscope stereo system. All 56 Australian buyers will receive a tailored ’595′ vintage car cover, a pair of limited edition sunglasses and a set of Tramontaro luggage.

As with the standard Fiat 500 upon which this car is based, there are some ergonomic and technological shortfalls in the cabin.

Despite its hefty price, there is no touchscreen media system, nor satellite navigation, nor cruise control. The stereo system is fiddly, and the voice control system one of the worst I’ve tested. If you can get the Bluetooth connectivity to work – and I couldn't, for the record – then you may be disappointed to learn it doesn’t have audio streaming capability.

That said, the cabin is striking to look at, with comfortable, supportive sports bucket seats up front and a stylish red dash finish.

Some drivers may find the seats small, though, and the seating position is higher than it should be. The steering wheel is on the large size for such a tiny car, too, and the speedo is difficult to read. The latter complaint will be addressed for standard 500 models soon, with a digital dash display coming to an updated version due in August.

Storage isn’t great, with tiny cupholders and slim door pockets. The boot is not huge – only 185 litres – but with some seating position adjustments made, four adults can fit in with a semblance of comfort for short trips.

As with the trendsetting Italian model this car has been built to commemorate, the Fiat Abarth 50th Anniversary model is built to be a speedster. Indeed, Fiat says the car is the quickest and most powerful 595 ever.

Under the bonnet – not in the boot, as was the case with the rear-engined Abarth 595 of half a century ago – is a 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine producing 132kW and 250Nm. Those figures are up from 118kW and 230Nm in the 500 Abarth. This engine tune had previously been reserved for the 695 Tributo models which asked buyers to expend a huge $70,000. The engine is exclusively teamed to a five-speed Competitizione automated manual transmission.

Fiat doesn’t claim an exact 0-100km/h sprint time, other than to state it will manage the feat in “less than seven seconds”. That will be done on its way to a top speed of 225km/h.

To access all 132kW and 250Nm, Sport mode must be engaged. The change in engine response is instant, with the accelerator pedal sharpening up and the gearbox letting the revs rise higher and performing more aggressive shifts.

It certainly feels quick, particularly under hard acceleration in second and third gears as the dash-top boost gauge windmills and the tachometer reaches the red at 6000rpm. The noise that accompanies the throttle is raucous but addictive, and the occasional exhaust fart when shifting adds to the drama.

However, as is the case with the standard Abarth models, the five-speed robotized automatic is one of the car’s biggest flaws. It’s at its worst during low speed driving and when Sport mode is not engaged, with clumsy, slow shifts and a lurching shift action reminiscent of an L-plater learning their way with a manual ‘box.

In Sport mode things are improved, but there’s still the lack of clinical, sharp shifts that you’ll find in rival cars like the Mini Cooper S or Volkswagen Polo GTI. Opt for the paddles and execute the shifts yourself, and the car becomes nearly as good as a manual. While the recent 500 Abarth required you to lift off the accelerator between shifts to ensure things go smoothly, the extra poke of this version makes it feel like the Competizione ‘box is quicker to react, meaning you can keep the throttle flat(ter) and shift up a gear without lunging forward as the clutch engages.

Keeping things sporty underneath are Koni dampers front and rear with Eibach springs, which are stiffer but more composed than the standard 500 Abarth’s. The ride is firm – uncomfortably so at times – but on smooth surfaces the grip and cornering abilities of the 595 are among the best in class.

We’d suggest the benchmark-setting Ford Fiesta ST wouldn’t be troubled by the Abarth for cornering stability and speed, but buyers should be assured this is by no means a slow poke through the twisty stuff. It is particularly impressive in terms of its tyre grip, with the Michelin Pilot Sport S tyres sticking to the road, despite the overly stiff suspension making for some pogo moments over mid-corner bumps.

Likewise, the electronic steering system of the Fiat can’t quite match the otherworldly brilliance and accuracy of the Ford. The 595 has a Torque Transfer Control system to help direct the power to the correct front wheel during cornering, and that system does help things out during quick direction changes, and its initial turn-in is quick, if not bitey.

However, the 595’s big steering wheel dulls the experience of what is otherwise a nimble little thing. Well, it’s nimble on the open road – the steering is appalling for inner city drivers who regularly make U-turns or three-point turns in tight inner suburb streets. We found ourselves needing to make as many as seven adjustments on streets that usually only need a three-point turn.

The Abarth 595 50th Anniversary is like almost every party ever thrown. There are good bits: its handling, engine response and exhaust note; and there are bad bits; the interior ergonomic issues and that gearbox.

But the sting in the tail for the Abarth 595 is its price. For almost $20,000 less you can get a Ford Fiesta ST that is superior in almost every way – though the little Ford doesn’t quite have the same level of character, nor the history to fall back on.

Hitting 50 should be celebrated - but at nearly fifty grand on the road, it seems things got a bit out of hand for this little Italian.