We test the Fiat 500 wild child - the purebred Abarth Assetto Corse race car.
Put simply, the Abarth 695 Assetto Corse takes Fiat’s Abarth performance brand to the next level, representing the ultimate incarnation of the pint-size Fiat 500.
Also known as the ‘Cinquecento’ (Italian for 500), this is a machine designed purely for track racing – a feisty little Italian that packs a good deal more punch than the latest road-going version, the Abarth 595.
It’s armed with a tuned, 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, pumping an impressive 151kW at 6500rpm – and 300Nm at 4000rpm (up 33kW and 70Nm respectively) to the front wheels.
The Abarth Assetto also weighs just 940kg, so it boasts a remarkable power-to-weight ratio of around 120kW-per-litre. That’s higher than many performance V8s.
And rather than the standard five-speed manual or “Abarth Competizione” semi-automatic transmissions fitted to the road cars, the racing model gets a bespoke six-speed sequential gearbox with optimised gear ratios by France-based manufacturer, Sadev.
Visually, it looks every bit the raceer, with a comprehensive aerodynamic body kit including lower ride height, deep front splitter, side skirts, massive Abarth scorpian logos and a serious-looking rear wing.
In true racing form, this Abarth racer is also equipped with 17-inch forged alloy rims and floating, cross drilled and self-ventilated 305mm front brakes and cross drilled rear brake discs.
Inside, it’s all business, with a fully race-prepped fit out that features an FIA-approved roll cage, stripped-out trim and an auxiliary digital screen that monitors all the important performance telematics.
For the driver, there’s also a Sabelt steering wheel and a racing seat with four-point harness, along with lightweight racing pedals.
The challenging Broadford circuit in Victoria makes for a perfect test track for the diminutive Fiat racer, given its tight corners, fast s-bends and a couple of decent straights.
We’ve driven here before, but never with V8 Supercar pilot Luke Youlden in the driver’s seat showing us the ins-and-outs of the Abarth.
After a couple of siting laps it’s our turn, and as you can imagine, it’s a tight enough squeeze in the Abarth road car, but when you add a full roll cage to the mix you had better be supple.
Like most racing pews, there’s little or no adjustment, bar some extra padding on the seat back, which I desperately needed if I had any hope of touching the pedals or seeing over the dash.
Hit the starter button and you’re immediately rewarded with a quick tempo, angry sounding exhaust note that’s suitably amplified by the complete absence of any sound insulation.
The racing transmission is an odd set-up that hangs the shift lever off the dash rather than the usual floor-mounted shifter, though it proved to be highly effective and is positioned perfectly for quick shifts.
Whereas the steering is quite meaty on the Abarth road car, the Assetto Corse uses a racing calibration that requires considerably less effort and more delicate hands to keep the car balanced on turn-in.
It’s a similar story with the throttle and brakes – “easy-does-it” was the advice from Youlden, “unless you want to overcook it”.
Right from the get-go you can feel the extra shove this weapon has over the Abarth road car. It’s so much quicker than the Abarth 595. There’s absolutely no refinement whatsoever inside this cockpit - no question it’s a purebred racer.
You need a lap or two to get used to the hair-trigger throttle, but even then you’ll need to treat the right-most pedal with an unusual degree of delicacy if you want to keep the car safely on the tarmac.
Grip levels through the corners are prodigious, but only when you get enough heat into the racing slicks. Go too hard too early, and you’re likely to be doing pirouettes in your 500 Assetto Corse.
The sequential gearbox is a welcome treat after the enthusiasm-sapping, automated-manual transmission available on the road-going Abarth thanks to its ease of use and genuinely quick shift speed.
There’s no need to use the clutch pedal on upshifts from second gear on, and then its flat-to-the-floor upshifts for maximum pace. For the smoothest downshifts, (especially under hard breaking) heel and toeing is mandatory.
When there’s plenty of heat in the tyres, you can push a lot harder in the bends, but the same rules for the steering and brakes (use restraint) still apply.
It’s particularly important when it comes to the tiller. It’s all too easy to wind on too much lock and become unstuck. But once you get the hang of it, the lap times get a lot faster without the need to raise your physical effort.
All in all, its one of the easiest full-blown racers we’ve been lucky enough to drive, and little wonder there are several one-make racing series in Italy for the Abarth Assetto Corse.
At around $52,000 per machine, the grids are chock-a-block full.
They also made a spectacular appearance in Australia earlier this year with a factory-backed team of two Abarth 695 Assetto Corso cars (competing and winning their class) in the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12-hour.
That’s a feat Fiat Australia hopes to repeat in 2015.