It has been said that you can’t call yourself a true car enthusiast until you have owned an Italian car. So, as a team of hot-blooded car fans, it made sense our next CarAdvice fleet purchase should have the spirit of Italia coursing through its veins.
Now okay, ‘sports car’ might be a stretch, as the 595 is still very much a hotted-up version of the series-three Fiat 500 hatch, but this is a car to judge more on its abundance of character than outright market positioning, so we can pretty much categorise it as we wish.
Perhaps tiny-sports-hatch is a better name, as translated to suit the Tuscan hills would see it referred to as a ‘Piccolo-Portello-Sportivo’. Bellissimo!
And while we’re being honest, ‘Italian’ is also not quite right, as the little Abarth is built in Poland. But I won’t let that spoil the fun.
Our 595 was the last manual car available in Australia, as the supply of series-three Abarths has now ended. The rest of the world is already treated to the updated model (based on the series-four 500), which we were supposed to see last year, then early this year, and now, apparently, in October.
It’s a basic specification in Cordolo Red, with white decals and mirror caps, and a grand total of no options. The car lists at $27,500, and we drove away, with a dealer installed tint (darkest legal, natch) for just a mille more, at $28,500 on the road.
The car was purchased from the new Zagame Fiat & Alfa Romeo showroom in Richmond, where the staff were very friendly and a made a lovely double-espresso.
From the wide front airdam and integrated foglamps to the rotund derriere and its twin pipes, the Abarth is an unmistakable mutation of the familiar and friendly Fiat 500. The Abarth scorpion badging and 595 insignias add a bit of a special flourish to the package.
The basic 595 still rolls on 16-inch wheels with Continental Premium Contact 2 tyres and misses out of the more modern looking LED tail lamps of the updated 500.
Despite the minute size (3657mm long, 1627mm wide), there’s a 185-litre boot and the rear seats fold 50:50 to actually make the little Abarth reasonably practical. Rear passenger space is tight though, and the most ridiculously small parcel shelf in the history of time never fails to amuse.
Under its cheery red bonnet lies a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder with 103kW and 206Nm available.
Now this isn’t the most powerful version of the little Abarth, there’s the 132kW 595 Competizione and of course, the bonkers 140kW 695 Biposto, but in terms of value for money, our little bruschetta makes a solid case.
It’s a $12,500 jump to the Competizione model, but the 595 is only $6500 from the 74kW Fiat 500 Lounge. That makes it an even 29kW between the two, and while the series-four Fiat gets an updated interior, including a media screen, you don’t really buy this little buzz box for cabin ergonomics.
In fact, if cabin ergonomics are important, then this is not the car for you.
The basic layout is okay, once you get over the high seating position and giant family-sized pizza steering wheel, but there are so many ‘what the hell’ quirks, the Abarth should come with a usage warning for anyone even remotely on the OCD scale.
Where to start…
The seat height adjustment lever (which doesn’t really adjust the seat height, just tilts it awkwardly) is right next to the identically shaped handbrake lever. There’s a gap between the seatbelt receiver and seat base just wide enough for you to accidently ‘click’ the seatbelt in there, instead of where it should go, every damn time you get in the car.
You need to initiate a Bluetooth connection from the steering wheel and not the radio, and even then, it only supports telephony and not audio. Plug in a USB media device and the source button on the radio ignores it, you need to cycle through modes from the steering wheel.
Leave it off and go with the radio, which incidentally resets to 105.1 Triple M every time you get in the car, and you lose the g-force sensor display on the instrument panel. Switch back to your iPod, if you can connect it, and the G’s are back!
The window switches are in a dumb spot on the middle of the dashboard, there’s no cruise control, no automatic headlamps, even the placement of the five-speed shifter isn’t ideal.
Forget subtlety too, there’s a hilariously oversized boost gauge, which projects a giant ‘SPORT’ when the car is in its (compulsory) sportier mode and illuminates with a different setting to the rest of the instruments at night. Never change, Italy.
It’s not all bad news though.
The digital instrument cluster is clear and well featured, plus adapts to the drive mode setting. Even the painted dash panel with its 500 insignia in front of the passenger is not without its own special charm.
And the seats, despite their positioning, are very comfortable and quite supportive.
It all equates to a fun but frustrating and flawed city car, which can zap away from the lights with ease, but ultimately feels a little too compromised as a daily premise.
But get the little guy out on some winding tarmac, and none of that matters one bit.
You forget about media inputs and start subconsciously assessing spring rates and cornering speeds. Less important, switchgear positions and equipment levels. More important, throttle response and damper rebound.
Remove the confines of the urban sprawl and you can rev the little four-pot right around to 7000rpm. The buzz changes to a scream and there’s plenty of exhaust theatrics to seal the deal.
The big wheel offers accurate turn in and you can hold impressively high speeds, reeling in and surprising plenty of two-wheeled adversaries, who seem genuinely bemused to see the happy little Abarth nipping at their heels.
It isn’t the most sublime road scalpel on the market, but it is a tonne of fun (1042kg to be precise).
So, then what we have, is a car which delivers on the theory that an Italian car is more valuable for its intangible character than its measurable usefulness. A car whose reason for being is to make you enjoy the drive, with all other consideration thrown to the wind.
Over the car’s life with CarAdvice, we’ll look at how it copes with a longer mountain run, as well as shuffling through a more urbane existence around town.
We’ll reach out to our local Italian car club, maybe map out an idiot-proof step-by-step guide on how to connect a phone, and keep you informed about running costs, issues or other tidbits along the way.
When the time comes to say goodbye to the little Italian, well detail a total cost of ownership, including depreciation.
Subsequent updates will be shorter and sharper and will feature multiple authors, but if you have a question of the 2017 Abarth 595 then pop a note in the comments below or contact me directly.
We’ll put together a rating after our first six months with the car, and adjust each six-month period moving forward.
In the meantime, the happiest little bundle of poorly thought out usability will keep us entertained as it pops and crackles its little engine up to the redline, each and every time we drive it. Ciao!
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the Abarth 595 below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.