The 2018 Abarth 595 features some important upgrades over the model it replaces. Still not the most sensible option in the segment, it is an undeniable enthusiast's car, with retro appeal, a willing engine, and go-kart fun factor.
Revised pricing headlines the changes for the 2018 Abarth 595, which is no mean feat, because in real terms the diminutive hot hatch was already something of a bargain. Value isn’t the only story, though, with subtle specification additions sure to make the scorpion badge even more appealing.
Barreling into a tight right-hander, the rain hasn’t eased and I’m hard on the brakes to wash off enough speed to enter the corner safely while peering through the thrashing wipers. Rivers of runoff flood the coarse-chip, off-camber surface as the tyres force the nose into the line I demand. I mash the accelerator at the apex, deliberately trying to unsettle the front end of the 595 Competizione (shown here in red) just to see what happens. It won’t slew into pointless understeer, though - rather it somehow finds grip on the drenched surface and pulls me through the corner at speed.
This is certainly a well-tuned hot hatch, but more on that in a minute…
Anyone who loves motoring history knows all about Abarth, both the man – Carlo Abarth – and the racing pedigree of the brand. What started as a tuning house specialising in small engines, quickly became much more than that. Abarth collected all manner of racing records along the way, too.
History doesn’t have a lot to do with matters motoring in 2017, I grant you, but one critical element remains very much front and centre of the Abarth manifesto – passion. Well, it should be ‘passione’ in Italian, but you get what I mean - just add a vowel, you can’t go wrong. Those of you attracted to the Abarth 595 are no doubt drawn to the passion of the design and retro ethos, the point of difference, the ability to stand out in an otherwise bland small hatchback segment, and the chance to buy into a legendary brand.
You can read our pricing and specification breakdown for all the info, but the two main points to note are a whopping $8010 price reduction for the range-topping Abarth 595 Competizione model - now $31,990 before on-road costs - and a $510 price reduction for the entry-level Abarth 595, set now from $26,990 before on-roads.
Aside from pure dollars, there’s also a much-needed infotainment upgrade for both models, as well as a slight (4kW up to 107kW) power bump for the 595.
LED daytime running lights modernize the visage, while an ‘improved sport-oriented’ steering wheel position promises – in theory at least – to massage one of the worst driving positions in any car in any class.
How much do I love the Abarth 595? I would have ignored the rubbish driving position and bought one anyway - even when it was more expensive.
The 595 Competizione gets a power bump over the old model, too – up to 132kW – but it also has four-piston Brembo brakes up front and a sensational bimodal ‘Record Monza’ exhaust system. The 595’s 16-inch wheels are also upped to 17-inch for the Competizione.
Both engines promise to deliver the goods on paper and both do in reality, too, with the 595 feeling more than fast enough. It doesn’t sound as tough, obviously, but it’s got enough power and torque to punt the little Abarth along with some hustle. But if some is good, more is better - so the Competizione, with a fairly hefty extra slab, will be the driver’s choice. Pending budgetary constraints.
I start my launch drive in the more expensive, and more powerful 595 Competizione, which some buyers will go straight to regardless of the sharp pricing on the entry-level model. Now that it has a five-grand price drop, it’s hard to argue with the value, either, especially given some of the race-inspired standard equipment.
Forget the lurchy, push button automatic transmission – we wouldn’t recommend it to our worst enemy – and opt instead for the slick manual gearbox. There is no way – that we have managed to discover anyway – of driving the auto with any measure of smoothness or precision. Flat-out, slow, lift off, don’t lift off, at redline, at 2000rpm, full auto or self shift, you just can’t get it right. The reality is that the auto simply won’t play ball the way you’d like it to.
The manual, however, is one of those quality examples that is easy to manipulate in traffic, making it less torturous than most and a real alternative even for those of you dealing with stop/start commuting. It’s rare we’d recommend a manual for this task, but the Abarth’s unit is a worthy option, especially given how engaging it is out of the city.
There’s an interesting caveat to the ‘Sport’ setting too – especially in the Competizione. It sharpens up throttle response, which is exactly what you’d want, but it also loads up the electrically assisted power steering. I actually prefer the steering in the softer mode, where it doesn’t feel as heavy, twitchy and easy to unsettle. Neither Abarth variant feels slower on the road out of Sport mode either, that’s for sure.
The Competizione sounds the better of the two when you crank it up, though, by way of the exhaust system, but it also rides a lot firmer than the base 595. That presents the buyer with an interesting conundrum, in that sense. In the real world (read, our shitty urban road network), the base hatch is the more comfortable, more settled and less skittish option. However, the Competizione sounds so much better, when you let it off the leash. Perhaps buy the base 595 and, as soon as the warranty runs out, fit the exhaust and tune the extra power into the engine? Might not be as crazy as it sounds…
The willing engine fires right up to redline with barely any initial lag, and smooth delivery all the way through the rev range. It’s the kind of engine that encourages you to work it hard, demand the best of it, and make it sweat a little. The barking and crackling through the exhaust pipes adds to the sense of theatre and the vital go-kart like steering and handling feel is ever present, as expected.
The manual doesn’t mind being worked quickly through the ratios up near redline, either, and you’ll find yourself downshifting rapidly, blipping the throttle as you do, and then firing up through the ‘box on acceleration. It’s an intoxicating little hatch once you leave the confines of the city behind you.
Inside the cabin, there’s upgraded infotainment – better than ever but still not quite as good as it could be – and a revised steering wheel placement, which Abarth promises should improve the awkward seating position. Now, the wheel is in a better position in relation to the driver’s legs, but you still feel like you sit way too tall in the cabin if you’re anywhere near the six-foot mark. (If you've ever driven a work van, imagine that - but smaller.)
One of the Competizione variants we tested was fitted with the alluring optional sports racing bucket seats and they improved the driving position even further. They allow you to sit a little further down into the cabin, thus moving you away from the headlining in both the driver and passenger seat.
The touchscreen infotainment system is responsive enough, but a little on the small side, and isn’t the best use of the space on offer. The Bluetooth phone connection is solid and audio streaming worked well for us on test, too.
Is the Abarth the best in the segment, when you crunch the numbers? No. Is it the smartest way to spend your money? Also no. Does the Abarth buyer care about either of those questions? No. Should you consider an Abarth 595 if you need a small hatch to run around in? Absolutely.
It oozes retro appeal and is incredible bang for your buck - especially the five-grand cheaper Competizione - while the sub-27-grand 595 is also starkly appealing.