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The arrival of the new 2016 Abarth 595 has dropped the ownership doorway into Italy's famed scorpion shield from mid-$30k down to a basement-level $27,500 list price. Stripping back the frills, while liberally pilfering from the marque's go-fast parts bin, this 'regular 595' is the type of cut-priced sweet spot many buyers having been hankering for. And, handily, it also adds some newfound shine on the performance range based off the now ageing Fiat 500 format.
Fortuitously, the cheapest Abarth lines squarely up against the 2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI, the German company's most-affordable small performance hatchback, which itself dropped to new fiscal lows mid-last year with the introduction of a conventional manual version for $27,490 plus on-roads. Yep, there’s just a tenner between them.
It’s a no-brainer, then, to pitch the pair against each other to decide the fitter small-sized, big-fun, front-driver for under $30k. And that’s despite their myriad differences…
In many ways, the Abarth 595 and Volkswagen Polo GTI hatchbacks are different enough that they couldn’t be more different. In manual hatchback form, neither matches the other for segment size (micro versus one-up light), in door count (three against five) and even gearbox ratios (five plays six). The Polo layers on the all-round goodness and plays a conservative styling bat, the 595 strips back the niceties and wears its go-fast aspirations conspicuously on its sleeves. An apple and an orange fighting for the wallet of fruit salad lovers, perhaps.
So why not spice things up further? Rather than going the obvious manual-for-manual price parity route, let’s celebrate their differences and switch up their spec a little. Specifically, we’ve opted for a dual-clutch DSG version of the Polo GTI because, well, that transmission format is more contextually aligned in the techno-savvy Volkswagen pitch and, well, it's regarded to be the quicker choice from A to B via a succession of corners.
Meanwhile, we’ve chosen the convertible 'C' version of the Abarth - the 595C - because the dropped-lid format amplifies the extra-sensory, good-vibe appeal the Italian breed most heavily trades. As the $2000 optional robotised manual has a reputation for hindering the Abarth breed's driving enjoyment, we've chosen a conventional five-speeder more fitting to the vibe this low-end variant is chasing.
In short, sheer fun factors highly in this comparison. We’re looking for pace, driver engagement and how big a grin each car evokes. How each goes about it should be interesting, as they’re so very different in specification from one another. That said, conventional measures of goodness – value, equipment, quality, ride and so on – are intrinsically tied to cross-shopping the pair, and will impact on how each of the two will fare in the overall appraisal.
Pricing and equipment
Our DSG-equipped Polo GTI, at $29,990 plus on-roads, marks a $2500 hike over the regular manual version. And opting for the soft-lidded two-door manual 595C version of the Abarth lifts the base price to $31,500 plus on-roads compared with the entry-level three-door hardtop.
The bells and whistles highlights of the 595C spec lists are the roof itself, which is motorised and can be stowed or erected – fully or partially - on the move at up to 100km/h, and the 7-inch TFT driver’s display, which enables reconfiguration of the readout, depending on whether you’re in 'Normal' or (default on start-up) 'Sport' mode. Oh, and there’s a turbo boost gauge, sat proud atop the dash.
Much of the rest of equipment list is sparse for a car this size costing this much. There’s no fancy infotainment screen, connectivity is limited to Bluetooth and voice control, there’s manual air conditioning rather than temperature-regulating climate control, the cloth seats have no electric adjustment and, in terms of parking aids, you get rear parking sensors only. On the upside, the 595C does get seven airbags, heated wing mirrors, a six-speaker audio and rear ISOFIX child seat mounts.
The Polo GTI is more lavish in core equipment, if in a few key areas. The infotainment system adopts a 6.5-inch colour touchscreen and offers Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink connectivity, with a broader multimedia scope than offered in the Abarth - though, voice control isn’t standard, and the Volkswagen adopts analogue instrumentation and a more basic driver’s screen than the 595C.
Cruise control, 'proper' climate control, a rear-view camera, automatic headlights and wipers, remote key-fob window opening, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and heated wing mirrors are all standard issue, though, front and rear parking sensors are extra and, like the Abarth, the manual-adjust seats are cloth trimmed. The Volkswagen gets six airbags and both conventional and ISOFIX child seat points.
Engines and performance
With 103kW of power at 5500rpm and 206Nm of torque at 2000rpm, the Abarth’s turbocharged 1.4-litre four loses the numbers game to the Polo GTI’s 1.8-litre turbo four - the latter churning out 141kW between 5400-6400rpm and 250Nm between 1200-5300rpm. (The DSG-equipped GTI does, however, get shorted changed on torque compared with a manual version, which gets an extra 70Nm.) But despite being a little over a tonne and carrying a roughly 300kg weight advantage over the GTI, the 595C is nearly a second and a half slower to 100km/h than the (6.7sec) Polo GTI.
Compared with acceleration, their combined fuel consumption claims are far closer, with Volkswagen quoting 5.7 litres per 100km, the Abarth 5.8L/100km.
The 595C adopts a Torque Transfer Control system that, via both a mechanical differential and stability control protocols, maximises drive from its modest 195mm-wide, 16-inch rubber across the front axle. Engaging Sport mode weights up the electrically-assisted steering, sharpens the throttle, alters the engine’s torque delivery, and activates a shift-light in the TFT driver’s screen. Par for the ‘595’ course are larger brake discs, a sports exhaust, and (15mm) lower and firmer strut front/Torsion beam rear suspension that features, what its maker calls, an Adaptive with Frequency Selective Damping design at the front end.
The Polo GTI uses the braking-actuated Extended Electronic Differential Lock to control torque delivery to its wider 215mm-wide, 17-inch tyres. The Volkswagen’s own 'Sport' drive mode not only adds more focused transmission shift programming to compliment a sharper throttle and heftier steering feel, it also firms up the Polo GTI’s adaptive dampers applied to its own strut front/Torsion beam rear layout and amplifies the engine's in-cabin note using a sound actuator.
While not terribly different in make up, when sifting through the makers claims there’s a sense that Volkswagen stacks the intricacies at play a little higher, while Abarth goes for more aggression in its approach. And it would seem a case of German finesse as a counter to Italian fire… though only to a point. That’s because while the GTI is the most ferociously equipped Polo the Aussie peso can buy, the 595C trim is, by some mark, the least potently endowed variant of the Abarth range.
Before we put the pair through their paces, our guest tester, up and coming Australian racing driver Emily Duggan, and I pull apart their cabins.
From the instant you climb in, the Polo gushes with honey-I-shrunk-the-Golf-GTI vibe. It’s in the presentation, the quality of the materials, the general fit and finish. For better or worse, no other go-fast front-driver its size imparts the same sense of restained and respectful maturity that, to some, make the Volkswagen endearingly classy and, to others, makes it a bit humdrum and predictable.
“They’re great seats,” Emily says. “I love the Tartan pattern. The paddle shifters are perfectly placed, as are the pedals.”
Volkswagen does invest where it matters. The driving position and ergonomics – with the exception of the annoying centre armrest – are superb, the steering wheel is purposeful and richly upmarket, and the seats deftly balance long haul comfort and deep-set bolstering essential for vice-gripping your torso during hard driving. Where so many hot hatches opt for chintzy stylisms arguably at odds with the Polo’s grown-up price point, this particular Volkswagen product manages to feel more expensive inside than its sticker price suggests. It’s a trick few other carmakers adopt for hot hatches, and one that serves Volkswagen’s smaller offerings extremely well in the Aussie market.
The 595C couldn’t be more different inside: flamboyant, kitchy, even slightly comical. It remains one of the most unusual albeit fun-filled cabins to sit in, with its laughably oversized steering wheel, weird-if-satisfyingly useful dash-mounted gearstick placement, and driver ergonomics seemed tailor-made for a small gorilla. It is an event to drive and will make you smile… until the backache sets in.
“Seat comfort isn’t great,” Emily agrees. “For my tastes, the steering wheel rim is to thick and the turning circle for a car this small is laughable.”
The plastics are, frankly, pretty ordinary, with much of the cabin sourced from the bottom of the Fiat 500 bin… including, confusingly, the chrome ‘500C’ badge on the dash fascia, given the near outrage you’ll cop from the Abarth-ifsti should you call their beloved cars "Fiats".
Control wise, everything is big, clear, and generally necessary, with the distinct exception of the daft ‘throttle position’ indicator gauge on the instrumentation that serves little logical purpose other than filling a hole in the TFT display. The boost gauge, too, is more a trinket than anything like a useful feature.
The 595C defaults to Sport mode on start up, its steering is notably heavier than the GTI’s, and the throttle take-up is sharp and frisky. Hitting Normal mode dulls the throttle response severely, creating a more useable drivability setting for the peak-hour crawl. The brakes, however, feel nice and progressive and well suited to hard driving, unlike the touchy, bitey feel of the anchors fitted to the Volkswagen.
While it’s unfair to markdown the 595C on a lack of cabin space, the front seats aren’t nearly a match for the GTI’s in shapeliness and functional purpose. And you do sit much higher in the saddle in the 595C than in the Polo GTI - though this conventionally unsporting arrangement is indelibly a part of the Abarth and central to its charm.
Dropping the Abarth’s roof - an automated function that brings its own unique fanfare to the party - amplifies the senses and the adds both noise and turbulence, neither being too intrusive into the cabin. In fact, it enhances the sensation of road speed. Almost too much though - with ahead of steam it’s tough to hear the engine note, so you’re forever glancing down at the tachometer to judge the upshift points.
The 595C's roof can sort of half-drop, too, allowing easy access to luggage space that is, unsurprisingly, far less roomy than the Volkswagen's comparatively cavernous boot.
Our chosen road test loop mixes a variety of smooth and rough surfaces throughout all manner of corners. From sharply inclined switchbacks to heavily rutted blind sweepers, it’s the kind of venue hot hatch owners might sniff out for fair-weather punts.
Both cars adopt strut front and Torsion beam rear suspension systems, but that’s where similarities in handing and dynamics begin and end. Stick them into a corner, rough or smooth – and we had plenty of both on test – and the two are markedly different animals.
The 595C offers meaty steering weight and is sharp to respond to inputs to the point of being darty. The Polo GTI requires much less muscle, its direction finder a more linear and measured ally that affords a higher degree of accuracy.
You discover quickly that the Volkswagen can channel more corner speed over lumpy road surfaces because its more compliant damping creates more assertive and consistent grip from its tyres. Not only does the Polo GTI track with accuracy, it tracks truer to the line the driver chooses.
The 595C is more firmly set at both ends, and it skips off line more readily – it’s thankful the quick steering offers the driver swift response to what can become a wild ride. The harder the compression, the more the Abarth pitches about hyperactively – during one deep dip, we swore the rear wheels left the hotmix for a moment.
“The Abarth is surprisingly different to what I was expecting,” explains Emily. “If it hits a bump mid corner, you really need to be prepared that it’ll move itself off line."
Unsurprisingly, the car with the scorpion badge and a scant 2.3-metre wheelbase has quite the sting in its tail under brakes or lifting off the throttle, but it’s more lively than dangerous. The Polo GTI is more benign, but only by comparison: it’s certainly friskier than the larger Golf GTI, with which it otherwise shares many characteristic traits. The German car feels grown up, the Italian car more childlike; it’s like comparing Gran Turismo to Mario Kart.
“What makes the Abarth so interesting to drive is that you have to work the car,” Emily says. “It’s not a point and shoot car, per say, but even at speeds easily under the signposted limits, you’re working away at the wheel through corners, which is what makes it so enjoyable.”
Fun factor at speeds that won’t threaten your licence is the core of the entry-level Abarth’s appeal. That said, at a pace where the Abarth gets hot and sweaty, for good and bad, the Polo GTI is just beginning to dig in to its dynamic reserves. For covering ground across a back road, it’s the Volkswagen first, some daylight second, the Abarth third.
“From its looks, to its power output, and its Sport mode, the Polo GTI screams ‘drive me’ once you point it down a winding road,” Emily adds. “The moment you plant your right foot, or hear the ‘pop’ on the dual-clutch transmission’s upshifts, there’s a purpose to the Volkswagen. And it’s music to car lovers’ ears.”
Lacking the Abarth’s friskiness, however, can be viewed as a downside. As Emily explains: “While the Polo GTI is a proper point-and-shoot-type car, and it does what it’s told, it’s only when you pile on speed that it’s chassis really comes to life.”
What the Abarth does love is a smooth and predictable – or perhaps repeatable – course on which to demonstrate its stripes. Around a manicured racetrack, Emily offers, “this pair may well be more closely matched”. Though that, perhaps, is a test for another day…
Peg the pace back to around town driving and the Polo GTI is easily the all-round pleasant and patently roomier device. But does that make it better? Not necessarily.
If you’re commuting regularly, spending lots of time behind the wheel and need the convenience of added space, our advice is make the Polo GTI your first port of call before cross-shopping anything with the words ‘small’, ‘compact’, ‘micro’, ‘city’ or ‘light’ attached to its segment naming. It’s that good. And it’s that sensible. That is, if sensible is what you’re after.
If your pocket rocket desires are more the fair-weather indulgence, or if you favour shorter trips, or are chasing vibe over practicality, it would be remiss not to centre your purchasing choice around the newest entry-level Abarth which, in $27,500 (plus on-roads) hardtop manual form, is the most affordable of the breed to date.
Ownership? The Abarth isn't covered by capped-price servicing, though, intervals are 12 months or 15,000km (whichever comes first), while warranty coverage is three years/150,000km. By comparison, the Volkswagen gets a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, and its identical servicing frequency is capped at $600 per service for the first four years/60,000km.
So an apple and orange they remain, perhaps, but plugged through the CarAdvice ratings system, and the Volkswagen does present the compelling prospect. And the competitor we’ve scored more highly in overall appraisal.
It’s the standard-issue equipment advantage of the German car – the adaptive suspension; more comprehensive drive modes; all-singing-and-dancing App-Connect(ed) infotainment system; proprietary sat-nav; rear-view camera - that really bolsters its specific ratings for comfort, technology, connectivity and features above that of the Abarth.
Then there’s performance: it’s the Polo GTI all the way when it comes to outright pace. And as for ride and handling, well, again the Volkswagen is the more complete and polished blend, regardless of the fun factor in which the Abarth shines so brightly. In fact, if you were to pinpoint areas the 595C has over its direct rival, it's charm, the extra-sensory driving experience, and the fact that you can drop its top. Beyond that, you'll find little more where the Italian stamps any sort of authority...
The 2016 Abarth 595 had previously scored an overall of 7.5 out of 10 during our launch review. And that score remains unaltered in this test for this 595C rag-top.
The last time we tested the Volkswagen Polo GTI, in MY15 form, it scored an eight out of 10. But that car didn’t benefit from the aforementioned infotainment/sat-nav, rear sensors/rear-view camera, Sport Select suspension/drive-mode trickery or other stuff such as bi-xenon headlights and LED driving lights that have been added to this newer MY16 version. Half an extra point? You bet.
So fault-free and want-for-little is the hottest, smallest, Volkswagen out there, that a score of 8.5 out of 10 isn’t difficult to justify.
Click the Photos tab for more Abarth 595C and Volkswagen Polo GTI images by Brett Sullivan.