Good things come in small packages, and the MY18 Abarth 595 Competizione could possibly be the most fun you can have for $32K.
We're quite familiar with the Abarth 595, because we own one.
Like most Italian cars, you can't deny the character the little hatch has, nor can you look past the obvious passion that's gone into creating its wonderful exhaust note or zippy dynamics.
However, the car we own has very obvious flaws, including a horrible seating position, last-decade (or lack of) infotainment, and a question mark over its value for money.
For 2018, though, the little Italian hot hatch received a long-awaited upgrade to bring it inline with the 'Series 4' Fiat 500 range, which included a fresh look, a touchscreen infotainment system (finally!) and price cuts.
While the base model dropped $510 to now start at $26,990 before the obligatory on-road costs, it's the top-spec 595 Competizione we have on test that's seen the biggest change, with its price slashed by $5010 – meaning the MY18 version kicks off at $32,990 plus ORCs.
Compared to the base car, the Competizione gets a bump from 107kW/206Nm to a more substantial 132kW of power and 250Nm of torque from its 1.4-litre turbo. It also gets bigger wheels and tyres, carbon-fibre highlights on the steering wheel, and Brembo brakes at the front.
That extra pep will see our manual Competizione sprint from 0–100km/h in 6.7 seconds (claimed), a full 1.1 seconds quicker than the base model.
Other features include leather-trimmed Abarth sports seats, adaptive suspension, along with a 'Monza' dual-mode exhaust system with quad tailpipes – we'll get to that later.
First impressions from the outset are the updated design cleans up the 595's overall look. Like the Fiat 500 on which it's based, the 595 gets new LED daytime-running lights, revised bumpers front and rear, along with new tail-lights.
The bright Abarth Red exterior paint ($500) looks great when combined with the white mirror caps and side stripes ($300), along with the racy 17-inch matte-black 'Supersport' alloy wheels ($400).
It's a subtle if worthwhile update that makes the new car look more upmarket than the model it replaces.
We're not a fan of the 'Tar Cold Grey' trims used on the Competizione, though, which adorn the door handles and tailgate trim. It feels almost a little like thin cast iron and is susceptible to stains – like from car polish, for example.
Inside is where the biggest changes are thanks to the new 5.0-inch Uconnect infotainment system with satellite navigation, along with the new steering wheel that looks boss with its leather, Alcantara and carbon-fibre trim.
Abarth says it has modified the steering wheel's position to improve the awkward driver seating of the old car. There's still no telescopic adjustment for the tiller, though it's definitely an improvement, and this is no doubt helped by our tester's optional Sabelt leather/Alcantara bucket seats ($2000) that feature carbon-fibre shells.
Not only do the optional pews look the business, they sit lower in the cabin while also offering more conventional adjustment – which this reviewer finds much more comfortable than the standard Abarth seats in the company-owned MY17 base model.
Back to the infotainment upgrade, which feels a world away from the system it replaces. It may not be the biggest display at 5.0 inches, nor does it feature the latest in smartphone compatibility, though the standard satellite navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming and DAB+ digital radio are all worthwhile upgrades that make the 595 that much better to live with day-to-day.
In saying that, however, several callers complained about crackling and interference when on the phone, so that may be something to consider if you take a lot of phone calls while driving.
The Tar Cold Grey trim dominates the dashboard of the Competizione, which could be far better served by a carbon-fibre insert instead, but anyway...
With the exception of the updated wheel and infotainment system, the wider cabin is generally unchanged from the previous model, meaning there's still plenty of hard plastics on the dash and doors, though the padded faux-leather elbow rests in the doors are a nice addition.
Front passengers should have just enough room to get by, though the rear seats remain a 'use as needed' proposition – it's definitely more of a 2+2 seater.
The front cupholders are also deeper – a pet peeve of the older model – while the slick aluminium gear shifter looks and feels great in the hand, though it can get a little hot if left out in the sun.
Firing up the little 1.4-litre turbo lets out a wonderful sound from the upgraded Monza exhaust. It's properly loud and has a wonderful dirty burble to it. I would go as far to say this is the best-sounding new car for the money, though I'm happy to be proven otherwise.
Pressing the 'Sport' button sharpens the throttle response and weights up the steering feel, while also illuminating the 'Sport' lettering in the little boost gauge atop the dash.
Despite the adjustments, it's still usable in city traffic, while also letting the full noise out of that exhaust system.
Around town, the larger wheels contribute to a noticeably firmer ride than the standard car on 16s, though you'll probably be having too much fun to really notice.
The five-speed manual is a joy to use in all situations, offering slick gear changes using the aforementioned aluminium shifter. It's an easy transmission to work through the ratios, though it's a shame that there isn't a sixth gear for when you're putting along on the freeway.
Speaking of the freeway, there's still no cruise control in the Abarth 595, despite the new Fiat 500 range offering the technology. If you do a lot of driving on the open road, it's definitely something you should take into consideration.
When the going gets twisty, though, the 595 is a heap of fun. There's plenty of grip from the 205/40 Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, which feel more planted than the 194/45 rubber used on the base model.
Despite being turbocharged, peak torque from the little petrol engine doesn't come in until 3000rpm, meaning you get the surge quite late in the rev range. The 595 definitely is at its best when you're pushing it. There's heaps of shove when you're revving it out and the sound from that Monza exhaust is intoxicating.
It's a car that you can drive quickly without feeling like you're going to kill yourself, and even though it isn't supercar-fast, it's genuinely fun behind the wheel.
Slowing the little Abarth down are drilled and ventilated discs at the front and perforated discs at the rear. Up front are aluminium Brembo calipers, painted red on our tester, though you can option yellow or black ones ($300).
Pedal feel is predictable, though there isn't a lot to slow down considering the 595 Competizione has a tare mass of just 1045kg.
Once you get back to the daily grind, the Abarth's teeny-weeny dimensions mean it's a cinch to drive in tight city streets or navigate shopping centre carparks.
While there's still no rear-view camera, it's small enough and easy enough to see out of that you aren't going to have any real issues slotting it into a space.
It's pretty efficient, too. During our time with the car it returned an indicated 7.5L/100km over a mix of urban and highway driving. The 595 does require minimum 95 RON unleaded, though you can still get a decent range out of its little 35-litre tank.
From an ownership perspective, the Abarth 595 is covered by a three-year/150,000km warranty. Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first.
I'm really torn trying to come to a conclusion on how to rate and recommend the Abarth 595. Neither the base nor the Competizione model is class-leading in terms of value, practicality, performance or ownership. You're also not going to win any carpark street-cred competitions, nor does it offer the latest technologies in the semi-autonomous driving age.
However, if you're in the market for an Abarth, you don't give a flying you-know-what about those things. The Abarth is a car you buy with your heart, because regardless of how it looks, or the fact it takes a special kind of contortionism to get into the back if you're more than five-foot-five, it has undeniable character and charm that bring a smile to your face every time you turn the key.
In Competizione trim, the optional bucket seats and the standard Monza exhaust are godsends when it comes to day-to-day use, because you'll never get sick of that dirty engine note, and the Sabelt seats at least keep you a little more comfortable while you listen to it sing.
Add to that it goes and handles very well, while also standing out in its own cutesy way.
The MY18 upgrades address almost all of the key complaints we had of the old car, though it could still do with a rear-view camera and cruise control.