The Abarth 595 is a very small car. I am a very tall man. I’m also new here at CarAdvice. You can probably see where this is going. The team in Melbourne threw me the keys to our littlest, reddest hatchback and, through fits of laughter, told me to have fun.
We’ve already taken a detailed look at how we specced the Abarth, but here’s a quick rundown of the highlights. Power comes from a turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine making 103kW and 206Nm of torque for an eight-second sprint to 100km/h.
Power is put to the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. The front axle is also home to an electric differential, shuffling grunt around to cut down on torque steer. It works, too. There’s very little tugging through the wheel, and the car tracks straight and true under power, which is more than can be said of powerful front-drive hatches of yore.
There are more powerful versions of the Abarth on the market: the 595 Competitzione has 132kW, while the unhinged Biposto has 140kW and the option of a true motorsport dog box. But our 595 was significantly cheaper than both of them, and given it weighs just over a tonne, it has plenty of punch for most people.
What it doesn’t have, however, is a driving position designed for fully grown humans.
I realise six-foot-seven is pushing the envelope in the normal ‘fully grown’ stakes, but the fundamentals in the Fiat are so poorly conceived, I defy anyone with fully formed arms and legs to get comfortable.
The seat bases don’t adjust for height, they only tilt slightly, and the steering wheel doesn’t telescope. Given the 595 is just over three metres long, there also isn’t room for the seat to slide far enough to accommodate my gangly legs. It’s genuinely horrendous.
Rather than sitting low, legs outstretched and arms slightly bent, it leaves me perched precariously over the wheel, knees cocked at more than 90 degrees and ankles craned to reach the pedals. At least the gear-lever is nice and close to the steering wheel, right?
Any corner requiring more than a quarter-turn of steering lock makes my hands slam into my knees. Although I’m not certain, I think the cramped set-up made me bump my, er, junk into the base of the steering wheel over a particularly nasty speed bump. Lucky the Italians are lovers, not fighters.
Although they’re incredibly pretty, the gap between the metal pedals is tighter than that of most Fiat body panels – great for dainty drivers shod in fine Italian loafers, endlessly frustrating for tall drivers with flippers for feet, especially when you consider the lack of a footrest next to the clutch.
With no cruise control to lighten the load, the pedals alone are enough to make any trip longer than an hour feel like a journey through the circles of hell.
Every small input needs to be carefully choreographed, preferably with a surplus of space on hand in case something goes wrong while untangling my cramped mess of gangly limbs from their forced resting places.
It’s a real shame, because the set-up actively prevents me from enjoying the punch on offer in the little Fiat. The fear of not being able to get from throttle to brake means I never fully commit to driving the car hard, while the pain shooting through both legs after an hour behind the wheel is unlike anything else I’ve experienced in a car.
In truth, other elements of the cabin would frustrate me if the driving position weren’t so poor. It’s an ergonomic nightmare, with buttons seemingly assigned functions at random and enough mismatched fonts to make graphic designers weep.
The traction control toggle is nestled among the air-conditioning buttons, the window switches flank the gear shifter and, inexplicably, aux-connected music needs to be controlled through the wheel. No, not the radio.
Oh, and the low-cut cupholders did a terrible job holding my double-shot latte under anything but the most gentle acceleration. Small gripe, sure, but relevant in a trendy car designed for trendy people living in trendy cities.
At risk of speaking in tired Italian tropes, the 595 is still charming despite these flaws. The bright red dashboard trim looks brilliant, and the boost gauge perched atop the dash is the kind of puerile detail that would have most German designers shot, but adds a dash of spice to a cabin dominated by hard plastics.
Speaking of spice, the chubby twin exhaust and bright red paint make for a car that really stands out in a crowd. Factor the white stripes running along the flanks into the equation, add a set of scorpion badges, and you’re left with a fast-looking package.
Italians absolutely adore it, too. Within seconds of posting a photo of the car on my Instagram, extended family from Sicily sent a message reading “That is so cool!”. A brief jaunt along Lygon St in Melbourne confirmed its status as the subject of more yelling and hand-waving than most hot hatches see in a lifetime.
Even my brother and dad, both of whom usually go to their happy place when I start talking cars, were fascinated by the bright red Fiat when it pulled into the driveway. That same brother was less receptive to the car when he was folded into the back seat, but that’s beside the point here.
Do the charming bits-and-pieces outweigh the fundamental flaws in the driving position? Not for me. I’ll take a boring Polo GTI and the boring, comfortable seats that come with it, thanks.
NOTE: Keep an eye out this week for the Abarth’s diary post, which will give you an ongoing look at our costs and experiences with this little bambino!
CARS WE OWN: Abarth 595 Introduction