THE Fiat executive who came up with the idea for the Abarth 595 must have a wicked sense of humour. Preposterous in many ways, it begins life as the little Fiat 500, which, even with the turbocharged version of the company’s 0.9-litre two-cylinder motor, could be described as having the get-up-and-go of a snail. Then Abarth, Fiat’s in-house tuning company, shoehorns in a 1.4-litre T-Jet turbo engine, and all hell breaks loose.
The engine comes from bigger Fiats, such as the Tipo, and is usually tuned to produce 118bhp. But that wouldn’t do for Abarth’s engineers; they turn up the wick and furnish the diminutive 595 with 143bhp. Sounds better, doesn’t it? Well, that’s just the base version …
There’s also the 595 Turismo, the variant we tested, which has an extra 20bhp, and the range-topping 595 Competizione, which goes up to 11, or rather 177bhp. It’s not quite the craziest 500-based Abarth – that title belongs to the 187bhp 695 Biposto – but on the bonkers scale the 595 sits between “mildly unhinged” and “approach with caution”.
It’s not just the power that’s hare-brained, or even the power-to-weight ratio (the 595 Turismo tips the scales at a fraction over a ton), but the power to size. It has similar dimensions to Michael Jordan’s left training shoe, and it’s a similar shape, too. Its closest rival is the Mini Cooper S, but in comparison the Mini looks like a giant.
Other touches too give you a sense that the guys at Abarth were having a bit of a laugh with the 595 Turismo. Hit the Sport button and the handsome, fully digital instrument panel switches to show, most prominently, a G-meter. Yes, a G-meter, which records the sideways force generated as you go round bends. It’s the sort of gadget made famous by the monstrous Nissan Skyline and more commonly seen in supercars. When it pops up in front of you in the Abarth 595, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
The 595 moves with comical speed – through its native environment of narrow city streets, it goes like a demonic rat through a laboratory maze. Best of all, it feels fast at any speed, especially the convertible 595C version, roof down. It’s easy to have fun without breaking any speed limits.
Selecting Sport mode also triggers an increase in throttle response and adds weight to the steering. The latter is lively but not jittery, with decent feedback about the front tyres’ grip. Despite the 595’s high sides, compared with its length, body roll is kept under control in the Turismo – “frequency selective” dampers are fitted to the rear suspension to increase roadholding and stability. The setup results in very little understeer, too, with plenty of grip at the front, even when you’re pulling hard out of corners.
It’s not all good news, though. As with a Smart ForTwo, the short wheelbase means bumps in the roads are pronounced, and every sleeping policeman feels like Everest. The suspension deals with this shortcoming well, though, and the 595 Turismo isn’t a tooth-rattler.
The Turismo’s exhaust note is not over the top — it’s not a popping and crackling fire-breather — but it makes a rorty and eager noise reminiscent of a lion growling through a didgeridoo.
Inside, the sound is sufficiently deadened even in the soft-top; at 70mph, more noise comes in through the windows than the canvas above your head. Being subjected to a constant din on a long journey can be exhausting; not a bit of it with the little Abarth 595.
It has what Clarkson might describe as the classic problem associated with Italian cars, namely it is designed for gorillas
It’s also not short of kit. Our test car came with rear parking sensors, electric roof, sat nav (albeit with a small screen, but then this is a small car), climate control, DAB and Bluetooth, and the infotainment system was easy to use. It also included apps, although it was unclear how useful they were.
A few other neat touches are evident. The edges of the 12V (what used to be called the cigarette lighter) and USB sockets are illuminated with LEDs, and the circular instrument binnacle is fully digital and really quite cool.
It’s not all good news, though. Annoyingly, the infotainment system froze when the map updated, forcing us to switch it off and on. The 595 also has what Jeremy Clarkson might describe as the classic problem associated with Italian cars: it appears to have been designed for gorillas, with the pedals too close and the wheel too far away (there’s height adjustment on the steering wheel, but it can’t be brought closer to you). At least the seats in the Turismo are wonderfully supportive.
The aluminium gearlever is surprisingly long, appearing to have the same stalk as the plain old Fiat 500 – sports car enthusiasts might expect a short-throw lever. It’s not the most satisfying box with which to shift through the gears as you have to row, rather than flick up and down.
Also, the electric window buttons are in the centre, next to the gearlever, rather than on the door, which takes a lot of getting used to.
The driver’s seat goes forward and back, and can be pumped up to adjust the height, but the lever, on the left of the seat squab, is a similar shape and length to the handbrake, which sits right next to it in this narrow car. More than once we went to pump up the seat and found ourselves about to perform a handbrake turn. Still, almost locking the back wheels while doing 50mph on a dual carriageway is rather exciting.
There’s little space in the rear, of course, but you could get two children in there, assuming they’re not in rear-facing child seats, and the boot is adequate for a supermarket run, as long as you’re not feeding the 5,000.
Final grumble: putting the 595C’s roof all the way down blocks the rear view over the back seats.
The thing is, all the niggles become rather endearing. It’s imperfect in the same way your children are imperfect, and you wouldn’t try to sell them off every time they wound you up. Would you?
The sheer silliness of the thing lends it charm. The Abarth 595 is great fun, a car with character and verve, and not many can claim that these days.