What is it?
Like most hot hatches, Abarth’s version of the Fiat 500 has always found the UK a happy home. The model fits very tidily and almost exclusively into its city car-sized niche, and although its sales volumes are minuscule compared to some, it remains a common enough sight in affluent towns – London in particular.
In recent years, though, the car has floundered somewhat under the weight of increasingly frivolous and expensive special editions. The most recent was the 695 Biposto, imported in tiny numbers in return for Volkswagen Golf R money. Now, at last, with the 500’s recent facelift comes a new assault on the Abarth front, the latest 595 being launched in a three-trim line-up with three different engine outputs.
All are based on the familiar turbocharged 1.4-litre T-Jet lump, with the top-spec 178bhp Competizione providing our area of focus – not least because it is the one that can now be equipped with Abarth’s current preferred power-up: a mechanical limited-slip differential.
The add-on, part of a new Performance Pack that also features 17in Supersport alloy wheels and carbonfibre-shelled race seats, is available exclusively for the five-speed manual gearbox. As standard, the Competizione also gets uprated Koni FSD dampers all round and a more potent Brembo braking system.
What's it like?
As part of the wider facelift, the 595 receives a number of modest cosmetic changes throughout. None dramatically alters the Abarth’s established character, although the engineers claim an 18% improvement in the car’s cooling capacity, thanks to that oversized air intake.
Inside, the Abarth is as racy as ever, and perceived quality is helped no end by a splash of Alcantara on the steering wheel and dash. There’s also carbonfibre in the Competizione, plus the latest Uconnect infotainment system and a new ‘sport’ panel in the instrument cluster, which alters its graphics when you shift between drive modes.
There have been no fundamental alterations, then – which is fitting for a car not fundamentally much different to drive than its predecessor. The same basic Abarth temperament applies: bumper-car compactness and manoeuvrability, brusque handling and the fierce yet patchy acceleration of a terrier gathering speed on wet grass.
The Competizione’s pricier dampers are a modest improvement. From memory, the previous version rode as if the road were made of disorganised Lego bricks, so this new 595’s tight-bodied pliancy comes as a nice surprise. Stiffness, rippling up through the dinky wheelbase and ending at the fringe, is still guaranteed, of course, as is the 595’s snappy change of direction.
If only the new diff made its presence as keenly felt. Sadly, its muted intervention is not a game-changer; the car’s innate tendency to succumb to understeer early is still a prevalent theme, as is an apparent immunity to throttle adjustment. In straight lines, there’s sufficient headline power to live up to the Competizione’s flagship claim, although all too often the pokiness seems spread unfairly thin by the gearbox’s long ratios.
Should I buy one?
If the thought has ever occurred to you in the past 10 years, there’s really nothing to stop you, because – minor enhancements aside – this feels much like the same car Abarth has always turned out. Fiat likes to think of the Mini Cooper as the arch enemy – but the lead established with BMW’s investment appears insurmountable.
Instead, the 595’s standard attributes apply. Its idiosyncratic looks and cabin make it desirable and its succinct proportions mean it fits perfectly into urbanites’ imaginations. The promise of kinetic handling and traffic light potency remain the icing on top. The new model ensures that continues, but its comparatively high price and Fiat’s developmental lethargy will ensure the audience stays small.