It's good in a bad sort of way. Essentially, the 595 is based on the same platform as the previous-generation Panda, which is getting on for 16 years old now. As a result, it's shot through with numerous compromises that hobble any claim on the title of ‘ultimate hot hatch’. The Ford Fiesta ST is leagues ahead in terms of performance, outright ability and driver involvement, while even a car such as the slower Volkswagen Up GTI has the Esseesse covered in most dynamic areas. Yet despite this, it’s hard not to get at least a little bit swept up in the 595’s fizzy and frenetic character.
With Sport mode selected to open the valves in the exhaust (and sharpen the otherwise leaden throttle), the 1.4-litre rasps into life before settling down to a gurgling idle. Blip of the throttle and the burble is overlaid with faint turbo whistle, just like on the Abarth 124 Spider. It’s such an endearing sound that you’re almost willing to overlook the slightly old-school Italian long-arm and short-leg driving position, plus the high-set seat and pedals offset to the right. Still, those Sabelt buckets support in all the right places and the chunky steering wheel feels good in your hands.
Move off and the first word that comes to mind is ‘firm’. If you had two words spare, they would be ‘very firm’. On the pockmarked roads around our Turin test venue, the 595 bobbed over the surface with unwavering accuracy, rendering each imperfection in HD detail. Bigger potholes are simply too much for the short-travel suspension, with occupants occasionally launched out of their seats. Yet despite the stiffness of the set-up, the Koni dampers do a decent job of rounding off the sharpest edges, so while you're jostled, those sickening crashes you expect never come.
Pick up the pace and the suspension feels much better, those uprated dampers helping maintain strong control over everything but the most extreme bumps and compressions, and pretty soon you’re bobbing and weaving down the road, darting through corners and taking multiple lines that are the preserve of truly small cars.
There’s decent grip too, the Abarth clinging on gamely until the front eventually starts to wash wide. You sense this eventual small slide through the seat of the pants and your eyes rather than the steering, which is quite slow off the straightahead and lacking much feel. In Standard mode, the electrically assisted steering is fingertip light, while switching to Sport adds too much weight and a sticky resistance.
Curiously, the mechanical limited-slip differential doesn’t play as big a part as you’d hope, as there’s none of that tightening of line you get from similar setups as you get on the throttle mid-corner. It’s only when the car is almost straight do you feel that trademark stiffening of the steering as the front wheels dig in and find traction.
Still, the 595 is reasonably quick across the ground, the turbocharged motor pulling with real vigour from around 2000rpm, accompanied by a rasp from the exhaust that’s just the right side of antisocial - although the Akrapovič system doesn’t have the same childishly brilliant pops and bangs on the overrun as the standard Competitzione’s Monza set-up. The Brembo brakes are good too, delivering strong stopping and a progressive action. And while the pedals are offset, the accelerator and brake are perfectly placed for some cheeky heel-and-toe downshifts. Only the action of the five-speed gearbox disappoints. The lever is set handily high, but the action is a bit loose and the clutch has a mushy feel.