You know the story with the Fiat 500, right? Cute and cuddly body gets put on top of humble Panda. Alarmingly high percentage of Mini drivers say, “Awww, it’s so sweet! I’ve got to have one.” Alarmingly high percentage of Mini drivers are put off by dealer service and a disappointing drive. The end.

Or is it? Last weekend I ended up with the keys to the Fiat 500 Abarth, surely the cutest hot hatchback since, er, the Abarth 695 SS in the 1960s. Thing is, though, I wasn’t really looking forward to the experience; a fortnight earlier I’d tried an example fitted with esseesse suspension and it wasn’t pretty, particularly around town.

I was amazed, therefore, to discover that, in the ‘basic hot 500’, Abarth has actually created one of the most convincing Fiats for many a year (yes, I know that Fiat is determined to establish Abarth as a brand on its own, but it’d be crazy to throw away kudos of this calibre).

The 500 Abarth feels rapid and has playful, direct steering far removed from the lifeless controls of regular 500s. Chuck it at a corner and it will generally stick (or, at worst, run a little wide in predictable understeer). It likes to be driven quickly; do you remember Fiats like that?

Sure, the ride is a little choppy and you’ll hear most crashes over potholes, but there is at least some evidence of damping. I’d probably prefer a six-speed gearbox, but the five-speed unit is slick enough. And yes, it can be a little unruly when the torque kicks in, but it loses its cool in such a charming manner that I’d be tempted to forgive it.

The styling mods add enough muscle to the oh-so-pretty bodyshell for you not to feel embarrassed behind the wheel, and there’s even a fruity exhaust note (is it just me, or does its tone have the faintest whiff of Essence of Integrale?).

So what you’re left with is a car that looks great and is actually fun to drive. If I had to choose, I’d probably still opt for a Renaultsport Twingo. But I’d have to think about it.

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