Car reviews - Abarth - 595
Elastic engine, surprisingly impressive rough-road ride comfort, nippy handling, parking-perfect size, improved value
Room for improvement
Dated infotainment system lacks Bluetooth audio streaming, low-speed ride, short wheelbase makes for challenging handling
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5 May 2016
OFTEN the perfect recipe is about finding moderation and restraint. Perhaps a sprinkle here rather than a dollop there, or in the case of the latest Abarth 595, a dusting of performance here rather than a wallop there.
Abarth versions of the Fiat 500 micro hatchback have never been about holding back. Crammed within a tiny 3.65-metre-long body are a boosty, frenetic turbocharged engine, crackling exhaust and a suspension tune that makes a park bench feel plush. While that hardcore drive is still available in 595 Turismo, 595 Competizione and (especially) 695 Biposto specification, the new entry 595 is different.
A leather interior and alloy-topped gearknob have been taken away, the 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder is detuned to produce 103kW and 206Nm (down from 118kW/230Nm) and the suspension is softened along with the addition of smaller 16-inch wheels to improve ride comfort.
The good mechanical bits remain, including a Sport mode that unleashes the full 0.8 bar of boost (0.65 bar in standard mode), firms up the steering and sharpens throttle response. Activating a Torque Transfer Control (TTC) button also reduces stability control assistance and brakes a spinning inside wheel during spirited cornering.
In a one-tonne micro hatchback with a five-speed manual transmission, the result is still a zero to 100km/h acceleration time of 7.9 seconds.
The 595 is also available with a ‘C’ on the end of its name, denoting a folding soft-top convertible option, priced from $31,500 in manual form. Neither that bodystyle, nor the $2000-optional five-speed automated manual available in both 595 and 595C were sampled at the national launch in Hobart this week, only the three-door manual hatch.
The tested Abarth mostly appears identical to more expensive models. The Scorpion and 595 badgework on the side flanks and twin exhausts at the rear signifies something a bit special compared with the average Fiat 500, while the unique one-inch-smaller wheels do not look undersized because of the tiny proportions.
Unfortunately, the Abarth cabin does not yet benefit from the ‘Series 4’ revisions to the Fiat 500 earlier this year. A single-DIN stereo takes centre stage, with a finicky voice-activated Bluetooth system that does not include wireless audio streaming. For an otherwise funky hatchback with splashes of colour across its dashboard, a nuggety flat-bottom steering wheel and a 7.0-inch TFT screen in front of its driver, it is a decent-sized black mark.
The cloth-trimmed sports seats are nicely supportive in their base, but the tombstone-style backrest fails to provide adequate head support. A “sit up and beg” driving position also feels forced because the steering wheel is adjustable only for height and not reach.
As expected from a tiny micro hatchback, rear legroom for the two rear passengers is minimal and the boot is only large enough for a couple of weekend bags.
The major upside is exterior dimensions that are heavenly for city parking exploits, something the similarly priced Fiesta ST and Polo GTI cannot match.
Those rivals are each a couple of hundred kilograms beyond the 595’s one-tonne kerb weight too.
Even after acclimatising to the awkward driving position, it takes time to get used to the doughy then spiky power delivery of the Abarth 595 off the line.
The manual is long in throw and does not like to be rushed, so the combination can initially feel softer than a sports model should. The steering is also overly light on the centre position.
A fix comes by activating a Sport button positioned on the dashboard. It is a mandatory finger-press after every ignition start-up, given that it sharpens throttle response and weights up the steering moderately but nicely. In this mode the drivetrain comes alive, feeling more cohesive and characterful, and notably quicker than its performance claim.
The softer suspension is still firm at low speeds, but it works with the decently chubby 55-aspect 16-inch Continental tyres to deliver surprisingly excellent composure on country roads.
The way the Abarth 595 rounds off big hits is testament to its front Frequency Selective Damping (FSD) engineered by Koni. During successive corrugations it keeps an oil bypass valve open to extend the damping stroke, yet it mechanically detects cornering via slower roll and pitch movements where it keeps the valve closed to tighten movements.
From its sheer size, the 595 boasts agility and nimbleness in spades, although the downside of such a short wheelbase with less tyre grip is handling that can easily turn hairy. On soaked Tasmanian roads and a damp Baskerville Raceway circuit, the Abarth required delicate inputs to maintain tidy cornering. The TTC system works a treat on corner exit, though.
It is nowhere near in the same league as a Fiesta ST or Polo GTI for dynamic ability, but then FCA Australia does not believe the Abarth 595 really has competitors.
The new entry model is a warm rather than spicy micro hatchback. For city dwellers without off-street parking, or even for those who have a garage but regularly zip between parking-deprived suburbs, there is still nothing quite as perfect as this sassy little Italian.
Despite not being brilliant in any single area other than its pint size, and also featuring a sorely dated infotainment system, the Abarth 595 is arguably the most well rounded Fiat 500 to date.
A combination of charming looks, a reasonable purchase price, sprightly performance and a fine balance of suspension comfort and nippy handling, proves again that moderation really is the key to finding a delicious recipe.
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