Travelling through time with the Abarth 595
You might not think it, but this tiny tearaway isn't so old after all
Time is a strange thing, isn’t it? Aside from Sir David Attenborough, time is the only constant in the entire universe. It began long before any of us existed, and providing there are none of what Professor Brian Cox would probably call ‘serious cosmic incidents’ in the next hundred years or so, it will continue long after we are all gone and forgotten.
Professor Brian, and others of his ilk regularly appear on television talking about time in such enormous numbers that it really is hard for even fairly bright people to wrap their heads around it. The Earth for instance, is over four billion years old, but the universe around it has over thirteen billion years under its belt. If you imagine the universal timeline laid out as a railway from London to Edinburgh, then the Earth wouldn’t feature until well past Newcastle.
And if you imagine the entire history of the planet can be squeezed between the Tyne tunnel and the Forth road bridge then thirteen years must equate to about a quarter of an inch.
The reason I mention it is that the other day someone lent me a brand-new Fiat 500 Abarth, and I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t realised the dear old thing was still being made.
The car the Abarth is based on, the Fiat 500, was launched way back in 2007 to a rapturous reception. With retro-chic styling and an on-the-road price of about twenty quid, people all over the world fell head-over-heels for the tiniest Fiat and when the 135bhp Abarth version came along, so did I.
However, we shouldn’t forget that 2007 was indeed thirteen years ago. That means the 500 comes from a time before Instagram, a time before Marvel movies, and most depressingly of all, a time before I made an involuntary sort of ‘oof’ noise whenever I sit down.
Many cars have come and gone since then. We’ve been through two generations of the BMW 3-Series, and three Hyundai i10’s. When the 500 first appeared, we were still living under the tyranny of the Vauxhall Vectra for crying out loud!
This Abarth then, is an old car. Oh, they’ve tried their best to update it over the years to keep things fresh with some new tail lamps here, and a digital speedometer there. They’ve even changed its name for some reason. These days, we’re supposed to call the sporty little Fiat the Abarth 595.
They’re fooling nobody though. Despite the quilted bucket seats and the G-force meter on the dashboard, the 595 is quite clearly the biggest relic to come out of Italy since the Turin Shroud. The driving position, for instance, is taken straight from a Roman recycling truck. The suspension is odd too. It manages to be both very firm and incredibly bouncy at the same time. So much so that sitting so high up in such a titchy car means you soon begin to get an idea of what it would be like to pilot a turbocharged space hopper.
Then there’s the gear lever, which sprouts from the dashboard like it does in a Transit van, and is connected by what feels like some shoelaces to just five gears. These days, even the aforementioned Ford builders van comes with six.
Speaking of Ford, we also have the Abarths rivals to consider. Yes, a Fiesta ST may be more expensive than the Fiat, but there’s no denying that the ST is a much more modern and accomplished hot hatch. And when you take Uncle Henry’s omnipresent E-Z finance deals into account, you’ll likely find there’s almost nothing in it between the two. Then there’s the VW up! GTi which may be even smaller than the diminutive 595, but living with it would like owning an iPad compared to the Fiat typewriter.
So the 595 is expensive, uncomfortable, and well past its sell-by date. And you know what? I couldn’t care less, because this car is utterly fantastic.
Let’s start with the styling. 500’s may be more abundant than hydrogen these days, but the dinky Fiat, and this 595 version especially, is still a masterpiece of exterior design. Think about it, you could fit your Hyundai i10 or Honda Jazz with huge exhaust pipes and flared wheel arches, but it would look totally idiotic. It would be like fitting your Nan with a tracksuit. But somehow the 595 pulls it off with the sort of bullish confidence you’d see if the Bayern Munich first team were asked to play against Huddersfield Town’s Under 7’s.
Then there’s the engine. It’s a 1.4 litre turbo which in the Turismo version I drove had been wound-up to produce 165bhp. At this point, nerdish people will be putting their hands up and jumping up and down on the spot wanting to point out that this is not as much as you get from the Fiesta ST, and that’s true. But the Abarth delivers its power in a much more amusing way. Ford, along with almost every other car maker has spent the last 30 years beavering away in their R&D centre in a ceaseless quest to eliminate turbo lag from their engines. Abarth it seems, just decided to go for lunch instead.
This means that if you plant your right foot expecting a surge of torque to get you past a lorry then you’ll be sorely disappointed, for what feels like a year absolutely nothing happens. But then, after the turbo (which must be bigger than the rest of the engine itself) has put down its glass of Chianti and drawn breath you suddenly get a hilarious WHOOOSH noise as the boost kicks in and you’re suddenly punted down the road giggling like an imbecile.
It is deeply amusing, and so is the handling. Oh sure, it rolls a bit when you tip it into a bend, but because the car is so small you can place it precisely where you want it on the road and despite the electric power steering being a bit dead-eyed, this is the easiest car in the world in which to practise hitting every apex on your way to work.
What I love the most about the 595 though is that you get the impression that all the people who made it wanted to do was make something fun. That’s why it has Eurotunnel-sized exhaust pipes that crackle and pop like a village green on bonfire night, that’s why you can have it in egg yellow or Ferrari red, and that’s why they’ve just launched a new version which isn’t new at all called the Scorpionero. What a fabulous name! It’s the best name for a car I’ve heard in years.
You just don’t get this sense from the Ford, or a VW or a Renault. Given the choice, I’d have the 595 over pretty much any other small car on the market. There are many new hot hatchbacks on the market that are far better, and far more modern than the 595. But while the Abarth may be a quarter of an inch behind the times, it’s quite simply miles ahead when it comes to joy.
And if all our lives are only a speck lost amidst the enormity of time, I’d much rather fill mine with joy than with a six-speed gearbox.
THE ABARTH 595 TURISMO
Engine: 1368cc, 4 cylinders, turbocharged, petrol. Gearbox: 5-speed manual. Power: 165bhp. Torque: 170 lbs/ft. Acceleration 0-62mph 7.3s. Top Speed: 135mph. Price: £20,510 OTR.