Think how the small hot hatch sector has changed since the Abarth 500's introduction in 2008. Various competitors have come and gone in that time but, through many different editions, the titchy Abarth has remained a constant.
Yes, they really are parked together
Mind you, size is all relative. While I'm having a good prod around the freshly facelifted
at Fiat's Orbassano test track, a car putters up that really puts into perspective just how lardy things have become. Abarth's Classiche department has brought an original 1970 Fiat-Abarth 595 SS to line up alongside the latest one. It disappears completely behind the new car, like a Russian doll being swallowed by a larger copy of itself.
But then, the 1970 Abarth is one of the smallest cars ever made, as well as one of the lightest at 475kg. The current Abarth 595 is 66cm longer and is well over twice the weight. That being said, it does have more than four times the power...
So why are we talking baby Abarths? Because the new, facelifted model is now out. And with the re-jigged power outputs, rationalised badging and new features like an optional limited-slip diff, it's clear this is more than the cosmetic spruce-up given to the 500 on which it is based.
In your own time
First up the Abarth 500 badge has been engorged to total 595. History is repeating itself here: the original 1960s Fiat-Abarth 500 was upgraded from 500 to 595 status in 1963, six years after launch. Now, after an eight-year stint with Abarth 500 badging, it's 595 across almost the entire range, the 695 Biposto the only exception.
Before you get your hopes up too much, though, the power gains are minuscule - just 5hp. So the base 595 now has 145hp rather than 140hp, and the mid-range 595 Turismo 165hp. There are corresponding one-tenth reductions in the claimed 0-62 times at 7.8sec and 7.3sec respectively.
Looks good, sounds good too - but of course!
But we're in Italy to test the fastest version of all, the Competizione. Not only is it the most powerful model in the 595 range (180hp - unchanged from the outgoing Competizione) but you can now have it with a proper mechanical limited-slip differential. Which is nice.
You get some bragging rights, too - the 180hp figure from the 1.4 T-Jet engine is actually 10hp more than the 1.4 MultiAir in the new Abarth 124 Spider. It's very torquey from low revs and loves being pushed hard in its 2,000-5,000rpm sweet zone. The claimed 0-62 time is 6.7 seconds - which actually beats the Fiesta ST by a couple of tenths.
The zing to sting
The Record Monza exhaust - unique to the Competizione - is an immediate highlight of the 595 experience. Fruity at start up, even when not in Sport mode, it has a purposefully syncopated rhythm like a jazz woodbine smoking drummer launching an improv set. As a result I keep the Sport button on, which tweaks the engine mapping to boost torque, sharpens throttle response and makes the steering heavier. It also changes the look of the new TFT screen.
The pool ball aluminium gear knob is superbly positioned for fast changes. Shame, then, that Abarth has not addressed its rubbery shift, which really dulls its speed across the gate. The ratios in the five-speed gearbox are also too spread out to make the best of the power curve. Time after time, I find myself craving the crisp changes and tightly stacked ratios of the Panda 100HP's six-speeder.
Performance Pack identified by Supersport wheels
It's the limited-slip diff I'm really keen to check out, so it's off round Fiat's tight Orbassano test track to see just how chuckable the new 595 is. The LSD is optional, forming part of a new £2,950 Performance Pack exclusive to the manual Competizione. This also includes 17-inch Supersport alloys, Sabelt carbon seats, a customisation pack and an odd-looking '595' metal roundel on the roof.
Strangely, the diff doesn't make that much of a, er, difference - and it's certainly not as effective as the one in the 695 Biposto. Yes, it's more composed when you step on the gas mid-corner, but Abarth's claim that the diff eliminates understeer isn't played out on track. A Fiesta ST would be up the inside of the Abarth on the first corner.
To me, the 595 feels like its centre of gravity is too high up. The turn-in is actually pretty tight but subjectively it doesn't feel like it's going to be. Ultimately, the 595 is a grippy machine on its 205/40 Michelins, with a quick-ratio steering rack that offers an OK feel. I was hoping the selection of self-adjusting Koni FSD dampers - the 595 Turismo has FSDs on the rear end only, whereas the Competizione gets them on all four corners - might have a big impact on handling. But they don't really - instead, the biggest benefit is a surprisingly compliant low-speed ride that's a major step up from the outgoing Abarth 500. The brakes are another highlight; 305mm front discs are grabbed by red-painted Brembo calipers and the whole set-up is reassuringly powerful and solid.
Uconnect upgrade well worth the £600
The Abarth shares most of the cabin updates of the facelifted Fiat 500, and feels loads better for it. The new flat-bottomed steering wheel, with its carbon fibre and Alcantara flashes, is particularly nice. The new TFT instrument panel is a huge improvement, too, while the round Sport-badged turbo gauge sprouting from the instrument binnacle is now easier to read.
Fiat's five-inch Uconnect DAB Radio touchscreen is standard but I think the seven-inch option (£600) is worth splashing out for, as it adds sat-nav, a much better screen, Apple CarPlay/Google Android Auto, and even telemetry for measuring your lines around various ready-uploaded circuits.
The Performance Pack's Sabelt leather/Alcantara carbon-shell seats are just brilliant: supportive, funky and sporting red T-bar pulls on the back. Our test car's optional £600 Beats sound system will please the youth market Abarth is pitching at too. And you get a glovebox for the first time. Weirdly the badges on the dashboard and info display still read '500' though. Come on Abarth, be consistent!
So the new baby Abarth definitely looks funkier and it sounds great, too. The revised range starts at £15,090 for the base 595. Whether the 595 Competizione is worth £23,240 (with the Performance Pack added) is sure to be the subject of heated debate.
Not all that much in common, funnily enough!
So what about that sensational interloper? The 1970 Fiat-Abarth 595 SS you see here has, incredibly, just 6,000 miles from new. You'd think that with just 42hp it'd be deathly slow and dull. But weighing well under 500kg, it's surprisingly nimble and the power delivery is super-sweet considering it's a 1950s-tech two-cylinder. Yes, the non-synchro 'box is a pain but for the sheer cheek of the thing, it's irresistible.
So much so, in fact, that I find myself promising to buy one before I die. Which could present problems, as it almost certainly carries a price tag higher than any current new Abarth - even the 695 Biposto. Which, incidentally, continues unchanged. If you want one of those, however, you may have to hurry. Word has it that it's reaching the end of its lifespan and won't be replaced.
ABARTH 595 COMPETIZIONE
Engine: 1,368cc, 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 5-speed manual or robotised MTA manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 180@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@3,000rpm
Top speed: 140mph
MPG: 47.1mpg (official figure, NEDC combined)
CO2: 139g/km (official figure)
Price: £20,290 manual/£21,640 MTA, both before options