Doesn't the Abarth 595 Esseesse look great? Very few other cars could hide the wrinkles of a 12-year-old base as well as the quirky Italian supermini, which now, with the return of the top Esseesse trim, is racier than ever - both in terms of design and hardware. For £25,295, Abarth will supply you with a 595 wearing a set of lovely white 17-inch wheels, a brace of Brembo brake calipers and two carbon fibre-backed Sabelt sports seats. It's got to be one of the best-looking hatchbacks on sale of any class.
But that's not worth £25k on its own so, as you might expect, the Esseesse is more than a dressed-up 595. It gets a rather serious technical set-up to match, with the addition of Eibach performance springs coupled with Koni FSD dampers, a mechanical limited-slip differential and an aurally-dominating Akrapovic exhaust system, which now comes with a valve so it can be switched from 'not that quiet' to its party piece ASBO setting at the touch of a button. Combine all these components with the 595's miniature tarmac rally car lines and you've one very desirable supermini.
The Esseesse gets the same 180hp and 184lb ft of torque outputs as the 595 Competizione below it (and which costs £3,500 less), giving it the legs to sprint from 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds and all the way on to 140mph. This puts it right in the thick of the B-segment hot hatch class in terms of straight-line performance, then - although even this top-spec car comes with just the five-speeds in its manual gearbox, leaving the throaty 1.4-litre engine spinning at over 3,500rpm at 80mph. This means you're in the meat of the torque window, though, so the car feels punchy and responsive on a run; in fact, the four-pot engine is impressively enthusiastic across the rev-range despite its dinky size.
In Normal mode the motor exhibits the same performance, but it feels that much more exciting in Sport thanks to the opened valves in the twin-exit pipes that poke out either side of the diffuser. The note is gruff, aggressive and very racy; it turns into a harsh bark with a heavy blip of the throttle and attracts plenty of attention on the country roads surrounding Turin on our Italian test route. It's so naughty, in fact, that it does rather help to distract from the fact you're sat rather uncomfortably in a red leather Sabelt seat - which comes complete with number 70 embroidery for 2019, as it's Abarth's 70th year - thanks to the upright position that Fiat's city car forces you to adopt.
Consequently, taller drivers must operate the pedals with legs bent and arms stretched out to reach the slightly girthy (for a such a small hot hatch, anyway) steering wheel, which has only height adjustment. This discomfort alone is enough to constantly remind you that you're in a car based on a dozen-year-old model; no amount of silliness from the powertrain can counter the fact your feet don't sit naturally on the pedals, or that your torso doesn't feel like it can ever relax in the bolstered seat. The story continues with the dash, which comes with a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment screen complete with Apple Carplay/Android Auto, but looks as dated as the climate control buttons beneath it. It needs a glimpse of the car's reflection in a shop window or admiring looks from passers-by for you to slowly warm to the 595 again; even from inside, you're always aware of how bloody cool it looks.
Nobody will be surprised to hear that a car with less power and fewer gear ratios than its rivals - namely the cheaper, larger Fiesta ST - can't claim to challenge the fastest in its class, but the 595 Esseesse feels genuinely quick and will charge down a country route with real intent. The engine picks up strongly and spins freely towards 6,000rpm, so you don't miss a sixth ratio on a twisty road. Although when you do work the lever, the gate feels a little too wide and the throw too long for it to enable really sharp changes. The position of the pedals does make heel-and-toeing possible, but not anywhere near as rewarding as it is in the class-leading ST - even if the cough of revs through the exhaust encourages giggling.
The 595 Esseesse feels quite content being rushed into corners, its stiff setup eliminating body roll to give the nose satisfyingly quick reactions. The steering offers very little in the way of feel and you have to go with the artificial Sport weighting if you want the exhaust to be loud, but such is the bite offered by the 205-width Pirelli P-Zero Neros that you can really hammer along a technical stretch of road with confidence. It's a shame, then, that there's not more playfulness to discover from the most-extreme 595 setup, the car always opting to push if you really attack a corner. There's no trail-brake-enabled oversteer; not even a slight tightening of line is allowed. Instead, you charge along learning to lean on the safety of slight understeer before aggressively opening the throttle to have the LSD pull you around. It will respond, but only to a fraction of the degree you might expect; instead of tugging the nose inwards and giving the car an excitable mid-bend character, it barely neutralises the push over the front axle.
Then there's the ride. With that stiffened-up setup added to such a short wheelbase, there's a real harshness to the Esseesse's damping, with none of the rubberised bump stopping you get in other modern-day hot hatches. Instead, the chassis remains tensed at all times so small bumps become big ones and big ones feel like they're going to crack a wheel or send a top mount firing through the bonnet. Things do settle down a little with speed, but if rough Italian lanes provide our 595 with problems, what will lumpy, bumpy British B-roads do?
As the most sporting car of the 595 line-up, these issues make it difficult to understand the Esseesse's role. The model has plenty of loveable traits aside from its exotic looks and naughty vocals: it's genuinely exciting and feels properly naughty. But the top 595 lacks the refinement, maturity and all-round polish of much younger rivals. The ST, for example, is more naturally sporting yet also easier to live with day-to-day; the VW Polo GTI lacks the youthful spirit of the Abarth but is far more comfortable and a much nicer place to sit; and the Mini Cooper S offers a decent percentage of the 595's coolness while also feeling more solid. Spending £25k on a new Esseesse is a decision solely for the heart. Engage even an ounce of brain, and you'll be duty bound to consider the multitude of secondhand examples currently available...
SPECIFICATION - ABARTH 595 ESSEESSE
Engine: 1,368cc, 4 cyls, turbo
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 180@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@3,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.7 secs
Top speed: 140mph
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