Come on, admit it. You know you need a dog 'box and polycarbonate windows in your life. Far too hardcore for a mainstream brand to contemplate? Not at all: Abarth is now offering both items on its tantalising new
Costs nearly as much as normal 500 by itself!
You may baulk at the Biposto's extraordinary expense - more of which later - but for now let's luxuriate in the prospect of a stripped-out hot hatch with genuine race features.
Abarth makes quite a few claims for its new Biposto: it's "the most Abarth of all Abarths" (whatever that means); "the smallest supercar" (ditto); the "first race car for the road" (not sure about that one); and "the fastest Abarth road car ever."
The final claim is easily provable. The objective the development team set itself was to achieve 0-100km/h (62mph) in under six seconds - and the 5.9sec result is a full second quicker than the regular Abarth 695.
To get this performance, Abarth took the classic route: decrease weight and increase power. Let's look at the diet first. Like the Mini GP, the Biposto ditches its rear seats (hence the name, which simply means "two-seat"), and very fine seats they are too: leather-and-Alcantara Sabelts with solid backrest shells, boasting plenty of support during g-force changes. Also into the bin have gone the air-con, radio, xenon headlamps, foglights and electric mirrors. On top of that, various other bits are made of lightweight stuff: thin plastic door panels, for instance.
Engine is straight from the race car with 190hp
The result is a 'dry' weight of 997kg, a figure that Abarth claims is beaten by only three or four competitor cars. You can go even lighter with the optional Lexan/polycarbonate clippy-slidy windows, claimed to be the world's first Type Approved plastic windows, but you'd have to be pretty keen to shell out £1,775 for these. Ditto the Carbon Kit (carbon fibre dash, interior panels, mirrors and window trims) - yours for £3,700. Or indeed the 124 Special Kit, inspired by the 124 Abarth, with its double-hump aluminium bonnet and titanium fuel/water/oil caps (£2,950).
The standard Biposto has loads of bespoke stuff on it: OZ 18in alloys shod with 215/35 Goodyear Eagles, new front bumper, rear diffuser, wider arches, new skirts and bigger roof spoiler. Buyers can have it in any colour they like, as long as it's matt Performance Grey.
Inside, the cabin is dominated by the titanium rear brace by Poggipolini, which looks like something purloined from a kids' playground, but does a great job of keeping your luggage from flying forwards during heroic braking manoeuvres. I like the aluminium pedals and flooring, too, and I'd be tempted by the optional £3,700 Track Kit with its carbon seat-backs, four-point harnesses and Aim MXL2 digital datalogger.
Still exciting, even in battleship grey
And so to the powerplant, which marks a small but distinct step up from the 180hp engines that have so far been Abarth's highest-output motors (as in the
). The Biposto takes its engine straight from the 695 Assetto Corsa racer, squeezing an extra 10hp out of the 1.4 Turbo T-Jet thanks to a unique turbo, 9.8:1 compression ratio, larger front intake with BMC oval trumpet airbox, active-valve exhaust and larger front-mounted intercooler.
In addition, there's an Akrapovic dual-stage exhaust with twin titanium tailpipes, which sounds just like a mini rally car with the flap open - which you achieve by pressing the Sport button on the dashboard.
Not only is 190hp the most power ever seen in a road-going Abarth, the 139hp per-litre specific output is claimed as a world record for this engine size. And the Biposto is pretty rapid in a straight line - not ballistic, but quicker than I was expecting. The main issue is turbo lag: it takes far too long to spool up from low revs. And that means torque steer starts to become an issue.
'Feisty' probably best describes it in the rain
Let's move swiftly on to what everyone's talking about: the dog-ring gearbox. Developed by Bacci Romano, it's an eye-watering £8,500 option, which is verging on the cost of a new Fiat 500 alone, but I can still see plenty of buyers ticking the box (pardon the pun), not only because it's a novelty but because it's got hardcore track cool.
Does it work though? The Ergal lever looks so enticing: a long, slender aluminium shaft pivoting through an open gate. The feel is very 'racer': ultra-mechanical and fast-acting, aided by a lightened flywheel and copper clutch. It takes a little getting used to, and you may well want to avoid traffic jams, but on the track it really comes into its own. It pays to move as sharply and precisely as possible through the 'box, and if you anticipate the revs correctly, you can even change up without using the clutch. Downchanges need precise timing, too, to avoid crunching. And it doesn't sound like the box of nails I was expecting, either: it's actually very refined.
One other significant facet of the dog 'box is its mechanical self-locking diff. Compared to the standard set-up, turn-in is much sharper, and it's less torquesteery when exiting fast corners, although it very much pays to disengage the electronic traction control to get the best out of it.
Lexan windows very cool; very costly too!
Which brings us on to the handling. When you're spending a lot of cash on a toy that purports to be a track machine, it really needs to behave around corners. Frankly, this was an area I was worried about prior to the drive. The Biposto's centre of gravity isn't significantly lower; all
feel tip-toey and top-heavy, and the sight of racing Abarth 695s with both rear wheels in the air under heavy braking has become a familiar one. Luckily, the track is slightly wider than standard Abarths (11mm wider up front, 14mm rear), and that does give it a slightly more planted feel.
Standard Extreme Shox hydraulic dampers are mechanically adjustable (you can even do it yourself) - not that we had any opportunity to try this out since all the test cars were kept on a medium setting - but the ride quality is pleasingly compliant on this setting. The steering is firmer in Sport mode, but still not what you'd call full of feel.
Since no launch cars were registered for the road (the local Italian police allowed us on just a single kilometre of public road), Abarth let us loose on the Riccardo Paletti circuit in Varano, near Parma, an FIA-approved track with some killer-tight corners.
Not exactly your regular fast 500
Which highlighted a certain, ah, twitchiness. The damp, greasy surface saw a few members of Her Majesty's Press 'enjoying' snap oversteer, as well as torque steer on the tight corners. As the track dried out, though, the grip and handling became more assured, and the Biposto finally lived up to its promise as the first 500 derivative with a true enthusiast feel - helped by confident Brembo floating vented/perforated front discs with four-pot aluminium callipers.
One question I was keen to ask Maurizio Consalvo, the Biposto product manager, was whether Abarth would honour the factory warranty if you drive on track, because so many brands don't. Yes, came the reply, as long as the strict (and augmented) schedule of servicing is adhered to.
And so to the thorny issue of price. £32,990 is a significant whack for a car that started out as a Fiat 500. Opt for all the special 'packs' and you're looking at - wait for this - £53,615. Or £8K more than an Alfa 4C...
In truth, the Biposto is best viewed as a halo product. It won't be a big seller but there are plenty of hints that it points to a more interesting future for Abarth. It's describes as a "performance lab for Abarths of tomorrow" so the prospect of new hardcore Abarths (Spider, anyone?) appears to be strong.
If you can't resist the temptation of the Biposto, the first UK deliveries begin in early 2015. Abarth has already taken several UK orders, but if you want to try it first, UK demo drives are planned for February. Gumball 3000 drivers: apply now.
ABARTH 695 BIPOSTO
Engine: 1,368cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 5-speed manual or optional dog-ring 'box
Power (hp): 190@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@3,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.9 sec
Top speed: 143mph
Weight: 997kg (dry)
MPG: 45.6 (NEDC combined)
Option packs: Dog 'box £8,500; Carbon kit £3,700; 124 Special kit £2,950; Racing kit £3,700; Racing windows £1,775
[Images: Michael Ward]