Abarth 595 Competizione: 'Like letting off a grenade in a biscuit tin'
The Abarth 595 Competizione has as much energy as a children's party, says William Scholes. It's also as noisy...
IN these gloomy December days of Brexit shambles upon Brexit shambles, we could all do with a bit of cheering up, writes William Scholes.
An afternoon with an Abarth 595 Competizione could do the trick, for this souped-up Fiat 500 is the distilled essence of fun on four wheels; it's just about as close to driving a clown car - in a good way - as you can find for vaguely sensible money.
In its own way, the Abarth is as ridiculously - and as gloriously - over-the-top as a Ferrari or Lamborghini.
I actively dislike the standard Fiat 500 for a myriad of reasons, but the Abarth is a far more interesting proposition.
Much of this appeal lies in the fact that this tiny car feels so over-engined. Fitting a big and disproportionately powerful engine to a small car is one of the oldest tuning tricks in the workshop manual.
But the engineers at Abarth, Fiat's performance car off-shoot, haven't stopped there.
Everywhere you look on the Abarth you find bona fide performance car parts: Koni dampers, carbon fibre-backed Sabelt bucket seats, a four-pipe Record Monza exhaust system, Brembo brakes and lashings of swish, expensive-feeling alcantara trim. It's as if a 500 has been ram-raided through a branch of Halfords.
But the engine is the dominant component.
All Abarth versions of the Fiat 500 get a 1.4-litre turbocharged unit. In the Abarth 595 Competizione, as sampled here, it's tuned to make 178bhp.
The Abarth has character in abundance, making it an antidote to the bland, if competent, boxes fighting for your hot hatch cash
This is a lot in a car this small. Especially when you remember that many of the 500s you see trundling around make do with an asthmatic 68bhp...
It is a similar story with torque, the shove factor that really helps to get a car moving, especially one like the Abarth which revels in zipping between traffic lights and has an appetite for point-and-squirt driving. A 1.2-litre Fiat 500 makes do with 75lb.ft, while the Competizione boasts 184lb.ft.
Nor does the Abarth hide its poke under a bushel. Ridiculous bodykit aside, an exhaust system that makes the car sound like a low-flying aircraft means you hear the Competizione before you see it. Subtle it ain't.
Putting all this together means that firing up the engine is like letting off a grenade in a biscuit tin.
Sat idling, engine fizzing and pulsing away in front of your toes and the exhaust fizzing and belching behind you, the Abarth feels like it has more energy than a children's party at Funky Monkeys.
It is also as noisy, as you'll find when you put it into gear and start driving down the road.
The little Abarth is also - how shall we put this? - as uncomfortable as a slide into a pit of coloured plastic balls.
Turning a car's soundtrack up to 11 is all well and good, not least because it adds to the car's amusement factor.
But a short, narrow car with stiff suspension is always going to be challenged in the ride comfort department - a sensation amplified by the Abarth's racy carbon fibre-shelled bucket seats.
The gearchange is poor, too - it lacks the precision and immediacy of the engine - and operating the clutch isn't a barrel of laughs either.
These are traditional Fiat 500 flaws. So too is the tiny boot, back seats made even more useless by the racing buckets up front, and the cabin's narrowness. The Abarth's interior is notably better finished than its Fiat sibling, however.
As a driver's car, then, the Abarth 595 Competizione is flawed. A hot Mini covers the ground with more flair - if also less aural drama - and a Peugeot 208 GTI or Ford Fiesta ST offer more performance, though less character.
'Character' is probably a key word when it comes to considering the Abarth.
Sat idling, engine fizzing and pulsing away in front of your toes and the exhaust fizzing and belching behind you, the Abarth feels like it has more energy than a children's party at Funky Monkeys
It has it in abundance, making it an antidote to the bland, if competent, boxes fighting for your hot hatch cash.
As you bounce along, hanging on for dear life, you realise that this rather silly, irrational car is also rather a lot of fun.
Whether you would want to drive one every day or over a long distance is arguable. Your endurance would surely be as tested as if you were hosting a party for a bunch of five-year-olds.
The chassis, for all the top-rated components liberally applied to it, lacks polish, and the noise and stiffness would eventually grate.
But for a short, sharp injection of smiles, the Abarth 595 Competizione is hard to beat.
And we could all do with something to smile about - before Brexit completely sinks us.
AT A GLANCE
Abarth 595 Competizione
Price: £20,710. As tested £24,760. Options included Abarth red paint £350, 17-inch alloy wheel upgrade £350, Hi-fi by Beats audio upgrade £350, performance pack £3,000
Engine and transmission: 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 178bhp, 184lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 140mph, 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 47.1mpg (EU combined), 31.2mpg (real world), 139g/km
Car tax: £200 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 26 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Three stars (66/49/53/27), 2017