SMALL Italian cars are always exciting, but 60 years after Carlo Abarth created his iconic pocket rocket the latest 595 Competizione version lifts that to a new level.
As the sporting brand of Fiat, the Abarth name and its famous Scorpion crest have a loyal following and strong desirability whether convertible or hatchback. Our test car included a £825 optional Brembo Black pack.
There are four trim levels with power from 145 to 180 hp and all Euro 6D compliant but the most desirable is arguably the Competizione we tried in manual form but an automatic is also available.
Under the bonnet sits a 1.4T petrol engine as used in German F4 racing, so it's a sporting pedigree and it shows when you start up and accelerate, particularly in the Scorpion selected mode from the button on the facia and there're Koni shock absorbers, Sabelt racing seats and a lot of dark plastic trim under a black fabric headlining.
The "Sport mode" selector button on the dashboard affects peak torque delivery, power steering calibration and engine response to the accelerator pedal, making them sharper. It also works in tune with the exhaust to quite dramatically deepen the sound.
In terms of technology, the 595 version includes as standard the seven-inch touchscreen radio and to the delight of Abarth enthusiasts, there is a new startup and shutdown screen. Setup for Apple CarPlay and AndroidAutocompatibilityare available.
While the 595 Tourismo is a tourer as the name suggests, the harder edged Compeizione is more sporting focussed with cloth covered sporting seats and a mixgure of leather and carbon fibre steering wheel and gear knob, with an Alcantara trimmed facia.
The facia with its distinctive wake-up illustration of a car in a garage is dominated by the seven-inch touchscreen for navigation, telecoms, music and DAB radio with BeatsAudio as well as car settings which work in conjunction with the button on the wiper stalk to select trip meter and secondary displays between the speedo and tachometer gauges. A separate turbo-boost gauge sits atop the instruments' pod and is a real throwback to the 1960s and track cars.
The engine starts instantly and with a delightful crackle, then it pulls away sharply as you quickly move through the box with its tight set of ratios. All too quickly you are in fifth and left wanting a sixth gear.
The quick, slick gearchange and light clutch are straight out of a racing car design and the well weighted steering wheel imparts great feedback with more effort needed as speed rises.
Matching the powertrain are the brakes,284-mm front ventilating discs and the 240-mm rear discs to contain the performance with excellent feedback from light pressure to hard use. A conventional handbrake is also welcome and held our car on the usual test slope.
The tuned Koni shock absorbers with big 205/40 17 tyres put down the power very well and gave the 595 Competizione a kart-like handling feel on twisting roads. The ride could be jiggly over some surfaces and it did not cope well with speed pads and humps but it did tenaciously grip corners and there was little tendency to run-wide on turns at sensible speed.
The sports seats did little to soften the blows which did pass through the suspension but they did ensure the occupants were securely held in place and couldn't avoid the impact while securely gripped on very tight turns.
Access was good into the front seats but it was restricted to get behind and once seated the legroom and headspace was short.
Visibility was good all round with slim pillars, good washers and wipers and at night the headlights provided a long though not wide beam.
For the driver, the secondary controls were generally nicely placed, worked well and the essential gauges were big and clearly marked, changing their display patterns with the sport mode setting. The touchscreen was a busy centre with so many functions available but it proved quick and the actual displays could be maximised or minimised very easily to aid clarity and information.
Heating and ventilation was familiar Fiat and had big buttons and outlets which were simple and highly effective, backed up by quick acting powered front windows.
In today's small cars, even some of the cheapest, you get a reversing camera to aid parking but the 595 was devoid of such a device and frankly it would be an unnecessary expense as it had good sightlines.