The little hot Italian has been around for a while now, but will another trim level make the Abarth 595 Esseesse the one to have?
Depending on who you are, the little Fiat 500 gets a mixed reception. A certain crowd merge towards the 500 like it’s a magnet calling them from a distance. Others despise the tiny things as nothing more than a “daddy’s girl” car. The Abarth, however, is a little different.
It doesn’t matter who you are, Abarth’s rich history more than warrants it to create a hot-hatch in the modern car world. And, you should be respecting that Abarth history, after all, it’s filled with soul, character and just about every other adjective journalists use to describe Italian cars.
So, what’s new about this Abarth then? Well, from the tech spec, not much. You still get that 1.4-litre engine, 180bhp, front-wheel drive and limited-slip diff formula that has worked for Abarth over the years in various trim levels. On the face of it, then, you’re getting pretty much the same car as the Competizione, which is a couple of thousand pounds cheaper.
What are you getting then? You’re getting a model that celebrates 70 years of Abarth. And if you could see this car in person, boy does it remind you. There’s an emblem with “70” on it on the side of the car and inside you get 70th anniversary written on the seats, which is a nice touch. Oh, those seats, wow. That’s another thing you’re getting. I’d fully expect to see these on a track-spec Ferrari, let alone an Abarth 595! The carbon fibre buckets are made by Sabelt and are exquisite, almost art form. They’re snug for us fatties, but perfect for you skinny lot. You also get the Akrapovic exhaust, which is darn right rude. It’s hilariously loud that you can’t help thinking this car is just a little angry wasp. You also get those gorgeous 17-inch OZ Super Sport wheels finished in white; some traditions should never be forgotten.
But, and this is the problem with just about every Abarth 500 variant, you sit too darn high. OK, the 500 probably wasn’t the best model to choose for a hot-hatch, it’s too tall, but short in length. With that you need the seats to do the same in order for people to be comfy. And for most, it is. But for us, who want to drive a car enthusiastically, sitting like you’re hooning a Transit about isn’t ideal. Or should I have said Ducato there, you know, in keeping with Fiat and all.
The knock-on effect is that you sit on top of the wheel, your feet are on top of the pedals and all this makes for a fairly uncomfortable seating position, which is particularly apparent on long journeys.
I won’t dwell on that too much as it’s always been a problem of the 500 range. What I will say is that the interior has slowly developed over the years and now features a good-enough infotainment system to keep you happy. The 7-inch touchscreen is OK in clarity for its sector, but it’s blown away by Ford’s latest offering.
It is quite small in here, although that does sound a tad obvious… With two of us in the car on a long journey, we certainly got out of the car at the other end closer than when we started.
Hop in, select Sport to open those exhaust valves and go for a hoon. Cars like this are designed to be abused, to be driven hard across a back road and then pop by the shops on the way back to pick up some groceries before heading home. So you’d have thought the Abarth would be the same, but in many ways, it isn’t.
In the Esseesse you get the Koni dampers, which are too harsh for regular road use. The lack of adjustability means that it’s either stiff, or back breaking. I don’t usually have a problem with that, modified cars are our bread and butter and we’ve experienced some stiff rides over the years (oi you lot, keep it clean…), but this one feels almost over the top. Attack a section of good old British b-road and you’re forced to slow down as you’re bouncing about the road. It doesn’t allow enough compression over most road surfaces in order to inspire confidence, which is disappointing. On a flat surface at say Silverstone, I’m sure the Abarth delivers brilliantly, but here, in the real word, it was frustrating.
The straight-line performance, though, is strong. The little 1.4-litre turbo has come on leaps and bounds since its initial introduction and now, with 180bhp on tap, you can crack 62mph from a dig in just 6.7 seconds and go on to 140mph. In-gear acceleration is where it really stands out, with second and third gear pulls offering diesel-like performance, but with the soundtrack to match that of a racer. It does suffer slightly with torque-steer, which is understandable with such a short wheelbase, but keeping a firm grip of the wheel will counter that no problem.
While I criticised the suspension’s performance on a back road, the overall levels of grip on offer is also strong. Sling it round a roundabout and it clings on with grip far past the edge you thought it would fall off. The LSD works well here by pulling you into the corner neatly without a huge load of understeer. In fact, the front end reacts almost as sharply as the latest Fiesta ST, which is impressive. Don’t expect much feel through the wheel other than torque steer, though, as it’s a tad numb. It does react quickly, though, to offer that small go-kart like feel. Dare I say a rawer, non-power steering option would be welcomed…
The engine and exhaust combination dominates the experience and leaves you laughing. This is where that annoying Italian aspect comes in; it has a long list of foibles, but that noise just makes you forget about it. I had a long discussion with someone about the use of the word character when describing cars. I’m of the illusion that using the word character to describe a car that clearly has more problems than positive points is wrong, when really we should be saying that is a bad car. I still believe that, but the engine on this occasion, as well as the Abarth’s playful nature, adds in that element of character. It’s almost like it knows it isn’t the fastest in a straight-line, or through the corners, that it looks a bit cutesy and soft, but has this bark and perky nature hidden in the background to make you fall in love with it.
Now, while I didn’t exactly fall in love with it, I certainly developed a soft spot for it and found myself defending it in discussions. It made me laugh, smile, but it also left me frustrated and wanting more. It’s a love-hate relationship, that’s for sure, but given the choice, would I really choose the Abarth in the wake of the Fiesta ST or Yaris GRMN? Probably not, especially given this one was just shy of £29k. They almost serve different purposes, though. The GRMN is geared towards the enthusiast, the ST combines both the enthusiast and the regular chap/girl who likes the look of it. Whereas the Abarth has the looks on its side without a shadow of a doubt. It’s certainly not slow, or underwhelming, but it doesn’t have the panache of its rivals when the going gets tough. What it does have is a happy-go-lucky attitude that puts a smile on your face each time you drive it. And isn’t that what driving is all about? Besides, the problems I’ve listed can all be attended to through aftermarket specialists, you can extract even more performance from not only the chassis but also the engine.
Tech Spec: Abarth 595 Esseesse
Performance: 180bhp @ 5,500rpm, 184ft lb @ 3000rpm
0-62mph: 6.7 seconds
Top Speed: 140mph
Engine: 1368cc in-line four cylinder
Fuel Economy: 36.7mpg