After hopping straight out of last week’s Peugeot 208 GT-Line test car, I can’t help but feel this steering wheel is humungous! The seated position is high too; I’m sitting taller than the Getz next to me in this morning’s traffic. But the raspy burble emanating from behind me suggests I’m seated in something with some performance credo – and the scorpion badges adorning this Abarth 595C Turismo support that notion.
Forgetting the result of our shootout from two months back, we decided to give the Abarth 595C Turismo a chance to prove itself in isolation. The short of it is that the Abarth 595C is an absolute blast to drive – but there’s more to it than that, and not all of it’s good.
The Fiat 500 in its current iteration was conceptualised as a small city car. A tall seating position, for a commanding view of the road, and simple suspension setup that were devised as a result were never designed with performance in mind. But Abarth, being Abarth and Italian, threw caution to the wind and said, “What the hell, we’ll do it anyway.”
It doesn’t offer a good start though – the seating position is as awkward and tall as can be. I felt perched atop the Abarth 595C Turismo’s sporty-looking seats rather than seated in them. That the seats themselves offer far less support than their looks suggest compounds the perched feeling further. But it amplifies the feeling of speed – by design or coincidence I’m not entirely sure.
It’s not as if the Abarth 595C Turismo is a slouch though – the 1.4-litre turbocharged engine serves up 118kW and 230Nm through the front set of tyres, and pairs up with the 1075kg kerb weight to deliver some pretty punchy figures. 0-100km/h in a claimed 7.4 seconds – when you can get it to launch without bogging down or lighting up the tyres – and a top speed of a tick over 200km/h are pretty decent.
The addition of Koni dampers as standard kit – previously an option from the Esseesse (pronounced S-S) line of kit – has also contributed to the Abarth 595C Turismo’s ability to maintain some of its pace through cornering. But despite the dampers providing a vast improvement on Abarths of old, the ride is still jittery, and loose/rough surfaces mid corner will have the Abarth 595C Turismo skipping left and right to the tune of ‘England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales’.
Smoother roads are more rewarding, where the taut springs and firm dampers mitigate body roll, while the light weight means you can chuck the Abarth 595C Turismo into some pretty tight corners at a rather alarmingly brisk pace.
Push too hard, too fast, and the 205/45 profile rubber on the front end will squeal and let loose in rampant understeer. Traditionally, in a front-wheel driven car, a deft lift of the throttle would neutralise this some – but in the short wheelbase Abarth 595C Turismo, with its jerky suspension, doing so snaps the rear end around requiring cat-like reflexes to keep it under wraps.
Theatrical, yes, grin-inducing too – but those are not the handling traits of a well-honed sports hatch.
Extra rubber up front would curb the understeer, but the choppy ride suggests the suspension is too simple in the Abarth’s base Fiat format to be refined that much further. Remember, the humble city car origins are that of a compact nature without much space for complex suspension.
But when things all work together, and you’ve got the hang of manhandling both the under- and over-steer, the Abarth is truly a thrill-a-minute ride. Some of the basics are just right in here – like the way the high-mounted gear-shift lever can be banged between the gears with a short throw and eager action. The 5-speed gearbox may be one ratio too short, but the 5 it has are a joy to hop between.
The steering is less of a joy, rubbery off centre and never quite feeling natural. Sure, you get some feedback off the road, but the awkward wheel position and the sheer size of it feel awkward in hand and overly-assisted with false weighting.
The same could be said of the brakes – which around town do a good job of stopping the Abarth 595C Turismo between robot-to-robot dashes and parking lot gymkhanas – but never quite feel as natural as they should. Perhaps it’s the awkward perch again rearing its ugly head, but having to push downwards at an alternate angle to the pedal travel doesn’t help much either.
You tend to forget all that though the moment you set off in the Abarth. Plant the throttle, wait for boost to arrive above 3000rpm from the turbocharged engine, and the hollow growl and fierce barks that emit from the exhaust plaster a Cheshire grin across your face instantly.
You learn to work around the flaws – using the sublime gearshift and acutely well placed pedals to slow down with heel ‘n toe shifts rather than the brakes. Leaning through a corner – thank the seat, not the suspension – and you’re roughhousing the steering wheel all the way through like a pair of sibling puppies.
Open up onto a straight piece of road and punch the loud pedal and you’re met by a moment of lag, then a plethora of growls and a surge of power that almost feels out of place in a tiny Fiat 500.
After a brief period of time behind the wheel you just kind of forget about the underdeveloped suspension and shoddy interior ergonomics. The seating position amplifies the fun, and the noises the Abarth 595C Turismo makes leave you feeling giddy and mischievous. The grin is permanent from then on out.
Who cares if it’s slower around a track than a competitor? Or not as refined? Or not as capable? Who even cares if it has next to no features and poor rear visibility when it attacks each 100m stretch of road like a Jack Russell does a tennis ball? And of course it looks the part too – overtly aggressive and yet so cute!
Who cares if it costs R414 900 in convertible guise? Oh no, wait, that is a bit of excessive; I do care about that.
And that’s where the wheels come off – figuratively speaking of course. The Abarth is bloody expensive for very little car with very little to offer. Objectively speaking, it’s mechanically flawed in so many areas. Then you take a gander at the interior and realise nothing in there is of a high quality – it’s all scratchy and hard plastics.
The radio is horrible, there’s no Bluetooth media streaming, and the Bluetooth telephony made me scream profanities on a daily basis. Sure, the instrument cluster has received an update this year to a digital one that displays the achievable 6.0l/100km consumption figure – but it lost the charm of the old analogue dials when 3rd gear saw the speedo- and tachometer link up in splendid unison.
Of course you get some features, or er, feature… rear park distance control is it, but you need it when rear visibility is this bad. No cruise control though, and no automatic headlights either… for R400 grand?! A top-spec Opel Astra at this same price has about a thousand and one toys, all standard, including matrix LED headlights.
Critically speaking, the Abarth 595C Turismo is a horrible ‘car’. It’s terrible at doing things a car should do. The boot space is minimal; and the boot hatch barely lets a shopping bag in; and the rear seats are near non-existent. But it’s so much fun to throw it around and listen to the burble of the exhaust or the pops on upshift.
Everyone in traffic looks at you like you’re a madman racing around in a little bubble of a car; and the grin you return would suggest you truly are mad.
You’d have to be, too, to shell out that sort of money for one of these. But this is the one case where you won’t suffer from insanity, but enjoy every single ripsnorting, popping, growling, tyre squealing moment of it. Got cash to waste in search of thrills? This is what you’re looking for.
Words: Roger Biermann
Photos: Roarke Bouffe, Vaughn Humphrey, Lance Humphrey