When last I sampled the Opel ADAM S, it was on the confines of a race track on launch – a controlled environment chosen by the manufacturer in which to extol the virtues of their latest hot supermini. But out in the real world, and against real competition, things could possibly feel very different to those few hours at the track. So I gave Fiat South Africa a call and asked if they could spare me an Abarth 595 Turismo over the same dates as the Opel ADAM S to put each through their paces against one another… they obliged.
While my time with the Opel has only been brief since its launch, I’ve flirted with Abarth-badged Fiat 500’s on numerous occasions. Hard tops, convertibles, the uber-hot 695 Tributo Ferrari, and last year, the Essesse kitted version have all spent their time with me – I’m fairly au fait with them. But that was always in isolation – and until earlier this year the Abarth-tuned 500s had no direct competition.
Leading up to the final duel between them, our final shoot at Red Star Raceway in Delmas, Mpumalanga, one thing was clear. Never have two machines, so similar in size and segment, gone about their duties in such a different manner.
Looking in, the Abarth 595C’s sport seats look fancy, but once inside, you feel perched atop the 595C rather than sitting in it. There’s limited height adjustment which doesn’t help much, and the steering wheel is only height adjustable. In the Opel however, two-piece cloth and leather Recaro buckets are low slung in front of a height and reach adjustable wheel. The Recaro’s offer oodles of lateral support as opposed to the Abarth units that are too soft and too high to cosset you through corner.
Once seated, in addition to being lower, the Opel boasts better visibility. The Abarth’s dash and instrument cowl are abnormally tall and obscure forward visibility, whilst the chunky B- and large C-pillars create large blind spots to the side and rear of the car. The Opel isn’t perfect in this regard either, though, as the C-pillar’s odd shape also creates blind zones – but it’s better than the Abarth. Despite nigh on identical length and height, the Abarth feels as if it were squashed front and rear with the only way for its innards to go being up.
That aside, the Abarth’s cabin feels dated. With the latest tweaks, it’s received a new digital instrument cluster with an assortment of new features, but the horrible dot matrix media and Blue & Me connectivity suite falls far behind the intuitive IntelliLink setup in the Opel ADAM S. Where the Abarth only offers Bluetooth telephony – after a complicated setup process – the Opel’s suite of telephony, media, and mobile app compatibility puts it streaks ahead.
That’s just the pearl at the centre of a shiny and new interior design that feels as good as it looks, whereas the Abarth battles with scratchy plastics and uninspiring displays and switch gear. However, whilst the Opel’s interior is far newer, the Abarth has quirks that are quite appealing, like the boost gauge pod mounted atop the dash.
When it comes to outright performance between the two, the figures would suggest the Abarth has an outright advantage. Both hatches boast 1.4-litre turbocharged 4 cylinder motors, driving the front wheels through manual gearboxes – 5- and 6-speed respectively for the Abarth and Opel. But the Abarth boasts more power – 118kW – than the ADAM S’ 110kW, and more torque, offering 230Nm on overboost to the Opel’s 220Nm on tap at any time between 3000- and 4000rpm. The 595C is also lighter. Even in convertible guise, it’s 103kg lighter than the portly ADAM’s 1178kg mass.
The Abarth is claimed as being quicker to the 100km/h mark as such – 7.4s to the Opel’s 8.5s claim – but in the real world it couldn’t perform a proper launch without limiting the revs and bogging down immediately on launch. Pitted against one another in a good old fashion straight line drag, neither vehicle offers anything more than the other, both accelerating at the same pace from standstill past the 140km/h mark, and both topping out at 210km/h.
However the manner in which power is delivered couldn’t be more different between the pair. The Abarth is decidedly ‘old school’. Beneath the 3000rpm mark there’s little to no power, but as the turbo spools there’s a punch in the kidneys as the engine comes on boost, and even then, there’s turbo-lag aplenty. The Opel is the complete opposite – smooth and eager from the word go with a steady surge rather than an individual power peak.
But put these super-tykes through a series of corners after one another – or say a 4km long race track in Mpumalanga – and their mettle is tested.
On the tight technical motorcycle circuit that Red Star was built as, these featherweights should be at home. Head down the pit straight and through the first left-right-left combination of turns though and the Abarth immediately feels out of place.
It’s the gears that don’t feel right. Not the shift-quality – that’s brilliant. The Abarth’s short-throw high-mounted shifter bangs between the gears with an incredibly positive action, where the Opel has a brief moment of apprehension before entering the gate of the next ratio. Still the best Opel shift in more than a decade – but beaten still by the Abarth’s infallible action. Yet the Opel has a better pedal placement (no doubt thanks to the wider pedal box), allowing for easier heel ‘n toe action despite the hesitant shifts.
But against the Abarth, its gearing and torque peak at 3000rpm make it hard to select the right gear – you’re either below the boost threshold or out of puff near the redline. The Opel’s broad torque spread and even gearing makes the best use of the torque on offer – even in the wrong gear you’re not entirely out of your depth. On the road where you have more time to prep rather than linking from one to the next in rapid succession, the gearing is OK in the Abarth, the difference negligible, but out here it suffers.
The Opel is able to exit corners with far more clout and without fumbling for gears – and notably at a higher speed too. With cars this light you expect high cornering speeds and grip for days, but the Opel excels beyond expectation.
There’s something about the Abarth 595C’s suspension that just doesn’t measure up. Never mind it being under-tyred – the 205/45 profile Pirellis break traction far easier than the Opel’s relatively fat 225/35 section rubber – the jittery ride quality does the super-Fiat no favours. Even equipped as standard with Koni dampers from the Essesse kit, the front wheels are oversprung and underdamped and tend to scrabble across even the tiniest of bumps. The Opel – no such fuss; and very little body roll as it merely leans on the outer front tyre and carries grip and pace for what seems an eternity.
On the road, where the patchwork of multicoloured tarmac is far from as smooth as RSR’s surface, the Abarth falls farther behind its Opel counterpart. Bumps and jitters crash through the cabin, and next-to-no noise insulation makes it a noisy affair. The Opel ADAM S is by no means perfect – those large wheels, wide rubber, and limited wheel travel mean it too is crashy, although far more composed with better damping and vastly superior sound deadening (it would account for some of the extra heft). But the Opel can’t avoid tram-lining, the fatter tyres following road camber and requiring constant corrections via the steering.
In terms of the steering, both feature electronically assisted power systems. Opel’s system is, as is becoming the norm with EPAS, devoid of feel. But what it is, is direct, and after a few corners of learning how it weights up, consistent. The Abarth, not to be outdone, offers plenty of directness, with a touch more eagerness off centre. But it’s falsely weighty and feels more rubbery and aggressive in its attempts to self-centre, unnaturally so. Out on normal roads, and crucially in parking lots, both cars suffer rather dismal turning circles, it must be said.
Where these systems are more or less on par though, the Opel’s is better suited for day to day running about, what with its lighter weighting; and on track it pairs up better with the low slung seating position and superb lateral support from the Recaros to offer a more confidence-inspiring drive than the Abarth – whose high perch amplifies the feeling of speed, without the corresponding speedometer readout.
The Opel ADAM S’ alacrity goes farther still. Its chassis feels more predictable than the Abarth’s. Despite a wheelbase within 11mm of the Opel’s, the 595C Turismo is snappy and unpredictable. Understeer snaps into lift off oversteer with all the viciousness of a hungry Chihuahua, where the Opel will drop its tail out on lift off before self-correcting and ploughing on to the next corner with deft composure.
Under braking too, the Opel is more composed. It sheds speed quicker too thanks to the Corsa OPC-sourced brakes, and feels less squirrely under hard stopping. The Abarth, though, tends to feel unstable under heavy loads on the front axle, and the brake pedal doesn’t quite offer the same feel as the Opel. The brakes on the Abarth 595C Turismo also fade quicker, feeling stodgy to the prod.
But if there’s one aspect in which the Abarth has the Opel ADAM S completely licked, it has to be drama! The Abarth is a noisy thing – with pops and whip-cracks on upshifts, and a loud, hollow burble to the exhaust note. This is with the standard exhaust too, mind you – there’s a batshit insane Record Monza 4-pipe setup we sampled on the Essesse last year available as an option. The ADAM S? It growls with all the ferocity of a delighted kitten by comparison – pleasant, but not at all intimidating.
It’s not just the noise though. It’s the way you wait for boost in the Abarth, the way it then kicks you in the backside and scrabbles for grip, lighting up the inner front tyre – it just made me smile more out in the real world where their pace was much of a muchness. Forget the scratchy interior and disappointing straight line, and even cornering performance and it’s the one that makes you grin with delight from the moment you turn the key. The Abarth 595C Turismo is theatrical; frantic; chaos in a nutshell.
But for outright performance? No, for outright performance the theatre is pointless. Around that particular 4km stretch of turns, the Abarth just couldn’t compete. The ADAM S pulled a clean 5 seconds on the Abarth – even though it felt slower – and after driving the two back to back, the Opel is clearly the better performance supermini by some margin.
The Opel ADAM S is more precise, more composed; and despite the lack of theatre, it’s clinical in its dismantling of any stretch of twisting road or race track.
But not only is it the better performer, it’s better at being a car. The day to day comfort and noise insulation is far better than that of the Abarth, as is the perceived interior quality. It’s far more spacious for the front two occupants, though rear space is miniscule in both. Throw in the – all standard – IntelliLink infotainment suite, Opel’s APA2 (Advanced Park Assist 2) with its front and rear PDC and ability to park itself, and the rear PDC of the Abarth seems a half-baked attempt at adding features.
They’ll both achieve as low as 5.7l/100km at a push, and 6.5l/100km on average, but the Opel’s 6th gear makes highway driving more comfortable, as does the cruise control and speed limiter – not available on the 595C Turismo. Furthermore, the Opel offers blind spot assist, auto headlights, auto wipers, and an auto-dimming rear view mirror. In fact the only feature the Abarth 595C Turismo boasts over the Opel ADAM S is a driver knee airbag, and a sliding soft top roof.
But to rub salt in the wounds further, the Opel ADAM S is the cheaper vehicle too. The 595C Turismo, with its sliding soft top, at a price of R406 990 is a full R76 990 more than the Opel’s R330 000 asking price. Even the hard-topped Abarth 595 Turismo is more expensive at R355 990 – making the Opel ADAM S incredible value for money under these circumstances.
To draw a final conclusion – the Opel ADAM S is the one I’d rather own and drive as both a daily driver and a track toy… but the Abarth 595C Turismo still made me smile more. At the end of the day that’s gotta be worth something, right?
Words: Roger Biermann
Photos: Roarke Bouffe, Vaughn Humphrey, Lance Humphrey