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This raucous little Fiat adheres to the golden rule of warm hatches: put a broad smile on the driver's face

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Since 2002 the Mini Cooper has had things all its own way. There is no shortage of hot hatchbacks on the market, but there is a shortage of ones, like the Mini, that have an inherent showroom appeal and a hefty dollop of cheek to accompany their performance and handling. The Abarth 595 aims to redress the balance.

The Abarth brand was reborn in 2007 with the Punto Abarth, but the bigger news is this Fiat 500, which followed with a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine in four stages of tune, depending on whether it's in standard form, Turismo, Competizione and 695 Biposto, with the first three Abarths available as a convertible.

In Turismo trim, the Abarth 595 is the closest competitor to the Mini Cooper S

Bar the latter, the Abarth 595 has benefitted from the facelift bestowed on the Fiat 500 in 2015, with new head and rear lights chief among the changes.

In its Competizione trim, the 595 is the closest competitor there is to the Mini Cooper S - at least in terms of conception and image. But can it match it for speed and interaction, too?

But before you read on, check out our review of the electric Abarth 500e: does it drive like a proper Abarth?

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Abarth 595 front end

Big side skirts and bumpers, tasty rear spoiler and what looks like a venturi at the back? Fiat has ticked all the boxes of the modern performance car cliche to give the Fiat 500 a bit of aggression - although, like watching an angry guinea pig, it is hard to take the 595 Abarth totally seriously as it slips deeper into hot-hatchback caricature.

But there is purpose behind the bodywork changes. Much of the 500's front end has been redesigned to accommodate a 1.4-litre engine with its turbocharger, and then find a way of cooling it; hence the deeper, vividly scooped front bumper.

There is purpose behind the bodywork changes

Moreover the vertical slashes on the front and rear bumpers provide the brakes with (or relinquish them of) cooling air. And the two exhausts are both functional - it isn't unknown for one side to be totally false on some performance cars.

Despite Fiat's claims the 595 Abarth has spent hours being wind tunnel honed, it's hard to imagine the diffuser achieving anything other than getting itself slightly grubby but, conversely, the roof mounted spoiler does seem to reduce dirt build-up on the rear window. 

Thrown out at the time of the body addenda's introduction are all the Fiat badges. Fiat would have you believe that this is an Abarth 595, harking back to the days when Abarth was considered a manufacturer in its own right. Instead there are Abarth's Scorpion logos aplenty (Scorpio being company founder Carlo Abarth's zodiac sign), some of them standard, some optional.

Over the standard 595 Abarth, which itself gets 16-inch alloy wheels and new springs and dampers for its MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension, the Turismo pack brings with it Koni shock absorbers at the rear; and 17-inch alloy wheels, while the Competizione gets Koni shocks all round and larger Brembo brake discs. The 695 Biposto gets height adjustable racing springs and 18in lightweight O.Z alloys.

Opt for the Performance Pack, available on the 595 Competizione and you'll find it adorns the Abarth with lighter 17in alloy wheels and a front locking differential.


Abarth 595 interior

Evidently Fiat wants you to be in no doubt that you're inside an Abarth 595 rather than a regular Fiat. The general cabin layout is Fiat 500, of course, because the cash pot isn't so big that a major redesign is possible, but in the detailing - and lots of it - it's pure Abarth. At least, what Fiat perceives modern Abarth to be.

So the major rubberised elements of the dash are black, as is the headlining unique to the Abarth 595, leaving the body-coloured splash across the centre console as the only splashed highlight. In the white of our test car, it feels just right. In red it can look a tad overbearing. 

The general cabin layout is 500

The driving environment has been given the sporty treatment, too. The bucket seats are meant to resemble Abarth's '60's items and they prove pleasingly supportive and feature plenty of adjustment.

There's a rotary dial for the backrest, but it's rather too easy to confuse the seat base's lever with the adjacent handbrake. They won't go low enough for some, and the seat base is a little short, too, but that's not uncommon on a car as small as the 500.

Pedals are, naturally enough, alloy (though 'racing pedals', as advertised, is stretching it a bit) and the steering wheel has the now-obligatory flat spot at the bottom.

Fortunately, not too much of it is flattened, so it's almost as functional as a typical round wheel, while its sculpted hand grips feel good, as does the leather-finished gearlever.

Other Abarth treatments include a turbo boost gauge and shift light, and a Sport button on the dash - which does the opposite to Fiat's usual 'city' button. Instead of lightening the steering feel, it adds a bit of weight: it also changes the shift light from an eco-mode to a performance mode.

The rest of the interior is generic 500: adequate space for those in the front, small rear seats and a small boot.

As for interior equipment, the standard Abarth 595 gets front foglights, air conditioning, a leather trimmed steering wheel, electric front windows and a 5.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with Bluetooth, USB connectivity and DAB radio. Upgrade to the 595 Turismo and you get automatically dimming rear-view mirrors, dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors, and electrically adjustable door mirrors. 

The range-topping 595 Competizione models get xenon headlights, an Abarth Record Monza exhaust system, Koni shocks on the front and carbonfibre interior touches. The 695 Biposto is a different beast and is a more stripped out aggressive version, with lots of carbonfibre and Alcantara dotted around and none of the luxuries you take for granted in a standard Fiat 500.


Abarth 595 side profile

As standard the Abarth 595 develops 143bhp, the Turismo version produces 162bhp, while the Competizione punches out 177bhp from the same 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine. The Abarth 695 Biposto gets 187bhp and 184lb ft of peak twist driven through a five-speed dog-leg gearbox.

There are no serious mechanical changes in the engine to achieve the greater power output as is fairly typical these days. But there's a new air filter, which adds some a bit of volume to the induction noise and helps it breathe more freely, while there's a remapped ECU, too. 

Competizione-equipped Abarths come with bigger brakes

The resulting power is still a long way short of the Mini Cooper S's 189bhp, but there's no denying the verve and character of the 1.4-litre turbocharged unit, which emits a pleasingly vocal exhaust rort throughout its rev range.

From low revs the 595 Abarth wants a delay before beginning to deliver the power you've asked from it, but once it's beyond around 3000rpm it's as responsive as you could reasonably ask, and it pulls through to the other side of 6000rpm (peak power is at 5750) with decent conviction and that raspy exhaust note; certainly every inch as . 

In a straight line, the 595 Abarth managed to chirrup its way to 60mph in 7.6sec (the standard traction and stability control cannot be switched out), despite/because of its 1135kg tested weight (full of fuel but otherwise empty), and the fact it can hit 60mph in second gear. It feels about that fast, too.

As well as the power increase, Competizione-equipped Abarths come with bigger brakes - 305mm ventilated and drilled discs at the front and 240mm drilled ones at the rear - and there's certainly nothing wrong with the way the 595 Abarth stops. Its braking distances of 46.8m (from 70mph in the dry) are impressive, and there's precious little fade even after a few laps of our dry handling circuit.


Abarth 595 cornering

Let's deal with the 'ride' part of this section first, because it's the element, you may be unsurprised to learn, with which the 595 Abarth has the bigger beef. There are no two ways about it: it's firm.

It's firm and composed on good roads, firm and jiggly, sometimes crashy, and almost always a bit noisy, on bad ones. Nuggety, would be polite. Borderline uncomfortable would be more accurate. It's worse than most cars in the class - and not dissimilar to the Renault Twingo 133 with a Cup chassis. A regular 595 Abarth has more pliancy.

The Abarth steers pleasingly, with a fine speed and weight to the system

But it's the sort of thing that, in a hot hatchback, we'll put up with if the trade-off is sharp composure and handling and, here, in fairness, the Abarth Competizione is very good. On smooth roads or circuits it feels fairly nailed to the surface, with precious little roll and a solidity that, say, a regular Mini Cooper S can't match. 

Although it's less powerful than a Mini Cooper S, the Abarth 595 makes a very good fist of matching one around the tracks we use for our road test benchmark figures. On the dry circuit it lags by only 1.9sec and in the wet, it's closer still - just 0.2sec behind.

But as surfaces deteriorate again the Competizione options begin to take their toll a little. There's just so little give during spring compression that the car feels skipped from bump to bump rather than absorbing them en route. It gets better as speed rises but a Clio RS, for example, does it better.

The Abarth does steer pleasingly, though, with a fine speed and weight to the system, and decent linearity and some feel of front-wheel grip levels; albeit with a hint of springiness around the straight ahead and a touch of torque steer. If you deactivate 'Sport' mode it gets lighter, which is better around town, but you lose some of the feedback.


Abarth 595

A 595 Abarth with its Competizione kit fitted, costs more than a Mini Cooper S and a Renaultsport Clio RS Nav. But the little Fiat comes with a decent range of equipment (including air-conditioning and a CD player with MP3 capacity, auxiliary sockets and its pretend limited-slip diff), however both its closest competition include more luxuries such as an all-singing and dancing infotainment system.

It's also predicted to retain a decent proportion of its value thanks largely to brand kudos and relative rarity.

The little Fiat comes with a decent range of equipment

Economy is respectable, too, at 27.5mpg over the test period. That compares with an official combined consumption figure of 43.5mpg.

CO2 emissions of 155g/km is slightly more than the 136g/km, but enough to bump the little Fiat up by two tax bands with an increased cost roughly the value of a tank of unleaded.

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4 star Abarth 595

There are measurably superior hot hatchbacks to the 595 Abarth: some go faster, corner more quickly, are higher powered and lesser priced.

Several better it in less easily measured terms, but ones that are nonetheless more objective than subjective, like ride quality and steering response.

In Competizione trim, the 595 Abarth is a real corker to drive

But after a few miles in the 595 Abarth, you begin to wonder if any of that matters a jot. The hot hatchback's primary prupose - to put a smile on the face of its driver - is something the 595 Abarth does with the verve of few cars within double the 595 Abarth's price.

In Competizione trim, the 595 Abarth is a real corker to drive. Engaging, fun, quick, grippy and raucous. Yes, it lacks polish and, yes, something like a Renault Clio RS is dynamically superior.

Sometimes the Fiat can even be quite draining. But it has the cheek to get away with it. We think it's terrific.

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Abarth 595 First drives