It’s hard to believe, but Abarth has been selling hotted-up versions of the Fiat 500 supermini since 2008, and in more than a decade the basic ingredients have barely changed, so the recipe must be fairly sound.

And while undoubtedly long-in-the-tooth these days, there’s still much to like about the tiny, retro-styled hot hatches. Quick, noisy and bouncy, they’re a window into how cars like this used to be before 300-horsepower outputs, adaptive dampers and any sense of sophistication were commonplace.

That naturally reduces the car’s potential market down to just a hardy few, and if we’re being honest Abarth’s hatches are littered with faults, many related to the basic car’s ageing platform. Particularly towards the top end of the range, you’d be much better off with a Ford Fiesta ST – a car that pairs its performance with chassis sophistication, greater occupant safety and better liveability.

But if you’re prepared to trade all that for the 595 and 695’s simple, fun-loving nature, noisy exhausts and exotic-in-miniature detailing, then we salute you – and you probably won’t be disappointed with your purchase.

Engine, transmission and technical details

It’s relatively simple here – all 595s (and indeed all Abarths full stop right now) are powered by a 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged powerplant under the T-Jet banner. The only difference between each model is the power and torque it produces due to different turbochargers, air filters and ECU tuning, and the way it sounds courtesy of standard, Record Monza and Akrapovic exhaust systems depending on trim level.

Thus the range starts with a 106kW at 5500rpm and 206Nm at 3000rpm model in the basic Abarth 595, with a standard exhaust system. Next up is the Trofeo, which makes 117kW at 5500rpm and 230Nm at 3000rpm, but gets an Abarth air filter and the Record Monza exhaust.

The Turismo makes 4kW more at the same revs and identical torque, but interestingly gets a Garrett turbocharger rather than an IHI, a different intake system, but the standard Abarth exhaust. Competizione models get the same turbo and intake, but other tweaks and the use of the Record Monza exhaust lift power to 133kW at 5500rpm and 254Nm of torque at 3000rpm.

The luxurious Rivale again gets the same turbo and intake and makes the same power and torque, but switches the Record Monza exhaust system for one from Akrapovic.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard across the 595 and 695 range, but the Turismo, Competizione and Rivale are additionally available with a five-speed automated manual transmission – a rare option these days. We’ve not tried a model so-equipped, but automated manuals don’t traditionally offer the best driving behaviour, typically changing with a lurch as the ’box attempts to switch gears.

Technically, all Abarths are fairly conventional under the skin, powering their front wheels alone and suspended by struts at the front with a torsion beam at the back, and anti-roll bars both ends.

All models use frequency-selective dampers on at least the front axle, a kind of non-electronic active damping technology developed by Koni, but Trofeo models and up get actual Koni units on the rear and Competizione and Rivales get Konis at both ends, as well as Brembo front brakes. A limited-slip differential is also available on the range-toppers.

Performance and 0-100 time

Even the least powerful 595 is a brisk little device, using its 106kW to good effect (and no doubt thanks to a kerb weight little over a metric ton) to deliver a 7.8sec 0-100km/h time and perfectly respectable 210km/h top speed. For reference, that’s a tenth quicker and 1km/h more than its closest rival, the basic 1.5-litre Mini Cooper.

From there the range steps up to the 117kW Trofeo, which cuts a further half-second from the 0-100km/h sprint and adds 6.5km/h to the top end. Curiously, the more luxurious Turismo boasts an extra 4kW, and reaches 218km/h flat out, but 0-100km/h remains the same at 7.3sec.

Above this, the 595 Competizione’s 133kW further crops the benchmark acceleration figure to 6.7sec and lifts top speed to 225km/h, which seems like quite a lot for something so tiny, though the Competizione’s Brembo brakes and Koni dampers seem capable of handling it. As the most recent 595 we’ve tested, the Competizione certainly feels good for its numbers, punching hardest in the mid-range but still willing as it climbs to the red line before slotting the next gear.

The 695 Rivale boasts the same 133kW powerplant and the same performance figures, but breathes through an Akrapovic exhaust system rather than the rowdy ‘Record Monza’ set-up available on other 595s. Those 595s and 695s fitted with the automated manual gearbox option are a couple of tenths slower to 100km/h than their manual counterparts.

Ride and handling

The Abarth 595 is not… err… conventionally capable. It’s relatively tall and narrow for its size and makes up for it with a comically firm ride, albeit one that doesn’t seem quite so punishing in light of modern vehicles as it did back on its launch in 2008.

To its credit, this does make the car feel very stable and predictable on smoother surfaces and gives the tyres something to work with in extracting lateral grip from the road surface, while despite the car’s tall stance there’s no pitch or dive under acceleration and braking. The flip side is a car that does tend to skitter around on rougher roads and exhibit some torque steer and front-end push on less grippy surfaces. There’s not much steering feel either, though the steering is accurate and responsive off-centre, so it’s not difficult to get used to.

The ride may begin to irritate you in ownership, or at least lead you to seek out aftermarket fixes, but some of the handling quirks can be dismissed because the 595 is such a small car. Like the Up GTI (which isn’t perfect either, but does get closer than the Abarth) you have oodles of space to play with even on relatively narrow roads, and the slightly frenzied power delivery and resulting wheelspin never feel like too much to cope with.

By conventional standards then, the Abarth has plenty of room for improvement. But if you want a car you can hop into and feel like you’re getting its best on pretty much every journey, there’s definitely some merit to the 595 – a characteristic it shares with the 124 Spider also in Abarth’s range. ANTONY INGRAM

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