When it comes to in house performance divisions of mainstream car makers, many names spring to mind. Mercedes has AMG, BMW has M Sport and Seat has Cupra. However, one maker of go faster cars often gets overlooked and for many, is the greatest of all. Abarth.
If you dig deep enough, you find the legacy of Carlo Abarth’s involvement with doing up Fiats and fettling purpose-built sports and race cars, greatly eclipses the history of other in-house tuners.
Abarth and Fiat are never far away from one another, so when Fiat launched the retro inspired 500 in 2008, it was inevitable it would get the Abarth treatment. Fast forward to today, and we have the 595 Competitzione.
I tested the hardtop last year and found it to be not without flaws, but still so charming and a tonne of fun. So, when the chance came to sample the convertible, like a meerkat on sentry duty, I was keen to take a peek.
The 595 Abarth Convertible is different from the hardtop in one very large aspect. No surprises for guessing as to what that is. The fabric top can be opened in three stages.
The first stage allows you to have the sensation of a sunroof, the second stage allows the roof to extend to rear of the car while still retaining the rear window for visibility, and finally the third stage allows you to fold the entire roof away in the rear, exposing you and your passengers to the fullness of the sun’s rays.
Under the bonnet, the 1.2 litre four-cylinder engine from the standard 500 has been discarded, and in its place is Abarth’s 1.4 litre turbocharged four pot with 132kW and 250Nm of torque. Zero to 100km/h is rated at 6.7 seconds, not bad at all really.
The 595 can be had with either a five-speed manual or automatic with shift paddles. I remember loving the bolt action rifle-esque shift sensations of the manual last year. However, the five-speed automatic is a different animal entirely, but more on that in a bit.
Underneath, the 595 Convertible gets stiffer and lower springs, retuned dampers, and bigger Brembo disc brakes up front and at the rear. All the Abarth details like the uber-cool Scorpion insignia with tricolore flag and 17-inch matte black alloys just look great.
Hop inside, and like the hardtop, its not what you would call a laid-back driving position. Of course, you feel snug, but you sit rather up right and the alcantara wrapped wheel, which feels good in your mitts, comes out at you on an angle. It is height adjustable but you can’t bring it towards you. This is not a car for slobbing out on long journeys.
Standard kit is decent but its not what one would call a gadget fest. You do get Bluetooth, air con, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and a very clear and intuitive touchscreen infotainment system. All the switchgear, while packing a dose of retro cool, seems to have changed very little from the first 500 Abarth from 12 years ago.
You also get daytime running lights, rear parking sensors, tyre pressure sensors and seven air bags all round. You don’t get a reversing camera, but you would have to be very committed indeed to back this into your letterbox.
There are better equipped hot superminis out there, but few have as much personality as the 595. That personality becomes blatantly obvious when you turn the key.
Defaulting to Sport mode, the 595 Convertible growls on start-up, which when starting up from cold in my garage, resulted in a snarl quite deafening.
Things then drop to a raspy burble. The standard Monza exhaust system sounds so animalistic. A refreshing change from the often-subdued engine notes of other cars of this type.
Give it a few revs and this wee terrier of a car begins to bark, and bark rather loudly. Also present is the sound of turbo boost pressure building. This can be monitored by the turbo boost gauge which sticks out on the dashboard like a periscope.
Around town the 595 Convertible has not what one would call a soft ride. In true go kart fashion, negotiating the inner city was met with yours truly feeling plenty of bumps and undulated surfaces. The ride is not bone shattering, no, but certainly firm in parts.
Another ho-hum aspect is the five-speed automatic gearbox. Whether using the shift paddles in manual or letting it change itself in auto modes, things get a bit jerky between changes.
Many times, I found myself giving it the beans and each up shift was accompanied by me lightly bobbing my head. Things are much smoother down through the gears, but after a while I found that lifting off between changes was the only way for a smooth change.
Where the 595 Convertible makes up for the gearbox is the way the 595 feels at speed. With that aforementioned Monza exhaust bellowing from 2,500rpm upwards and the car in Sport mode, I found myself having a bit of a giggle. Plus, with the roof down, you can hear that angry turbo four pot even more.
In Sport, the steering weights up, and you get a more immediate response from the throttle. Mash the loud pedal into the firewall and this hot Bambina doesn’t hang around. A run from the port of Lyttleton to Sumner via the newly opened coast road was the perfect place to get in the Abarth mood.
The 595 Convertible can do motorway cruising, but its happy place is the twisty coastal or hilltop road. It constantly demands you take it by the collar and give it a damn good thrashing. Which I was happy to do, for a great feeling of reward.
Feeding in the power through the twisty stuff became a moment of excessive repetition. I got used to lifting off with each change and burying the gas out of each bend, riding a wave of exhaust and turbo noise. It also devours the bendy bitumen like a housefly, changing direction almost telepathically.
Retailing at $42,990NZ for the manual and $45,490 for the automatic, the Fiat 595 Abarth Convertible is getting up there in terms of price. Honestly, the auto is decent enough, but if it were me, I would go for the manual every time and save the remaining $2500.
All in all, the 595 Abarth Competizione Convertible, like all Abarth tuned Fiats of the last 50 or so years, is a full on go kart giggle factory of an Italian supermini. Just make sure you get the manual.