When it came time for us to add another car to the CarAdvice collection, we realised there was a giant hole – it was one that had to be filled by an Italian car.
Ferrari or Lamborghini weren’t the most practical options, so last year we welcomed a red (pre-facelift) 2017 Abarth 595 to our family – a Fiat 500 with extra horsepower and badging, which is something that’s needed for us car people to get around the city swiftly.
A quick history lesson: even though Fiat bought Abarth in 1971, these cars are not called a Fiat. Abarth is a racing car company founded by Carlo Abarth, and once produced and sold performance parts for Fiat, Lancia, Cisitalia, Porsche and Simca, with the famous scorpion badge proudly emblazoned only on Fiats now. These cars often raced alongside Porsche 904s and Ferrari Dinos.
By the first year of production for the Abarth 595, it won 900 races and broke six international records.
With so much history, we decided to compare our 595 to a classic. But genuine Abarth 595s are so rare in Australia, we had to settle for the next best thing – a 695 replica. It is a 1970 Fiat 500 and the owner has gone to great lengths to make it fully Abarth spec. You see the name everywhere, even down to the bonnet straps.
Once upon a time, the Abarth 595 was powered by a 595cc engine. Thankfully, not anymore. The 2017 model has a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 103kW of power and 203Nm of torque.
As the name suggests, the 1970 Abarth has a 695cc engine. The biggest difference between this and the new is it’s an air-cooled rear engine that powers the rear wheels.
With the upgrade from the 595 engine, the bonnet was kept open to properly cool the engine. It is obviously much slower than its newer cousin. It reaches 100km/h in 43 seconds on its way to a top speed of 115km/h, producing 22kW of power and 44Nm of torque.
It may sound slow, but with it weighing only 500kg compared to the new model at 1042kg, it’s the perfect amount of power. And because it’s a tiny 2.9m long and 1.3m wide, you wouldn’t want to go any faster than 100km/h anyway! Our Abarth measures 3.6m long and 1.6m wide.
Putting the foot down while in normal mode, it drives quite softly. By pressing the Sport button that resembles a piece of red candy, this is where the fun comes into it. The dials flash red, the exhaust becomes louder, and you can feel that turbo, even if it does have some lag.
Abarth claims a combined fuel reading of six litres per 100 kilometres, and we got a similar reading, although it’s hard to drive slow when it’s always in Sport mode. Bizarrely, you need the key to open the fuel cap. Because Italian.
The 1970 car doesn’t have a fuel reading of course, let alone a fuel gauge, but we did notice it sipped from its minuscule 22-litre tank under the bonnet.
Our 595 corners like a go-kart, to the point where nipping around corners quickly is infectious. The 16-inch wheels cope with bumpy roads pretty well, but being short-wheelbase any speed humps aren’t that pleasant, and tyre roar is very noticeable at higher speeds.
The 47-year old Abarth has some racing camber at the front, and it’s easy to get out of hand. Its tiny 12-inch wheels feel every single rut in the road, and avoiding them altogether is the best option. The gearbox is a synchromesh four-speed, and after 10 minutes you can find your way around pretty easily. The clutch pedal requires being flat to the floor, though, to avoid crunching.
We were lucky enough to purchase the last manual for 2017 in Australia, and even though a five-speed manual gearbox may seem a little old, especially when we’re surrounded by six-speeds these days, you don’t even notice it. If it were an auto, the fun factor wouldn’t be there as much.
While most of us love how the red Abarth drives and handles, it’s the cabin that is a letdown. Although the 2018 model has had an update, this cabin is 10 years old, and feels it.
There’s no infotainment screen, so Bluetooth has to be set up through the steering wheel, which takes five minutes to find because it’s under ‘User Pairing’. And no matter what button you press, it will turn to the same radio station every time you start the car.
The placement of the gearstick so high up the console is weird at first, but it makes sense because it’s within easy reach from the steering wheel for the sporty driver. There’s no missing the giant turbo dial stuck on top of the dash, and the steering wheel looks like it came right out of a bus.
The seat adjuster can be mistaken for the handbrake, and the cupholders are so shallow just about anything will fall out of them when going around a corner.
Meanwhile, in the smaller 1970 car, things are basic. The car starts like a lawn mower by turning on the ignition and holding down the starter button under the dash. There are four switches with no labels, no radio, and just a speedometer.
The owner has added an aftermarket tachometer and fire-extinguisher. An ashtray takes pride of place in the middle of the dash, which demonstrates priorities for drivers back in the ’70s.
The leather seats are just as comfortable as the new ones, and the driving position isn’t as high as our Abarth. Getting into the back of the white Abarth is a challenge. This car was not designed to have any adults in the back.
Legroom is non-existent, and it’s far roomier in the newer model. However, headroom is better in the 1970 car, as you can feel your hair tickle the roof in the 2017 Abarth.
The newer Abarth’s boot stores 185L worth of gear, the same as the Holden Spark. A small suitcase fits nicely. It has a retro touch with a pull-down strap too.
Over in the classic Abarth, good luck getting anything under the bonnet. A spare tyre, battery, and fuel tank take up all the room, so the back seat is the only space available for a suitcase.
Driving each of these Abarths is a different experience. The 1970 model will get even the non-car-loving people to turn their heads, with most comments being of the “cute” kind.
In the 2017 model, it’s more of a car that surprises with its zippy characteristics and sound of the exhaust. Both have their idiosyncrasies, but both have personality and character, and that’s what helps us connect with a car.
Just like Luigi said in the movie Cars, “they say look at me, here I am, love me”. Sure they’re not a Ferrari, but they’re still Italian, and it’s that same passion that runs through those fuel lines.