I should start this review with a moan. You know, the usual; how the modern car market doesn’t cater for drivers who want to combine fun, practicality, affordability and respect from petrolheads. But I can’t, because as you grow wiser in this game, you learn that the car market is driven by corporate economics and the needs of the regular Joes and Joannes who make up the majority of car buyers. Sure, you get the odd homologation special when a rally programme goes belly-up, but in the real world, away from Motor Trend and PistonHeads, the automobile is a functional commodity.
So when a car like the Abarth 695 turns up, you have to understand that despite appearances, this is not a 1950s Italian rat-rod from Carlo Abarth’s skunkworks. It’s a Fiat 500, the wundercar which saved Fiat Chrysler, with a nicer badge, angstier engine, and a host of other bits from the same warehouse as the Multipla’s aircon knobs.
Don’t get me wrong – that is by no means a bad thing. I just want to set expectations here. Finding an affordable, sporty car which hits all the enthusiast pleasure points in the current climate is really a question of what compromises you are willing to make. The story of the Abarth 695 is also the story of the compromises a giant like FCA has to make to get something loveable out to market, without the accountants or marketing teams having a heart attack. More on that later.
The car I had on test was the 695 Anniversario, a special edition released to celebrate 70 years of Abarth in 2019. Limited to 1949 examples – clever – it is essentially a 595 Esseesse with two obvious differences. The first is its beautiful, head-turning ‘Monza ‘58’ green paintjob. The second is an adjustable boot-mounted spoiler, which gives this little car a considerable amount of swagger. 17-inch OZ alloys, snug Sabelt sports seats, Brembo brakes, and Koni shock absorbers head off any suggestions that this isn’t a properly sorted motor. You also get natty retro Abarth badges, some alcantara on the steering wheel, and the option of adding as many scorpion and checkerboard decals as good taste permits (or doesn’t).
Under the diddy bonnet of this rather striking little car sits a 1.4l turbocharged petrol engine, whose 177 horses only wake up north of 3000 rpm. It makes a pleasant sound through the Record Monza exhaust too – the usual Abarth gargle and pop from some forbidden realm beyond the clutches of the DVLA. If your clutch foot can escape the comically tight dead pedal nook in the footwell, rowing through the gears is also enjoyably kinetic, helped by the 695’s stocky aluminium shifter. All in all, it’s a car built on the modern Abarth formula of sacrificing creature comforts for a bit of naughtiness.
With that come some drawbacks. In town the stiff, racy suspension transmits the many, many imperfections of British roads straight into the cabin. General urban annoyances like people and, er, cars can also make the 695 quite a frustrating place to be despite its small size, given the constant temptation to smash the accelerator between lights.
Far outside the boundaries of London the 695 makes more sense, its squat little shape perfectly suited to winding B-roads. During my two-tank test loop of Kent, I learned to forgive the 695’s tendency to torque steer under pressure and the sense that you are a generous dab of lock away from flipping over, largely because this is a car that makes parping along a rural road even within the speed limit feel transgressive. That is ridiculous for what is essentially a green Fiat 500, but by the same token, praiseworthy. If social media is anything to go by, the Abarth scene is particularly healthy in rural Britain – and that is no surprise.
All this comes at a price, however. Once the initial thrill of driving the 695 wears off, you just want more – but FCA alone can’t oblige. You quickly start thinking of improvements: tearing the rear seats out, putting in a cage, stripping out the dashboard and maybe fitting a smaller wheel with a tighter steering rack. You end up wishing you could make the Abarth…go full Abarth.
I said almost exactly the same thing about the Abarth 124, of course. It’s the Curse of Carlo, always pushing you to find the demonic tweak which makes your next drive even more exhilarating. The prospect of spending more on a car you’ve only just bought, however, isn’t appealing – in particular when it’s a new one. And then you learn that the Anniversario retails at around £30k. If you really want the track day spec Abarth, you can grimace and order a 695 Biposto for around £33k. By way of reprieve, there is the 595 Essessee at around £26k which does almost everything the Anniversario does. But if this is what it costs to get a somewhat hot Fiat 500 these days before you’ve even started tinkering with it, then the sports car market has a bit of a problem, non è vero?
We end up with the 695 Anniversario being the Abarth even the most ardent Abarthista would think twice about. Not because of what it is or how it drives, but because the spirit of Abarth is more in taking an affordable base model and tweaking it to high heaven than paying a premium for a manufacturer to do it for you. And for the regular motoring enthusiast, conversely, this particular car might be a bit too Abarth; there’s only so much you can charge for scorpions on a Fiat 500.
For me, well; the 695 deserves at least a bit of praise for being different. It’s a quirky drive and looks great in photos. Most importantly, it’s one of very few modern sports cars which sparks some joy and genuine interest in the general public, and by God, we need some of those at the moment. I guess you could call that the sting in the tail.