On the quirkiness scale, the pint-sized Abarth 695 charts higher than most other cars. There's something inherently kooky about a 180 horsepower slingshot that's shaped like an angry bumblebee.
Given its relative obscurity, you may well ask: "What exactly is the Abarth 695?" Think of it as a souped-up version of the Fiat 500, dripping with attitude and bulging at the seams as a result of its added muscle. Although the sedate 500 is the starting point, the end result is something entirely different, thanks to a comprehensive rework of the powertrain, suspension and bodywork. It's essentially a Clark Kent-Superman transformation.
The Abarth nameplate was founded in 1949 by Carlo Abarth, initially as a motor sport operation, but later broadening its focus to also turn out go-faster versions of various Fiat road cars. The business folded in 1981, but was reborn in 2007 as a wholly owned subsidiary of Fiat. Its offerings include the 695 and 124 Spider.
The 695 model's makeover begins with a feisty 1.4-litre turbo motor that ekes out a beefy 180hp and 250Nm, which are robust outputs for a waiflike car that weighs only 1,045 kilograms. The front wheels are driven through a five-speed sequential gearbox, and its maker claims a zero to 100 kilometres per hour sprint of 6.9 seconds and a top speed of 225kph. These numbers almost don't compute, given it's substantially smaller than a Toyota Yaris hatchback.
The Fiat 500 dates back to 2007, so it’s not surprising the Abarth has an old-school feel. The driving position is compromised, as the steering adjusts for rake but not reach, and the dashboard is basically a large expanse of hard plastic. Fire up the 1.4 turbo engine, though, and your eardrums are greeted by a pleasingly purposeful growl from the quartet of tailpipes.
Get into gear by pressing a button marked "1" on the centre console and you're under way. Well, not immediately, as the sequential gearbox is disappointingly tardy in its responses. There's a jerk on every upshift, and even the engine needs a second or two to get past the pronounced turbo lag. First impressions aren't overwhelmingly positive, but after some time behind the wheel you gradually adjust to these shortcomings.
The Abarth isn't much fun in stop-start traffic, but get it out on to a deserted twisty road and it comes alive. The engine that seemed sluggish around town is pleasingly punchy once you get it singing in its sweet spot. Even that antiquated sequential gearbox serves up much quicker and smoother shifts when you're giving it the beans.
Grip of steel
The Abarth is equipped with beefed-up brakes, Koni dampers and a chunky 17-inch wheel/tyre package, and this combo endows the little tearaway with almost mind-boggling grip levels. Fling it into a corner and it simply sticks and launches out the other side. On these roads, it’s laugh-out-loud fun. The 70th Anniversario model also gets an adjustable rear wing that has 12 positions you can set via an Allen key, but this seems more gimmick than substance.
There’s no mistaking the Abarth for anything other than what it is as it’s festooned with scorpion decals, Abarth badging (again with the marque’s scorpion logo) and two-tone bodywork with wheelarch flares, side skirts and a thrusting front spoiler. You can order your 70th Anniversario in one of five colour combinations, with our test vehicle sporting military-esque “Monza 1958 Green” paintwork.
Charming but pricey
The Abarth 695 70th Anniversario is far from perfect, but it's not without its charms. Its offbeat look is endearing, and it's fun to hustle across the right roads. That said, it's tiresome in inner-city traffic, and there's no getting around how dated it feels. However, the biggest sticking point is the price. At Dh139,995, the 70th Anniversario costs virtually the same as a VW Golf GTI, which obviously represents a lot more car for your money. Even so, the Abarth's feistiness and uniqueness will be enough to win over a few buyers.