The Abarth 595 Essesse is a car you find yourself wanting to like so hard. It’s one of those vehicles that’s just a nice thing, an alluring object, with its Supersport wheels in ‘Racing White’ and Abarth 70th anniversary badges. It looks fabulous, fitting so much aggression into such a small package.
That theme carries on when you fire it up and put it in Sport mode - there’s a new Akrapovic active exhaust, which seems determined to make as much noise as possible. It’s one of those tiny dogs that tries to make up for its diminutive size by barking constantly.
And the Essesse has one hell of a bark. It’s a deep, gravelly noise that jumps out of the twin carbon-trimmed tailpipes, causing bystanders to spin around and stare, no doubt surprised to see the ruckus being emitted by a little city car with a 1.4-litre engine.
The trouble is, once you look beyond the aesthetic and the noise, everything starts to unravel. You don’t get off to the best start with the 595, because as soon as you sit in the snazzy part-carbonfibre Sabelt driver’s seat, it’s clear the ergonomics are a bit off. No, scratch that, they’re a complete disaster.
You feel as though you’re sitting on top of the steering wheel, which infuriatingly still doesn’t adjust for reach. Anyone above a certain height will need to choose between having the wheel too far away or having their legs cramped up behind the pedals, which, by the way, have the strangest action I’ve ever experienced in a modern car. They almost feel as though they’re going up into the car, rather than straight down.
I could live with that if the ride was a bit smoother, but the Essesse’s standard-fit Koni shock absorbers are brutally firm. Every imperfection thunders through the cabin, and whatever speed you think is appropriate to tackle a speed bump, well, you ought to knock about 10mph off it.
It’s not like the Essesse’s uncompromising attitude pays off all that much when you’re away from sleeping policeman and on some nice, windy roads. The steering’s quite heavy, which is nice, but a surprising amount of lock is required to get it turned. And while there may be a mechanical limited-slip differential fitted as standard, it rarely makes its presence known - the 595 easily pushes on into understeer.
You never get that feeling of the front end being nudged back into line under power, as you should do with an LSD-equipped front-wheel drive car. It doesn’t help that the traction control - which cannot be switched off - will often sap the 1.4-litre turbocharged engine’s output, robbing the chance for the LSD to actually do something.
The firm dampers keep everything quite flat, at least, but if there are some ill-placed bumps on the way into a corner, the 595 gets unsettled. It’s not a pleasant car to drive at pace.
It feels quick enough in a straight line, if not dramatically fast. And although the throw of the five-speed manual gearbox (yep, a 178bhp car with only five ratios does indeed exist in 2019) is long, the action of it is quite satisfying. The Brembo brakes are effective enough, too, even if the 595 is way too keen to flash its hazard lights during heavier middle-pedal applications.
It’s a mixed bag, overall, with the balance tipped in favour of the bad points rather than the good. But the biggest issue here? It just feels old, and that’s because it is; the first Abarth 500 came out 11 years ago, with the standard ‘new’ 500 appearing two years further back than that. The whole thing is based on the Panda platform which is now 16 years old. Soon there will be people old enough to drive a Fiat 500 who are younger than its dated underpinnings.
The interior design, the switchgear…it’s feeling very dated now. And any car that’s been kicking around for that long is going to struggle when you can buy pretty much the same thing (minus the newer infotainment screen and a few other bits) on the used market for a fraction of the price.
Speaking of which, I hope you’re sitting down right now, as the on-the-road figure for the 595 Essesse is an especially bold £25,295. That’s nearly £9000 more than a base 595, even before you start ticking options, Get carried away, and the price exceeds £30,000.
For the 595 Essesse’s base price, you could have a generously-equipped Ford Fiesta ST, and end up with something that’s in another league dynamically, is larger, and far easier to live with. And yet, I doubt Fiat will struggle to sell these things.
I can see why. I’m not sure anything under £30,000 feels quite so strangely exotic. The 595 Essesse is best thought of as a cool fashion accessory. It’s a bad decision you know you shouldn’t make, yet feel compelled to anyway. Our recommendation? Resist.