Few cars offer more smiles per mile than an Abarth. But how will the 595 Trofeo fare against the Forest of Bowland's corrugated and challenging tarmac?
By Craig Toone - Photography by Ben Midlane
I can almost feel the car tense up an extra degree in anticipation. Crossing the River Hodder is where the real questions start getting asked of the Abarth's chassis, as exiting the narrow stone bridge I floor the throttle into a ninety left that climbs sharply before cresting into an undulating, military march. Left, right, left, right, the car hooking into the rolling camber as if diving down a toboggan run. A right that can be taken faster than the eyes permit comes next before a short straight, then it’s hard on the brakes as another ninety left bookends the short, frantic section.
There hasn’t been the room or need to exceed the limit of grip, and as the road briefly turns single track I ease off, convinced nothing could have entertained as much as this punchy little hot hatch. It’s a reminder that shoehorning a lot of go into a small package remains a compelling recipe, one that stands tall at any price point. The British Isles just seems to suit a compact performance car unlike any other realm, and the roads through the Forest of Bowland area of outstanding national beauty feel tailored to fit. The fells and moors of East Lancashire might sit in the shadow of its Lake District and Yorkshire Dales neighbours, but that just means the National Parks hoover up all the tourists, leaving the roads blissfully free of traffic. It was across this ground TVR developed its famed Blackpool bruisers.
More time here is spent on a balanced throttle than at full chat, and more time is spent carving a line through the twists and turns than dealing with torque steer, a property noted only by its absence. The Abarth may only have a dinky 1.4-litre turbocharged inline-four, but it punches above its weight, with a strong spread of torque before peak power of 145bhp arrives at 5,500rpm. It’s enough for a 0-60 dash of 7.8 seconds with a clean launch, but the roll-on performance feels stronger, no doubt enhanced by the raucous Monza exhaust, Fiat's lax attitude to the likes of NVH and the proximity to the dry stone walls. That mid-range torque comes in handy squirting between the bends, as you’ll need to lean on it if you have any intentions of making serious progress.
It certainly distracts from the driving position, which is of the Vatican church pew variety. As stylish as the Scorpion embossed seats look I’m sitting far too high with little depth offered by the padding and minimal support - in the Abarth you perch rather than sit. At six foot I’m no beanpole, but after fiddling around with several different driving positions I still can’t get settled. It also leads to other serious flaws - due to the awkward positioning of the pedals with the throttle above the brake, any attempts to execute a heel and toe downshift become a non-starter.
Compensation is offered by the pleasingly chunky steering wheel and gear shifter, which has a light & slick action matched by a dip it n’ rip it clutch. The funky dials are also nice and clear, with sport engaged the blue driving efficiency graph exits stage left, replaced by a throttle application reading. The big digital speedo makes the numbers appear to climb faster than reality and the periscope boost gauge whips around its circumference as the wastegate opens and closes. Huge fun.
Onwards towards Whitewell, two tight chicanes are fired at the 595 in quick succession, the open sightlines allowing an opportunity to explore the car's playful side. You get the impression the Abarth isn’t the sort to tripod its way towards the apex, but the progressive way the momentum transfers to the front with an aggressive lift means you don’t need the snap reflexes of a Venus Fly Trap to gather it back up. Neutrality is the name of the game, with the car staying flat and the front gently pushing wide if provoked. Sadly, the electrically assisted steering feels curiously under-geared for a car of this size & intention, meaning I'm consistently applying additional lock after turning in and the feedback I crave just isn’t there, however, this could be down to this car sensibly wearing winter tyres. On the exit of the second chicane,pole-vaulted the frequency of bumps in the tarmac increases enough to warrant backing off – the road wins this battle and I don’t fancy being pole-vaulted into the river below, ricocheting off multiple trees.
I take it as a sign as a good opportunity to stop at the Inn at Whitewell and take a walk around the car, and if it wasn’t for a certain pandemic, I’d normally indulge in one of their sumptuously thick hot chocolates whilst the snapper bags some statics. The base 500 has been with us since 2007 now, with a mild facelift in 2017, meaning it’s certainly a familiar sight on our roads, but in that time it certainly hasn’t lost any of its appeal, nor has the shape dated. Styling is always a subjective topic, but I think the Abarth is a great-looking bit of kit. It just screams fun and personality from every angle, doubling down on retro details without becoming kitsch or a parody of itself. It’s a look you’ll either love or loathe, but one that isn’t shy about gathering attention.
In order to keep things fresh over its extended production run, Turin adopted the Mazda MX-5 philosophy of churning through special editions, and what we have here is a 2016 595 Trofeo. Buyer beware - the 1.4 Tjet engine comes in many flavours, from 138bhp to nearly 200 in the ultra-rare, two-seat Biposto halo model, so make sure you do your research beforehand. The chassis also comes in many guises, from standard suspension to Koni dampers (but oddly and perhaps tellingly only fitted to the rear axle) to an optional limited-slip differential. Under the skin sits a widened version of Fiat’s ‘Mini’ platform, which made its debut below the 2003 Panda, so while the chic styling remains current, the underpinnings are well past their sell-by date. However, it does convey one huge advantage – a featherweight sub 1,100kg kerb weight.
I can’t help but pin the throttle again as I set off. The turnkey to barrelling into a corner far too fast time must mirror that of 0-60. The road chases the meandering River Hodder upstream, its constant turns giving the area its name. Dunsop Bridge flashes by in a blur before the torrent of water devolves into a tributary through the slim Trough of Bowland pass. What makes a driver fast here is local knowledge and strong, sheep avoiding brakes, which the Trofeo thankfully possesses. Leaving the Mutton behind, we emerge onto the moorland over the top of the fells as the final cattle bridge is rattled off. This is the fastest road of the day and I’m grateful for the full sightlines as I summon full steam ahead. Like most of Bowland, the section is short but packed with a density of sweeping turns for maximum driving pleasure. Extended time in the upper reaches of the rev band highlights the Trofeo peaks at around 5,000rpm and holds firm to the 6,300rpm redline, and whilst there is no dramatic crescendo when you encroach on the limiter, mercifully the performance doesn’t tail off either.
Dropping back down to the hedgerows the Torque Transfer Control system is getting a thorough workout as it tries its best to imitate a limited-slip differential, meanwhile, the damping develops ADD because it never stops fidgeting even over the smoother surfaces, and Bowland likes its tarmac on the weathered side. It doesn’t ruin the fun, if anything the bouncy castle ride quality feels a part of the experience, but you can’t help but come away with the impression a set of aftermarket coilovers would let the car breathe better with the surface and allow you to carry more speed, but at the end of the day, there is only so much you can do with a 2.3-meter wheelbase.
After deciding on fish & chips in Higher Bentham the second most important decision of the day presents itself. A fork in the road leaves us with two choices – carry on into the Yorkshire Dales towards Ingleton or turn south and scale the fells from the eastern front. Opting for the latter is the right call - save for a pack of ambitious ramblers, we have the place to ourselves. I have to check the Group N fantasy at times, mindful of the scars left behind by the overly enthusiastic caught out by the road and its appetite for a chunk of sump.
A reminder of the remote feeling is a complete lack of phone coverage, this is not a place to unwittingly become part of the scenery. We don’t cross paths with another car in the entire twelve-mile stretch to Slaidburn, another quaint sandstone village lifted straight off the cover of a shortbread biscuit tin. The road begins to behave and contort in a familiar manner – it’s the one we turned off a couple of hours ago. Another five miles along this route would see us return to our original detour point but - like the Abarth’s chassis, Bowland gives you countless options and the B6478 is calling. One last chance to show off its effervescent character.
We’ve reached the end of the road at Pendle Hill, a spot famous for sacrificing witches, but the little Fiat has been conjuring up all the magic today. Not once have I pined to be in another car and if it wasn’t for the abundance of nocturnal creatures emerging from the undergrowth I’d spinning the front tyres on my way back up the fells. There’s a big feel of the first BMW Mini to the Abarth, from its retro styling, attention-seeking, easily tune-able engine, Pogo stick ride quality and chuck me at the next corner a little harder I double dare you personality.
The Abarth isn’t a car that’ll win all the plaudits in a group test against rivals and neither will it score highly in a subjective assessment, but it will win your heart and if you think modern cars are becoming too fast, too aloof, too damn capable – a Trofeo might just be the tonic you need. It allows you to access its full performance without the need to sacrifice your sanity every time you climb behind the wheel, even if you might have to sacrifice your back. But that’s not the only thing that aches, because I haven’t stopped grinning since driving the little Abarth.