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In all my travels to Italy, I very rarely saw a Ferrari, Maserati or Lamborghini. But tiny city cars like the Abarth and the Fiat 500 which it is based on had an overwhelming presence.

Let’s get some facts straight. Austrian Karl ‘Carlos’ Abarth founded Abarth & C in March 31, 1949. An accomplished motorcycle racer himself throughout Europe, Abarth set about to modify and race various little Fiats throughout Europe. The Fiat 500 (or Cinquecento in Italian) was released in 1958 to help get post-war Italy mobile and back on its feet with affordable personal mobility.

How the modern Fiat Abarth 595 has stayed faithful to the original template set in 1958 by Abarth and how delicate it feels yet with loads of practicality and character capture the essence of Italian motoring life, more so than the Italian performance cars do.

Short in drama it may be, but the tiny Abarth packs a punch.

Abarth saw it as a perfect base for motorsport. They rebuilt, balanced and blue-printed the 497cc engine (thus calling it a 595 and later a 695 Abarth), raised the compression, added bigger carburetors and an Abarth-designed sports exhaust, doubling power from 13hp to 26hp, all in a package weighing only 1,100 lbs, with a footprint not longer than 10 feet. Abarth today is to Fiat what AMG is to Mercedes-Benz, and M Division is to BMW, a factory tuning and motorsports arm.

Locally, the Abarth brand is distributed by Petromax Enterprises Inc., together with the Alfa Romeo brand. Their situation as a dealer is precarious, being neither here nor there, but the fact that they receive their units directly from Italy, are supplied with parts, tools, spares and warranty means they can capably handle the needs of a customer.

Today, the modern Abarth 595 comes with 140 horsepower and 206 Newton-meters of torque. Weight has almost doubled to almost 1,000 kgs, but length has only grown to a shade under 12 feet. Considering the Abarth has a 4-Star crash test rating in the US NHTSA (one of the most stringent in the world) while packing ABS-EBD, seven airbags, traction-stability control and all other modern niceties one would expect in a modern car, the modest size and not-so-modest weight gain are impressive.

The Abarth 595 is disarming: you initially stereotype it as nothing more than a cute marketing gimmick to attract buyers to the Fiat fold. But get in, close the doors (which thud reassuringly shut), start the engine, hear the direct-injected turbo 4-pot growl with a slight uneven hum, like an anxious dog turned feral, waiting for it to be let out, and you realize there’s more to the Abarth than being cute and stylish. 

As you sit down, adjust your seat and the steering wheel, one of the Abarth’s biggest faults emerges: there’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, only rake. Your seating is compromised a bit, like the classic Italian driving position (short legs, knees bent, arms stretched out almost completely). Thankfully, it’s not too bad, and the stylish seats are both comfortable and supportive even on long drives. The long-travel clutch is light. Initially, I was afraid that it would be too stiff for typical EDSA rush hour traffic jams, but the clutch is decent enough for the most abhorrent of traffic crawls. The pedal is also springy, encouraging fast shifting, double de-clutching, rev-matching and heel-toe downshifts followed by fruity noises from the twin-tip exhaust. On the highway, at 100km/h, the Abarth feels fast, and a tad bit nervous, thanks to the short 2300mm wheelbase and pillbox shape. Surprisingly, crosswinds don’t affect it as much on Skyway and once you get used to the slight ‘nervous’ feel on the expressway and start trusting it, the Abarth excels.

The Abarth is simply loaded with character: at low to medium speeds, the ride is choppy / bumpy as the relatively short suspension stroke, coupled with licorice thin 205/40R17 Pirelli P Zero performance tires leaves little for compliance. It’s bothersome when you’re not in the mood. The problem is exacerbated on provincial roads where the surface is even less smooth. Thankfully, speed up, and the Abarth gets you in the mood instantly. As you get faster, the ride improves, enough for you and the Abarth to gel together and make astonishingly rapid progress, weaving through slower moving vehicles, Italian-style. The brakes are powerful yet very progressive, the steering is light yet accurate enough with decent feel and the Abarth displays an alacrity to defy the laws of physics in an instant when changing directions, stopping, accelerating or a combination of the two. It does require steady and experienced hands to get the most out of, especially as it can get a bit skittish on wet roads and on the limit: a change in aftermarket coil-over suspensions tuned for more compliance, plus meatier tires will help dial-in some compliance to aid stability.

Aside from the steering and suspension, there are other quirks unique to the Abarth. The first two gears seem somewhat long relative to Japanese cars. Probably because Italians spend more time in 1st and 2nd gear around town? 5th gear is also a tad short, so you’re cruising at 100km/h at close to 2400rpm. Might not be the most fuel-efficient gearing, and coupled with the soapbox shape, fuel economy on the highway was only 14.5km/liter, whereas I was expecting more. In the city though, fuel efficiency returned an impressive 9.8km/liter, dipping to 8.2km/liter after trundling through EDSA for 45 minutes from Kamuning to SLEX. 

The Abarth is Italy on wheels. Stylish, but functional, unique in the same way the revered fashion houses in Italy are too, with loads of character. My best friend is half-Italian, and when he is in a nasty mood, he is indeed a handful, just like the Abarth. But like my friend, the Abarth is resourceful, and relies on ‘quickness’ rather than outright speed to compress the distance between two points.

Forget your Italian exotics, Italy lives in the Abarth, so deserving of being called Una Bella Macchinina.

A beautiful little car.