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The Fiat 500 Abarth Is A Worse Car Than The Golf R And Why That Makes It Better



According to half of the car enthusiasts we talk to, we have a bit of a Fiat problem: Apparently, we can't get enough of the little things. In fact, even though we work on quite a few of them now, our main work "truck" for the first few years was an Abarth 595 Competizione.


So with that said, you might think that we've got a little bit of a bias towards them. Maybe you're right, but let us give you a couple of reasons why the Abarth 595 and Abarth 595 Competizione are so much worse than a VW Golf R and why that makes them so much better.


Now, Abarth's history is super confusing (and mostly in Italian instead of English), but it was started by Carlo Abarth, based in Italy and with historical ties to both Argentina and (somehow) Austria.

The easiest way to understand it is that Abarth is to Fiat what AMG is to Mercedes Benz. Originally, Abarth was a company providing parts and "hot-up" kits for a variety of models with a focus on Italian manufactures. Specifically Fiat.


Now, throughout their history, Abarth has actually had a number of super special projects that they manufactured themselves, as well as some collaborations on some very famous Italian cars and race cars; From the Lancia 037, to the Ferrari-Abarth 166MM and the Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000.


But the real reason that Abarth became so well known was their tuning kits for the original Fiat 500 which would take the factory 500cc engine and bump it up to 595cc (or 695cc for racing).

With all that history under their belts, Fiat bought out Abarth in the 1970's and it became yet another FCA/Stellantis brand.


So has any of this got anything to do with the newer Abarth's and how they relate to the Golf R's?


Not really, but it's always nice to learn something new and have some context about how things came to be.


In the mid-2000s, Fiat decided to re-release the 500 nameplate and birth the little super-compact that we're all so familiar with today. The first car staple of slightly quirky upper-middle-class teenagers whose families aren't actually into cars at all. The person who buys a car because it's cute, not because it's good.


A couple of years later, Fiat finally resurrected Abarth as well with the introduction of the Abarth 500. Since then, very little has changed.

Yellow Abarth 595 Competizione parked on a bitumen surface and viewed from a low angle at the front 3/4. Behind the Abarth is a wooden fence and tree branch covered in leaves and in the background a forest is slightly out of focus

The chassis is still basically the same and the motor is mostly unchanged. There was a slight facelift and updated stereo in the mid-2010s, and there has been an insane number of special "limited edition" variants to reaffirm its place as a rolling fashion statement, but it has the exact same underpinnings of the car released in 2006.


Now, if you haven't yet driven one of these Italian micro-aggressions, at first glance, they are unforgivably bad.


The seating position is insanely high, the placement of the steering wheel and pedals are seemingly at odds with each other, and the ergonomics were (in theory) left to the apprentice while everyone else had a glass of wine and took lunch.


A theory that outwardly proves itself by the fact the series 3 cupholders were approximately 1 finger width deep (1.5cm) and wide enough that you could hold a Beyblade tournament in them.

Some of the apprentices' problems were rectified in the series 4 with the addition of a centre console and Apple CarPlay. This helped make the cars a lot more liveable, but to this day it is still exceedingly easy for your tiny, little, takeaway double espresso to end up all over your Italian leather loafers at even the slightest whiff of a bump.


With all that out of the way, you might find yourself asking, "why would you want to own a car like that?".


Why would you want to own an Abarth 595 Competizione over a Golf R?


Let's start with the elephant in the room, maintenance. While you might think of Fiat as the least reliable mainstream vehicle manufacturer on the road, you might actually be surprised. For the most part, the Abarths' are easier to work on and more reliable than some of their German alternatives.

Unfortunately, Fiat Australia is one of the most difficult dealer networks to get service through. Wait times for parts are often 2-3 months and finding a dealer in your area is like chasing a rat through the sewer, constantly moving and sometimes disappearing entirely.


So, maintenance is not that bad, but finding a mechanic that even wants to work on them is increasingly difficult.


Here's the thing with cars and car enthusiasts; A good enthusiast's car needs to have a couple of faults. A good car does exactly what you want it to, but complains about the process or makes you question your sanity for wanting to drive it in the first place.


The difficulty in the maintenance category leads directly into the driving dynamics. For driving dynamics, the Abarth 595 Competizione has that little streak of insanity and it starts with the engine.


Over the last few years, modern cars have gotten the engine dynamic down to a tee. Linear torque curves, zero turbo lag and quiet and comfortable cruising all factor into making a vehicle that keeps the owner happy on the daily. The VW Golf R does this perfectly; Smooth and immediate power at all RPM's, a linearity in the throttle pedal that makes simple sense and enough technology to make a software engineer feel at home.

Fiat and Abarth, as is seemingly custom for Italian manufacturers, throw the concepts practiced by the Golf R out the window.


When developing the nouveau (brand new) Abarth, Fiat opted to use the 1.4L T-Jet. A DOHC variant of the FIRE motor. This engine started life as a SOHC, 1.0L, 33kw econo-box in the mid-1980s with about as much technology as a brick and (with the help of a turbocharger) is now producing 132kw. Exactly 4x it's original power.


And it reflects that 4x increase in power in how it drives. Somehow, Fiat and Abarth are still producing a car that has real, genuine turbo lag. In many Abarth 595 Competizione's, you put your foot down and 4-5 seconds later you're magically hit with a wave of boost which can very quickly have you making friends with the local constabulary.

On top of this motor having the power delivery of a kicking donkey, it's also extremely finicky. It complains if you feed it the wrong fuel, it doesn't like to start in the morning and it needs a new set of spark plugs every 30,000km and a timing belt every 60,000km. Even though the spark plugs are iridium tipped from factory.


And it doesn't stop with the engine either.


The Golf R is a great car to drive. With a factory set-up that leans a little more towards understeer, it's incredibly predictable. It's easy to park, easy to cruise and easy to drive relatively quickly in.


Most every Golf R we've driven has a benign response to all inputs that make it feel docile and predictable in everything from the tightest turns to the longest stretch of the autobahn. Judging for driving dynamics alone, the Golf R tends to have a heavy and steady approach to speed.

In the simplest words, driving a Golf R is very similar to watching the (former) queen wave past in a parade.


The Golf R is actually heavy as well at around 1600kg. It also sports great brakes, an almost 50/50 weight distribution, four-corner independent suspension and an AWD system that gives you confidence in almost every condition. Comparitively, the Abarth 500/595 is an apparent mess.


Much like it's antiquated engine architecture, the Abarth 595 Competizione is also a relic of yesteryear underneath. They took an insanely stiff and short platform with trailing beam suspension and added Koni springs and shocks, huge Brembo brakes, a short ratio steering rack and 215/45/R17 tyres, all without ever fixing the 64/36 weight bias.


What does all this technical gibberish mean the Abarth is like to drive?


Well, the first thing you notice is that the turning circle is worse than most Landcruisers. When you brake hard, the back lifts and scoots around giving it the feeling like you're about to do a forward roll (appropriate in a car that looks like it's suited for clowns) and comes across as indecisive as to whether it wants to understeer or bite and turn at any time.


It's not just boisterous, it is also incredibly light at just 1100kg. It's actually so light that it feels a more like driving an ant instead of piloting an automobile.

Just like the interior, they also left the apprentice to do the ESP and ABS programming meaning that it has a slight tendency to panic and pull back power if it's outside of its comfort zone, which may lead to a much sharper turn-in or dulled throttle response when you least expect it.


These things mean that an Abarth 595 Competizione is a pointed and rather boisterous thing that responds well to being driven with enthusiasm and rewards you for pushing its boundaries. It is exciting to drive in a spirited manner because it rewards you for driving well and bites back when you do something it doesn't like.


It is a flawed vehicle. In every measurable aspect of how it operates, the Abarth 595 Competizione is worse than a Golf R.


See, when you get into a Golf R, you drive the car at whatever speed you feel comfortable at and it simply complies. You don't have to be a good driver to feel safe in the Golf R and that is why the Abarth is a better driver's car, it is a car that is always challenging you to be on your game.

See, as car enthusiasts, excitement and enthusiasm is what makes a car great. It's why so many of us like old, strange cars, and Fiat, whether due to incompetence or genius have made a car that is so bad at almost everything that it is twice as much fun as anything else on the market.


In 5, 10 or 20 years, the Abarth 595 Competizione will be a car that is remembered with rose tinted glasses. On the other hand,second-hand the Golf R will just be another second hand car.


2024 looks like it will be the last year of the Abarth 595 Competizione with the T-Jet motor and, it seems like a sad day. However, the all-new electric Abarth has recently come out and if anyone is going to make enough of a mess of an electric car for it to be secretly brilliant, it might be Abarth.


 

If you have any questions about this blog post, would like a second opinion from a mechanic or would like to find an honest mechanic in Brisbane, check out Kashy here.


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