What is it?
This is the Abarth 695C Rivale, a tiny hot hatchback made up of a baffling set of ingredients. The base is, of course, a Fiat 500, but it’s been not so much breathed upon but vomited out by specialist tuner Abarth.
It’s now a hardcore hot hatchback with a rock-solid ride and impressive performance… so of course what it needs now is a makeover inspired by luxury powerboats, a retractable soft-top roof and a Nappa leather interior. It’s perhaps lucky that the Rivale is limited to just 350 units in the UK – 175 each of hard-top and convertible.
Naturally, a luxury powerboat-themed limited-edition hot hatch doesn’t come cheap. The convertible version with a manual gearbox that we are driving is priced at £25,380 on-road. That’s quite a lot of money for what is ultimately still a worked-over Fiat 500…
How does it look?
The Fiat 500’s dinky proportions wear the steroidal Abarth makeover remarkably well, as it always has done. Unlike most Abarths, though, this one isn’t covered in decals and painted in bright colours – instead it wears a superb two-tone grey and blue paint scheme with a bright blue pinstripe round its equator.
Thin-spoked silver wheels and gratuitous applications of Abarth’s famed Scorpion badge complete the picture on the outside, while the interior sees a gorgeous blue leather interior colour scheme clash slightly with a choice of two dashboard ambiences – fake carbon fibre ora seriously eye-catching wooden finish. It’s all part of the ‘Riva’ makeover – aiming to give the Rivale some of the style of the famous Italian powerboats.
What’s the spec like?
Given that you’re paying the price of a luxury supermini for this Rivale, you might hope for some serious specification upgrades. You’ll be disappointed, though – this is a 2007 car under the skin, after all, and so it can’t handle sophisticated safety kit like lane departure warnings or autonomous emergency braking.
You will find an upgraded version of Fiat’s Uconnect infotainment system which can now handle Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus electric windows and climate control. There’s no cruise control available, though, and its headlights are only halogen units – xenons are a pricey extra.
What’s it like inside?
It’s far from roomy in here. Where other city cars succeed in carving out space from every spare inch, the Rivale doesn’t. In terms of cabin storage, there is at least a decent glovebox and four dinky cupholders for your espressos, but that’s about it.
Passenger room? Well, accommodation for the front passengers is good, with comfortable seats and plenty of leg and headroom, though the narrow cabin means you’ll be brushing shoulders. The rear is a totally different story, suitable only for very short people for very short journeys. The boot’s tiny, too.
It’s characterful, though – mainly thanks to the Rivale touches, which include blue leather seats and gorgeous blue leather floor mats. Yep, gorgeous floor mats.
What’s under the bonnet?
Under the tiny bonnet lies a tiny engine – a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, which produces an impressive 180hp. Put to the ground through a five-speed manual, it’s capable of 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 140mph. Those are remarkable figures for something no bigger than a standard city car.
The engine’s not exactly a refined performer. Takeoff is fairly rapid, but keep your foot planted and you’ll be met by lots of turbo lag – followed by a squirming steering wheel as the power kicks in and the front wheels struggle to put it down to the road.
The five-speed gearbox is ideally situated high up on the dash, but its action is a little spongy for our tastes.
Of particular note is the Akrapovic exhaust system. It’s loud enough in standard mode, but flick it into Sport and you won’t believe the racket that comes from this tiny car. It’s made even better in our 695C cabriolet version – you can put the roof down and enjoy the blare.
Again, it’s far from refined, but it’s a really fun touch and makes revving the tiny engine out rather intoxicating. You’ll never be able to leave a gathering discreetly ever again.
What’s it like to drive?
Big wheels, a tiny wheelbase and rock-solid suspension mean the Rivale isn’t what you’d call comfortable. It tends to skip across bumps in the road rather than absorbing them, though the excellent front seats with their long squabs help alleviate the poor ride and make long journeys bearable.
Of course, this car isn’t intended as a cruiser, but on a back road it’s an absolute hoot. The heavy steering, laggy engine and tendency to get out of shape in faster corners mean it’s nothing like as civilised as a Ford Fiesta ST, though one could argue it’s almost as fun. Keen drivers will swing one of two ways – they’ll either find it dynamically lacking or they’ll forgive its foibles for the sake of excitement.
It’s also worth noting that convertible models aren’t as stiff as the hatchback counterpart, and can suffer with scuttle shake on poor surfaces.
The Abarth is a purchase you make with your heart as, objectively, it’s pretty rubbish. It’s noisy, cramped, thirsty, and expensive. In fact, to be gentle, it’s as daft as a box of frogs – but that’s the fun of it.
For many, the Abarth’s sheer sense of silly fun will get under their skin, and they’ll find it irresistible. For our money, though, we’d steer clear of the super-pricey Rivale, as there’s just as much fun to be had lower down the Abarth range.
Model as tested: Abarth 695C Rivale
Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Top speed: 140mph
Fuel consumption (combined): 41.5mpg
Rivals: Ford Fiesta ST, Smart ForTwo Brabus, Mazda MX-5