Abarth Rivale review: ‘With the exhaust on full Tom Jones-singing-Burning Hell mode, you’d have to be dead not to be having fun’

It might look like something from the ‘Looney Tunes’ cartoon series, but the new, smartened-up version of the pint-sized Fiat 500, the Abarth Rivale, is a hot hatchback.

In 1955, round about the time that Dante Giacosa was designing Italy’s answer to the people’s car – the Fiat Cinquecento – and Alec Issigonis was sketching the Mini on a napkin, Nikolaus Pevsner set about defining the characteristics of English art.

His starting point was the difference between the English term ‘mutton chop’ and the Italian ‘costolette di montone’. The Italian version sounded like a whole line of poetry, he said, but the Englishness of English art was all there in that syllable ‘chop’.

Abarth Rivale

Issigonis was a Greek immigrant, so that might blow my car- as-art theory out of the water, but something of Britain’s phlegmatism and maritime climate must have washed over him by then, because, although both are wheel-at-each-corner kind of cars, the little Fiat was all costolette and the Mini all chop. Exactly as the Mini did, the Fiat 500 sold like hot sfogliatella: this side of a Vespa, nothing quite defines an Italian street like a little Fiat 500.

Combined fuel consumption: 47.1mpg

Production lasted from 1957 to 1975, but, for petrolhead Italo-philes like me, the really exciting version of the Cinquecento was built between 1958 and 1960 and limited to 1,000 cars: the Abarth SS, pronounced Esse Esse. In this hallowed version, the 500’s weeny two-cylinder engine was pumped up to 695cc and breathed upon by Abarth engineers until it produced a towering 40bhp, giving this early hot hatch a top speed of almost 90mph.

Fiat

Cool little details such as the Abarth scorpion, flared wheel arches, bonnet catches and, above all, the fact that the rear engine flap was propped permanently open to cool the beast within, marked this car out as just about the raciest thing in which to zip about the streets of Rome.

Power: 180bhp

When Fiat relaunched the 500 in 2007, the whole world fell in love with the cleverly reincarnated toppolino, the perfect Roman Holiday city car. Wheel nuts had to wait a year for the Abarth version, which looked foxy and fast from the get-go and was about four times more powerful than the original.

Abarth Rivale

Somehow, I’ve had to wait a decade to drive one. A number of special-edition Abarths have been built in the meantime – the Tribute Ferrari, the Maserati Edition – but, most recently, a particularly smart version of the pint-sized performante has been issued in tribute to Riva, the luxury yacht-maker.

And yes, with its silver-and-blue paint job and tailoring of blue leather and wood, it does look a bit ‘yachty’. I’m not sure that entirely works for the everyman sports car, but at least it gave me an excuse to badger Fiat into loaning me an Abarth – any Abarth – for a few days.

0–60mph: 6.7 seconds

The Rivale might have looked out of place on the north Norfolk coast in January, as opposed to the Amalfi coast in June – I’m not sure how many Riva yachts have ever made it to Blakeney saltings – but, looking beyond the blue leather, it was an enormous hoot.

Other reviewers of this convertible Abarth have been scathing about the ‘scuttle shake’ that’s a function of the firm suspension and lack of roof. Alluding to chickening out long before its top speed was ever reached and so on, they’ve clearly never driven a vintage car over ‘the ton’.

Abarth Rivale

The Rivale is a bit rattly perhaps, but with the roof down and that machismo Akrapovic exhaust on full Tom Jones-singing-Burning Hell mode, you’d have to be dead not to be having fun.

Compared with more resolved hot hatches, the Rivale is a bit Looney Toons, yet who’s really going to drive it as if they’ve sat on a wasp, anyway? Most will merely propel their nautically attired owners from jetty to casino and back, probably quite slowly.

Top speed: 140mph

As for me, I thought, in my midlife kind of way, that zipping about in the Abarth was like having a motorbike again, but without the hassle when it rains. Less hassle anyway. The convertible Rivale, perhaps not, but the Abarth, yes, please! Which is just as well, because the Rivale has sold out. I’ll take the coming-soon Esse Esse version in smokey white with a tin roof, thank you.