Billed quite simply as ‘The Smallest Supercar’, Abarth’s 695 Biposto certainly lives up to its gently boastful soubriquet on two counts: not only is it the fastest road-going model the company has yet produced, but it’s also hilariously, dazzlingly, corruscatingly expensive.
What exactly is the Abarth 695 Biposto?
The brief Abarth set itself was a simple one: screw a number plate to the one-make race-series 695 Assetto Corse track car and provide a burgeoning customer base which has swollen company sales by 24% in the last year with – as Carlo Abarth himself put it – ‘Sunday on the track and Monday in the office.’
To garner what should, then, be a grin of positively Joker proportions, Abarth focused on the two key goals of weight reduction and engine performance.
So, taking the lump hammer and blowtorch to a run-of-the-mill Fiat 500, out go rear seats, air-conditioning, audio system, door cards, posh headlamps, fog lights et al, ruthlessly paring an everyday 1.4-litre variant’s dry weight from a lardy 930kg to a helium-bubble, um, 997kg.
Oh dear… it’s hard to believe a Poggipolini tubular titanium rollcage and attendant cargo net outbulks a rear bench seat, so we must attribute what appears to be something of a closet binge diet hiccup to the massed ranks of 695 Biposto-specific Sabelt seats, Brembo brakes, 18in OZ alloys with bespoke 215/35 Goodyears, Extreme Shox adjustable shock absorbers, an Akrapovic exhaust system, a wider track and a 1.4-litre turbo powerplant lifted pretty much piecemeal from a Formula 4 single-seater.
Surely there’s plenty of go to match the show?
Abarth has delivered somewhat more successfully on the promise of engine performance. The heavily Garrett’ed 1368cc unit spits out a nicely spiteful 187bhp at 5500rpm (the company claiming a 139hp-per-litre ‘record for this category’) and 184lb ft of torque at 3000rpm, dropping 0-62mph acceleration one tenth below the targeted 6.0 second mark and eliciting the full George of 143mph.
Alas, sounding every ounce as exciting in Italian as quattroporte, biposto simply means ‘two-seater’. But that’s about the only disappointment associated with a first glimpse of the Abarth, today crouched in the pitlane of a Parma-based Riccardo Paletti circuit more cold and damp than an halibut’s handshake.
The decision not to festoon the car with stick-on frippery and make it available in just the one, weapons-grade matt unobtanium hue is a pleasing conceit. Nothing detracts from bodywork artfully wrought to accommodate a wider track, a carbonfibre front apron, a bigger rear diffuser and the monstrous maws of a hyperactive exhaust system.
Adding a further, engaging whiff of stealth to proceedings, the nicest touch is barely noticeable; a ‘695 Biposto’ etched badge which plugs the hole in the back of the roof once occupied by the radio antenna. All of which makes the dumping of buttocks in the driver’s seat something of a disappointment. The occupant obviating aft quarters might look the part, but there’s a deal too much standard Fiat up front.
Indeed, from behind the wheel, the only thing that lets you know you’re in something special is a strap of red nylon where the door handle once reposed, a secondary dial built into the rim of the 500-spec LED instrument binnacle, housing a turbo boost gauge and a brightly lit ‘sport’ mode indicator, and the ‘sport’ button itself.
A ‘sport’ button in an Abarth… Why, pray? That’s about as pointless as, say, BMW making an ‘M’ car with a button you’d have to press to extract maximum power. Ah…
Anyway, the seats, though bespoke, remain at the same nose-bleed height as the standard 500’s. Though Abarth’s gearbox is tougher than Fiat’s offering, the centre console installation looks identical. And the steering, including the rack, remains entirely unchanged, which means nominal rake adjustment, no reach adjustment, and a peculiarly prim driving position in the context of the proffered performance. Even the Jesus handles are still in place, for God’s sake.
How much will a Biposto set me back, then?
Okay. Before yet another underemployed Italian rally driver in foul-weather RayBans and a vast timepiece smears me round a slippery sighting lap, we’d better tackle the money. Laden with every tit-bit mentioned so far, the boggo 695 Biposto will set you back a sweltering £32,955: over three times the price of a Fiat 500 1.4 when it first went on sale in January 2008.
But if you wish the interior to come across a little more convincingly, brace yourself: interior carbon pack, £3700; race pack – which combines an Abarth helmet and four-point harnesses with a Terry’s Chocolate Orange segment-shaped telemetry system and gear-change indicator bolted dash-centre where those pressing on will never, ever look, £3700; 124 pack – which adds an aluminium bonnet and titanium sundries, £2990; polycarbonate windows – which rattle like two skeletons copulating in a cupboard, £1755.
Moreover, you’ll still need a further £8500 for the one essential package that properly enthuses the interior and promises much for the driving experience: a beautifully machined, exposed-linkage, dog-ring-equipped gearbox allied to a mechanical locking front differential.
Tot that lot up and, never mind the Golf R, that puts us in Cayman S Biposto-and-change territory. So the Abarth had better be more fun than a bath-full of otters.
Well, is it?
No issue with straight-line performance: the Abarth hitches up its petticoats and pings off the line and away very smartly, and the exhaust system makes a glorious racket, crackling away on overrun like Montana in the hunting season.
But… so heavily turbo-dependent, the power delivery could hardly be described as linear, the standard gear change is mushy, the steering is no finer to that of a commonplace 500 on MacPherson-strut front and torsion-beam rear suspension with stiffer damping, and Brembo-calipered 305mm front and 240mm rear discs seem to lack both initial bite and truly beefy retardation thereafter.
In these slippery conditions, with plentiful understeer and occasional torque steer readily available, managing that all-or-nothing power delivery is the biggest issue. Slow into a bend sufficiently to give the Goodyears a fighting chance and the engine can come right off the boil, only to re-awaken – after a perceptible pause – with sufficient vim to thoroughly unsettle the front end.
Initially, then, all thoughts of steering on the throttle are ruthlessly ransacked by a dire need to master modulating the thing properly in the first place. With just three laps available per outing, a foul-mouthed, ham-footed learning curve…
‘Av-a you tried-a the bitch box yet?’ I’m asked as I return, frowning, to the pits. No, but if I can muster the requisite mortgage, I’ll certainly give it a go, because the standard gearchange is nothing special.
This is better. Bizarrely, the dogbox won’t actually sanction clutchless shifts, but the lever can be walloped around the exposed gate with maximum gusto and minimal mechanical sympathy, anything but a perfect engagement eliciting a shunt of such epic proportions that the whole car palpably pauses en route.
With the track drying a tad, the front diff doing its best to deploy the power where it’s needed, and the howling powertrain held in sufficiently high gear to keep the turbo interested and the throttle more intelligible, understeer diminishes as cornering speeds, and width of grin, increase.
Thereafter, a literal fistful of kilometres on an open road rougher than a badger’s arse informs the ‘Monday in the office’ side of the equation little but that, in standard damper setting, the suspension remains tolerably pliant.
Undeniably striking with intermittently glorious detailing, this is a halo car, and Fiat isn’t angling for an Abarth on every street corner. Which is just as well given the price tag. And good fun, sure – more notably in the dry. But so is throwing anything little and quick round a track without recourse to the crash trolley. See the £17,000 Fiesta ST for details.
Those that buy will, it strikes me, either have considerably more money than sense, or a garage of no little interest already at their disposal.