The original Fiat 500 was Italy’s answer to the Mini, Citroen 2CV or Volkswagen Beetle: a ‘people’s car’ that mobilised the masses.
In recent times, the practical Panda has answered this need for back-to-basics transport, while the 500, like many of the London streets it inhabits, has become gentrified. Today, it’s more premium than proletarian.
The 500’s upward trajectory, in both status and price, has been bolstered by various special editions that bask in the reflected glamour of Italy’s best brands. We’ve had the 500 By Diesel, which wasn’t, um, a diesel. Then there was the 500 By Gucci, with its none-too-subtle green and red stripes. Not forgetting the Abarth 695 Tributo Maserati and Tributo Ferrari, the latter with pukka Scuderia badges on its rear wings.
All this, in a roundabout way, brings us to the Abarth 695C Rivale: a Fiat 500 that, as tested, costs the thick end of £27,000. It’s a collaboration with Riva, makers of the iconic Aquarama speedboat, and apparently inspired by the 56 Rivale yacht. And while it began life as a limited edition – each with a numbered plaque on the centre console – strong sales have led to the Rivale becoming a permanent fixture in the range.
There’s just one colour scheme: two-tone Shark Grey and Riva Sera Blue, with satin chrome 17-inch alloys and a vented rear panel to complete the look. Inside, you’ll find blue leather sports seats with embroidered logos, plus optional mahogany wood trim for the dashboard, steering wheel and gearknob. Our car had the more tasteful carbon fibre. Oh, and that turquoise line around its midriff? That’s no go-faster stripe, says Abarth, but a ‘water line’. Well, obviously.
It’s easy to be cynical about another special edition 500, of course, and I’ll admit to being mildly miffed that the Rivale can’t, in fact, drive on water. Still, there’s much to love about this retro rollerskate, starting with its zingy 1.4-litre engine, which combines punchy, turbocharged torque with a keen hunger for revs. It develops 180hp, a useful 15hp more than the regular, non-Competizione 595 and good for 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds. Just stick with the five-speed manual gearbox, rather than the jerky paddleshift auto.
As denoted by the ‘C’ in its name, our Abarth was a convertible, which adds a hefty £2,000 to the list price and transforms it from hatchback to stub-tailed saloon. Still, you buy a Panda if you need to carry stuff, and rolling back the roof allows unfettered access to the fruity, Akrapovic exhaust. It sounds brilliant in Sport mode, exhaling through carbon-tipped tailpipes with a waspish rasp that recalls a classic Alfa Romeo twin-cam.
Other high-end hardware lurks beneath the 695’s skin, including Brembo brakes, Koni suspension and, on our test car, an optional mechanical limited-slip differential (£1,600). The net result is a hot hatch that stops, grips and goes with a feistiness that redeems its lack of finesse. That short wheelbase means the ride errs on the firm side of comfortable, and the light steering needs constant corrections. Yet grab it by the scruff and it’s a riot, the diff biting into apices like a hungry rottweiler.
The experience is as involving as any rival pocket rocket. Use the Rivale for your morning commute and you won’t need that double espresso. Being a Fiat 500 at heart, it’s well-suited to city life, too. Dinky dimensions make parking a doddle and it looks entirely at home in London’s poshest postcodes. Sadly, those humble roots also mean putting up with hard plastic door cappings, flimsy seat adjusters and a dated media system.
Ultimately, it’s hard to justify spending so much when the fantastic Ford Fiesta ST is available from £18,995 (fully-loaded ST-3 spec shown below). But then, much like a luxury yacht, the Abarth 695 Rivale isn’t a rational purchase. We wouldn’t buy one, but we’re quietly glad it exists.
Tim Pitt works for motoringresearch.com