Quick, nimble and under appreciated
A shake down of three little fast fighters, the Abarth 595, VW UP! GTI and Suzuki Swift
It has been two decades now since the heyday of small fast cars and a cult following of enthusiasts that would swear their Saxo VTS was quicker than any Porsche around their local industrial estate. Modifications ranged from air filters and exhaust circumferences to rival the channel tunnel, to finely fettling of throttle bodies and delicate suspension tuning. Modifying went hand in hand with a new generation of car enthusiasts that could get their hands on relatively Hugh horsepower vehicles with slender kerb weights.
Times have moved on and with it the manufacturer's appetite to offer cars in the segment. Citroen’s C2 attempted to carry the relay from its predecessor but never hit the mark. Vauxhall and Ford matured their offerings with only one really bothering to keep competitive. Today, the market has become a shadow of its former glory with a cavernous gap between entry-level performance and heavy-hitting turbocharged hatchbacks that are heavy, expensive, and unable to be driven near a limit that doesn’t quickly take the occupants into license losing territory, Especially for those young enthusiasts that are battered with high insurance, stricter loan requirements, and stagnant wage growth.
So enthusiasts, young and old, desperate for something that’s power is more suited to the public road and with a redline that you can venture to over and over. What is left, don’t worry, there are still some crackers.
An initial health warning though, those that feel any car should be a hallmark of comfortable ride and master all the bases should look away, the cars in this test are delivering performance on a budget, and with a warranty.
First up is the UP! GTI, and I’m ready to declare it the winner before the test begins, but I quickly reign in my bias. Those wanting a little more than standard from the UO! GTI can visit esteemed engine tuners REVO who will offer an engine remap to squeeze some extra torque and power from the little turbo triple under the bonnet. However, we’ll stick with the standard offering in this test. Next up is the Suzuki Swift Sport, its ever eager attitude wins it a spot on a test with a sigh that it seems to be the only one keen to take on the UP! GTI on price, and even then it comes in several thousand pounds more. Last was some real head-scratching, it took time to really research a category that used to be easy to jump into with a sea of manufacturers desperately sniping at each other to tempt buyers, many of them looking for their entry into the quick car world. Today the UP! and Swift are left in relative peace to hoover up. Contenders considered were the Mazda 2 sport, discounted solely because even Mazda wouldn’t claim it was anywhere near what an MPS version would be. The i20N is discounted as quickly as it is considered due to being too expensive for this test, the same tripwire catches the Fiesta ST, both probably too thick on power for this test anyway. Some real head-scratching comes about when we band about other ideas, the Renault Twingo 133 and Vauxhall Corsa GSI have both come and gone without replacement. Within the VW group, the Ibiza FR is close enough on price but heavier and lacking any real involvement the UP! would quickly expose it as little more than filler for the test. Eventually, the Abarth 595 is agreed upon, looking very vulnerable to disappearing soon it is at least on sale for now.
Going back to budgets, the UP! Is sitting pretty, even with optional extras and extra doors it is cheapest to buy, and best on fuel. However, this is about fun so we’ve got our contenders, separated by a few thousand pounds, and lots of dealer offers of money off for particular finance deals, so what of the cars.
Any scrabbling for traction isn’t scary in the way it would be in fully-fledged hot hatches
Straight away the Abarth grabs attention, this little car isn’t just quick, it makes the feeling of speed constant, even a momentary kick of the accelerator gives a smile. The driving position is average, and the steering feels makes me wonder whether this is a natural successor to the Saxo generation with lots to improve but a decent enough chassis underneath you from the factory. The Suzuki is a more muted experience, even with bright yellow paintwork. Once opened up the engine leaves you cold but it redeems itself when the road begins to throw turns and twists at the wheels. The chassis feels very comfortable but it is happened by an engine that really doesn’t want to stretch itself, feeling exhausted and forced after some action. The UP takes on the same slip of tarmac and despite being treated like the smart kid of the glass with more difficult questions thrown it's way it still impresses.
Again I reign in any enthusiasm for the UP!, yes it’s good but it was only slightly less muted than the swift and the suspension does feel compromised. Almost as if to keep the price down on 70% of the testing was undertaken to give the perfect ride.
Back in the Abarth, it's a very likable car, I can’t ignore that it is the most expensive list price but there seems to be a more thorough effort towards the concept of fun. The bark and blow of the exhaust against a chassis that feels like it has never seen a track leaves you slightly unsure if you’ve pushed too hard, and I don’t mind. At these speeds, mistakes can be gathered up before a farmer's fence is discovered. Any scrabbling for traction isn’t scary in the way it would be in fully-fledged hot hatches, not that many would ever allow finding this limit. The best description is a feeling of breaking away from training wheels on your first pushbike and being allowed to break away from worry. The MK8 Golf GTI and R and rockets on the road, but need a track to ever find the edge unless you see ASBO’s as awards of honour. It isn’t to say they aren’t great fun but being almost at the redline of the 595 Abarth and feeling it scramble for traction is a riot in comparison. Best of all is that although other road users may still call you unhinged, you always feel that you and you alone can collect it up should you stray past your talent.
The Suzuki beings to fall so short here that we decide it best to discontinue its participation in the test. It’s a great car but feels as though it turned up to a party for people that eat fire and ride unicycles after being told a couple of card tricks will impress enough people. If you want a car that is fun and cheeky to be in the Suzuki is a worthy little runaround but once you start to consider it from the optic of performance its is outgunned and outshined by the other two. We park it up with a smile, credit is still due to Suzuki for trying, at least they showed up to the party. In the company of a Mazda 2 and Ibiza FR, it would have held its own.
With two left we reflect on the differing characters. The UP! GTI will scramble with the 595 Abarth all day, it doesn’t have the power but a committed driver will still hold onto the 595. On the limit, both cars feel that a trip to the tuners would release another dimension to these cars, a little extra punch in the GTI’s engine and more predictability from the Abarth.
Within a mile I’m eating my own words, fettling these cars would make them better, but the fun is actually exposed most in their shortcomings. Back in the GTI, I feel slightly short on power, but more trips to the redline and holding gears resolve the problem for the most part. The memory of the Abarth on the limit of traction lingers heavily on my mind, desperate for more.
This being a full test means that it’s now time to assess how broad the talents of both these cars go. The UP! is surprising in its ability to calm down and cruise on a motorway with many classic VW characterises of solid feel. It isn’t a Golf, but it’s in its shadow and that’s good enough for this test. The Abarth isn’t able to transform itself so well, the talents it has shown at the limit are narrower than the GTI, you would get out of both of these cars after a long drive without the freshness of their bigger brothers, but the UP! wouldn’t require a lie-down.
Another clear winner comes at the fuel pump, the little triple in the GTI seemingly able to sip even when pushed, where the 595 need gulps. Fortunately, these are little light cars and so neither is wallet-busting but if performance and budget rather performance on a budget is your prerogative then the UP! Has probably clinched victory. Insurance, tax, and overall costs of servicing from oil to brake pads all tips in the VW favour. This is where a dilemma reaches us. Which really is the winner, we can’t ignore the price difference and the broader capability of the UP! Neither can we discard the fun factor of Abarth and its constant desire to seek a smile. In the beginning, the UP! seemed to have this won before a tyre had turned but the Abarth has delivered on its more dramatic looks instead of hiding inadequacies behind them.
Scores on the doors, the Abarth snags a victory in the aspects that most matter to us on test, but the UP! wins the overall competition for the ownership prospect. The GTI will make every mile you drive worthwhile, but the Abarth will make you find excuses to take the scenic route, unless the journey is long, then you’ll be happy to be cruising in your GTI.