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Corsa VXR Nürburgring vs Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari

  1. Hot hatches, eh? Don’t you just love ‘em? Look at the pugnacious pair on these pages, the affable Abarth and the cheeky Corsa: cheery, affordable bundles of fun, serving up cheery, affordable thrills. Who needs a posh German coupe when you could pick up not one, but both these cars for a mere… £60,000?

    Ah. Yes. Sixty grand. Before options. These apparently cheery, affordable bundles of fun are, in fact, a £22,790 Vauxhall Corsa VXR Nürburgring Edition and the (brace yourself) £37,500 Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Photos: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This feature was originally published in the December 2011 issue of Top Gear Magazine

  2. Thirty. Seven. And A Half. Grand. For a jumped-up Fiat 500. If that figure has caused your throat to close over and your vision to go a bit blurry, we sympathise. That’s why we’re on the rooftop test track of Fiat’s old Lingotto factory - yes, the one from the chase scene in the original The Italian Job - in downtown Turin: to discover how a steroidal Fiat 500 can possibly justify a £16,500 premium over our favourite hot hatch of the year so far, the reassuringly expensive, reassuringly well-engineered Corsa Nürburgring.

    Let’s start with what the 695 Tributo Ferrari isn’t. The senior Fiat bods are very keen that, if you forget all else about it, you remember this: the 695 Tributo Ferrari is not a Ferrari. This is no Aston Cygnet-style rebadging - the 695 is, wholly and completely, an Abarth. An Abarth that pays homage to its illustrious Fiat Group stablemate, but an Abarth nonetheless.

  3. So what, apart from not-a-Ferrari, does your £37,500 get you? At its core, the 695 is a hopped-up Abarth 500 Esseesse (which is itself a hopped-up Abarth 500, which is itself a hopped-up Fiat 500, which is as far as this family tree goes). It uses the same 1.4-litre turbo four-pot as the Esseesse, but with an extra dollop of boost, new pistons and a remapped ECU to boost power to 180bhp. On the hardware side, there are bigger front brakes - 305mm Brembo discs with four-piston calipers - and a noisy new exhaust system with twin pipes and butterfly valves that pop open at 3,000rpm. Those lightweight alloys are smart reworkings of the Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale’s wheels, albeit - at 17 inches - a touch smaller. We like these wheels very much.

  4. On the inside, the Abarth has had a serious Maranello makeover. The new front seats are worth a chunk of the hefty entry price alone: beautiful Sabelt buckets sculpted from carbon fibre, each 10kg lighter than standard Abarth chairs and major contributors to the 695’s 60kg weight-saving over the Esseesse. Across the dash, there’s a swathe more black weave - not the standard faux-carbon trim of your average hot hatch, but the real thing - while where you’d expect to find a gearlever, there’s a quartet of buttons nabbed straight from Ferrari’s transmission department.

  5. These, along with the steering-wheel paddles, control the 695’s automated manual gearbox. You’re permitted a groan of despair at the news that the lurchy Competizione transmission has been carried over from the 500 Esseesse, but Abarth does say a thorough software overhaul now provides smoother, quicker shifts. We shall see.

  6. Throw in a well-fed steering wheel, sports pedals and a handful of Tributo badges, and that’s your £37,500 lot. We wonder if, given its price tag, Abarth should have treated the 695 to a few more bits from Ferrari’s spare-parts cupboard: we’d love to have seen the long, delicate, ‘rabbit-ear’ gearshift paddles from the 599 poking out from behind the 695’s steering wheel, and surely they could have found room for a manettino switch somewhere in here? But the Abarth team were very conscious of not making 695 a ‘Junior Ferrari’, a cartoonish pastiche of a proper Maranello supercar. The 695, they say, isn’t a poor man’s Ferrari, but rather a hat-tip from one Italian sports-car maker to another. Back in 1953, Abarth points out, it and Ferrari collaborated on the 166/250 Mille Miglia car. Since then, the scorpion brand has designed “numerous exhaust systems” for Ferrari F1 cars.

  7. Abarth hasn’t lost its knack for noisy exhausts. Buzzing around the perilously steep banking on the Lingotto rooftop with the Corsa in hot pursuit, the 695 makes an almighty racket, chuntering and snorting like an irritable metallic bear. It’s brilliantly over-the-top, but stays just the right side of intrusive. This is good news when you’re bumping along a 45-degree paved bank, five storeys above a city. With horizon and cityscape swimming at mad angles across the windscreen, tackling the Lingotto rooftop at even moderate speed is hugely disorientating - a cross between the wall of death and one of those revolving restaurants you get at the top of posh skyscrapers - yet entirely in keeping with the vibe of Fiat’s spiritual home, a beautiful, oddball building that, when it opened in 1923, was the biggest factory in the world.

  8. And the most back-to-front one. Starting at ground level as a floorful of unconnected parts, Lingotto’s cars were gradually assembled as they ascended the factory, eventually reaching completion on the top floor to be unleashed for a quick shakedown on the rooftop test track. How did they get that one signed off by Fiat’s Health and Safety Department? “Guys, you’re going to love this one. Why don’t we put our test track on top of the factory? And how about a giant trampoline on the street to get the cars down safely?”

    Though the factory closed in 1982 and the building was converted into a posh shopping centre and hotel, Lingotto’s rooftop track remains. It’s a strange and wonderful place, but not one to truly unwind the fastest Cinquecento in history… at least, not without the risk of becoming the world’s first air-to-ground Abarth missile. We need somewhere a little less… plummety.

  9. Sestriere. In winter, the resort is packed with skiists and glühwein enthusiasts, but, right now, on a warm, late-autumn afternoon, its twisty Alpine roads are as quiet as a Michelle McManus stadium gig.

    The ‘Ring Corsa is very much more entertaining than a Michelle McManus stadium gig. On Sestriere’s high pass, it proves even more sensational than when we drove it in the UK last month. When Vauxhall announced it had treated its little hot hatch to a minor power hike - up from 189bhp to 202bhp - a few Nürburgring decals and a £23,000 price tag, TopGear must admit its collective eyebrow was raised some way above its collective hairline. But this is no money-spinning special edition. This is one of the best little performance cars we’ve driven in years.

  10. Vauxhall has thrown the full hot-hatch catalogue at the ‘Ring Corsa: new Bilstein dampers, progressive rate springs, lightweight brakes and a remapped ECU. Most significantly - and unusually for a modern hot hatch - it has, wedged between its front wheels, a proper mechanical, limited-slip differential. Above all else, it’s the diff that turns this Corsa into a mountain-devouring monster. Throw it into a slippery hairpin, and, even when you’ve reached the point of furious tyre wail, the Corsa continues to turn in tenaciously, nose clinging to the inside of the bend by a freakish magnetic force.

  11. But you don’t need to engage maximum Stig mode to appreciate the Corsa’s integrity. Even pottering through Alpine villages, the steering is beautifully precise and communicative, the little Vauxhall riding with so much more finesse than the standard Corsa VXR - smartly damped, but never brittle. We never thought we’d say this about any car based on the fun-but-unsubtle Corsa VXR, but the ‘Ring Edition is a sashimi knife, a precision instrument.

  12. The 695 isn’t a precision instrument. You get the feeling Abarth never set out to make it so: the 695 eschews razor-tipped responses for a mad, buzzy exuberance. Threading it through tight corners is a hectic, hands-on task not dissimilar to herding pigeons: slam on the brakes into a hairpin, feel the 695 almost stand on its nose; bang a couple of flatulent, noisy gearshifts; bury the thottle on exit, fight the squirming steering wheel as the Abarth detonates its power in one frenzied splat of turbocharged mayhem, repeat ad infinitum. Not a subtle method of getting up a hill, but an undeniably hilarious one.

  13. But the standard, £14,000 500 Abarth is a helter-skelter ride: what does the extra £23,500 really add? Well, the 695’s reworked transmission is a welcome improvement, firing through downshifts at pace and suffering far less of the nodding-dog syndrome on the way up. It still ain’t perfect. Forget to lift off the accelerator slightly when changing up, and it’ll treat you to an inelegant lurch, while, left to its own devices, the 695 will occasionally take an improvised free-form wander, leaving you stranded across a junction as the ‘box languidly roots around for a lower gear. But, for the most part, it’s thoroughly well behaved. We’d still prefer a short-shifting manual transmission: if you want to keep the explicit Ferrari connection, Abarth, can we recommend the clackety, open-gate manual gearbox from the 550 Maranello?

  14. Those suspension tweaks have calmed the Abarth’s often-frantic ride, too. Though the 695 still errs towards the scrabbly rather than serene end of the scale, it now soothes those bumps that would clang through the Esseesse’s cabin. A shame the new Sabelts don’t rectify one of our biggest gripes with the 500 Abarth: its too-high seating position.

    But this isn’t a track-day hot hatch for the committed opposite-lock enthusiast. It’s a posh caricature of the already-cartoonish Abarth 500. But, wrestling it up the mountain, exhaust note reverberating with an angle-grinder rasp off the metal barriers separating Sestriere’s switchbacks from a drop into the Alpine abyss, late-afternoon sunlight winking off the carbon fibre, the 695’s sheer chutzpah worms its way into your brain, and you start thinking, “£37,500? Maybe that’s not so…”

  15. No. Stop it. Objectively, coldly, rationally, the 695 cannot possibly justify its price tag. It couldn’t. Think about all the proper performance cars you could pick up for that sort of cash - a Porsche Cayman, BMW 1M or fully loaded Nissan 370Z - and it’s impossible to argue that the 695, in performance terms, represents any sort of value for money.

    But, says Abarth, that isn’t the way you should look at the 695. This is a special edition, a collector’s item: a designer handbag. And, besides, Abarth points out, an object is worth precisely no more and no less than what people will pay for it, and the entire run of 1,695 Tributos has already sold out.

  16. So whether the 695 is worthy of its exorbitant price tag or not may be a moot point. If the idea of spending almost 40 grand on a designer-handbag Fiat 500 doesn’t make you feel queasy, you’ll undoubtedly love it. If it does, may we humbly direct you towards the stunning Nürburgring Corsa, a car that justifies not only its ambitious Nürburgring reference but also its not-insignificant cost. If the phrases ‘Vauxhall Corsa’ and ‘23 grand’ didn’t sit so awkwardly together, we’d go as far as to describe the ‘Ring Edition as a steal.

    In truth, these two hot hatches aren’t even competitors: no potential 695 buyer would ever consider a Corsa ‘Ring, nor vice versa. But though they stretch the genre in very different directions, they both do what any truly great hot hatch should: inject a double-shot of fun into any journey, from a mountain blast to a rush-hour commute to a factory-roof top crawl. Cheap? No. Cheerful? Definitely.

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