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What on Earth is that?

It’s an Abarth 695 Rivale. In plain English, it’s a Fiat 500 heated up by Abarth and then – quite against any reasonable expectation – painted and trimmed in homage to a Riva boat.

If you’re picturing a tasteful wooden Aquarama cutting decadently through Monegasque shores, and struggling to see any likeness, you probably need to get acquainted with Riva’s rather more showy line-up of full-size yachts.

Mind, it’s still described as “the most sophisticated of all Abarth creations”. Anyone who’s heard an Abarth 124 Spider flatulently making its way through traffic will know that’s not a particularly tall order anyway.

What’s new?

Like the several dozen other Abarth specials, it’s an aesthetic makeover. The paint is two-tone blue and grey, separated by an aquamarine stripe, while inside… oh my word, inside. There’s bright blue leather – never a subtle choice – and the most startling use of wood yet in a car. Though please correct us below if you know better…

As well as a huge piece of it ahead of your lucky front passenger, it’s on the gear knob and embedded into the steering wheel. Not all around the rim, like an old Sixties sports car, but in the form of a motorsport-style centre stripe so you always know where straight ahead is. A lovely touch in a hot hatch, normally, but a bit difficult to take seriously when it’s not etched into some suede, but made from a piece of tree.

What’s beneath the skin?

Abarth offers a quite dizzying mix of tunes on its 500-based hot hatches, but despite its luxo spec and supposed sophistication, the Rivale is among the more powerful. Its 1.4-litre turbo four produces 178bhp and 184lb ft, enough for a 140mph top speed and 0-62mph in 6.7secs if you go for the five-speed manual. Which you should, as Abarth’s automatics are usually a bit pants.

The Rivale also comes with a shouty Akrapovic exhaust as standard, and as our car was also a 695C - denoting the optional convertible roof - it allowed even more of the system’s hooligan noise to spill into the interior. It’s not a pretty sound, but you’re more grown up than us if it doesn’t amuse you at least a little.

Is it any good to drive?

Hot hatches are great, aren’t they? Sharp, precise, plucky little things, which encourage you to push harder and harder as their small footprint and modest performance make your confidence soar.

Um, not this one. Modern convertibles are mostly very good at being nearly as rigid as their coupe counterparts – the two styles are often designed hand-in-hand – but the 695C Rivale is an almost endearingly wobbly reminder of what the term ‘scuttle shake’ means. Perhaps its best nod to Riva is that it makes your average B-road feel like choppy seas.

Abarth hatches are never something you could describe as ‘comfortable’, with stiff suspension that turns every drive into a bit of an adventure. Take away the rigidity of a roof and you have the perfect storm for a quite shaky little car. We drove the Rivale in Germany, with an enticingly empty bit of derestricted Autobahn ahead of us and an attainable top speed to aim for. We chickened out at about 90mph. It really wasn’t, ahem, plain sailing.

That’s not what it’s designed for, though…

Well, no. And this evidently isn’t a car that for people who enjoy the pesky handling of a Fiesta ST or the fine damping of a Clio RS, either. It’s the kind of car that’ll be pootled around Monaco, as well-matched to the yacht it’s parked beside as the driver’s chinos and moccasins. In that sort of role, there’s something charmingly gawky about it.

It’s also – in the grand scheme of Abarth special editions – relatively affordable. Prices start below £23,000 for the regular hatch, or just shy of £25,000 for the soft-top 695C Rivale. In a world of £40k-plus Bipostos it’s rather admirable, especially given how well-stuffed the wallets of existing Riva owners desperate for a matching city car would presumably be. But still: a wooden centre stripe?!

Score: 5/10

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