SEATTLE — Fiat. You’ve heard of them, no doubt. That seemingly, quirky, Italian automaker who just happens to be one of the largest automakers in the world. Sure, there are those of us who have throwback memories to the likes of their X1/9 back in the 70s and early 80s or even their original 124 Sport Spider convertibles. For many reasons, no doubt, the brand hasn’t ever had huge success in the U.S. marketplace. Sure it’s been around for decades here, but for some reason still seems to have a stigma attached to it.
Fiat recently invited us to a Skip Barber racing school, which included plenty of track-time with both the 500 and 124 Spider Abarth editions.
Brief history of Abarth:
Years ago, Fiat bought Abarth & C. S.p.A. in 1971 and, over the years, has put that acquisition to good use in some of its product line. Abarth was started in 1949 by Carlos Abarth, who was sporting director of the Cisitalia factory racing team. In the 50s and going into the 60s, Abarth started rising to fame with its hillclimbing and sports car racing in mostly the 850-2000cc brackets. For street cars, Abarth made its claim to fame with its tuned exhaust kids — mainly for Fiat cars back in the day.
This rich pedigree of performance has seeped its way into two of Fiats 2019 models. The 500 Abarth and the lovely 124 Spider Abarth. Both have performance advantages of the non-Abarth variants.
With the 500 Abarth, we find red brake calipers, a red engine cover, flat-bottomed steering wheel, 16-inch wheels, sport-tuned exhaust and chassis along with a turbo boost gauge on the instrument cluster. Additionally, there’s a sport mode button that you’ll want to make sure is always on as cutting it off decreases horsepower quite a bit.
It’s 1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder produces 160 horsepower and 183 lb-ft of torque. While that’s far from record-setting, think about that lack of weight it has to scoot around. Its power to weight ratio is key here. Standard transmission is a 5-speed manual, even though a six-speed automatic is available. I’m not sure why anyone would ever opt for the automatic in a car like this, but alas — to each their own.
With plenty of style and read-for-track prowess, it’s hard to overlook this car when you factor in that you can snag one for under $22,000.
On the track, you’ll find the nose-heavy 500 handles itself with a good amount of grace, even with the factory all season tires. Its desire to understeer is a bit off-set by doing trail-braking. There’s not a ton of body roll and this little front-wheel-drive car begs you to hammer it hard. Of course it’s not a speed demon on the straights but the overall visceral experience of the exhaust notes, light steering and handling make it a blast to drive on a good track.
124 Spider Abarth:
Fiats 124 Spider Abarth takes things from “cute” to “sexy” with its pure Italian style exterior. By now, most everyone knows that this car was a team effort with Mazda. It uses the MX-5 chassis and heavily borrows from its interior with regards to infotainment and other design cues. However, the seats are pure Fiat.
The 124 Spider differs from its Mazda cousin under the hood as well. We find Fiats 1.4 liter, turbo-charged inline 4-cylinder MultiAir engine. There is definitely a difference feel as you have the turbo spooling time and and the torque curve behaves quite differently. Power output is good for 164 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. You’ll want to snag the six-speed gearbox. Its short throws and added control it provides to the driver, easily makes this car one of the most fun cars on the road.
Abarth upgrades over the standard 124 Spider include: 17-inch wheels, Bilstein performance suspension, Abarth badges, a front strut tower brace, matte gray interior accents, limited-slip differential, unique front fascia, gunmetal rollbar cover, and a Sport steering wheel and instrument cluster. You’ll definitely want to opt for the Recaro seat option as they provide superior comfort and lateral support over the default seats.
On the track and in sport mode, you’ll feel that torque kick in at a mere 2,500 rpm which means barreling around the corners is incredibly fun. Step on the throttle as you’re exiting the corner and you can feel its torque. The engine throws around its 2,500 lbs with the greatest of ease.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better car for autocross racing and even on conventional tracks, it can hold its own. The electronically assisted steering feels light, super nimble and — thanks to the near-perfect front to rear weight ratio of this car and sport-tuned chassis— you’ll find there’s minimal body roll or a sense of anything being out of balance.
Most enthusiasts have heard the phrase, “it’s more fun to drive a slow car, fast than it is to drive a fast car, slow. I believe it was older Miata owners who coined that phrase in a way to justify those car’s lack of straight-line performance. Thankfully, that saying can go the way of the do-do bird as this car is not slow. Zero to sixty times in the mid 6-second range mean that you are getting a zippy car. In fact, to get a better handling car on the track, you’d have to spend at least 2-3 times the amount of money.
For just under $30,000 on the 124 Spider Abarth and under $23,000 for the 500 Abarth, you can get a track-ready car that are each super fun to drive and provide some of the best values going for cars that delivers excellent thrills per mile.
Fiat is simply sitting on two of the most-fun cars you can buy, period; regardless of price.
For more information, check out: www.fiatusa.com/abarth.html