At the risk of sounding dreadfully obvious, there are far worse ways to start your day than arriving at a race track to a line of waiting Italian roadsters.
At the risk of sounding dreadfully obvious, there are far worse ways to start your day than arriving at a gorgeous race track to a line of waiting Italian roadsters.
And that’s exactly how my morning began late last month, when the good folks at FCA assembled a group of FIAT 124 Spider Abarths — along with a bevy of 500 Abarths — at The Ridge Motorsports Park near Washington State’s Olympic National Forest.
With 2.47 miles of delightfully twisting tarmac, and a stomach-dropping 300 feet of elevation change, it’s a phenomenal setting awash in natural beauty. But most of the afternoon saw the scenery wiped with glorious blur, thanks to the snarling engines of the turbocharged FIATs.
For the uninitiated, the 124 Spider Abarth is the track-tuned version of the standard 124. It traces its lineage to pre-war Europe, when a young man named Karl Abarth began racing motorcycles of his own design. Abarth rode his creations to five European championships, then applied his formidable talent to a host of legendary FIAT racers, including the FIAT Abarth 750.
After two decades, his tuning company formally became part of FIAT, paving the way for the Abarth-branded cars of today.
As enthusiasts know, the Abarth is produced in partnership with Mazda, and built at the same facility as the MX-5 in Hiroshima, Japan. But there are plenty of differences between the two vehicles, starting with the bodywork, which recalls the classic 124 Spider of the 1970s.
With its pair of flared hood sections, aggressive honeycomb grille, and subtle flares — hinting at the original’s vestigial fins — over the rear haunches, fans won’t have any trouble picking out the version with an Italian pedigree. The available matte-black hood is a nod to the racing trick of painting it black to reduce glare, and the matching trunk lid completes the look.
Motivation is provided by a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, which is good for 164 horsepower and 184 lb-feet of torque, and produces a great grumble that makes you want to keep your foot buried.
With weight balance at a near-perfect 54/46 front-rear, the chassis is already ready to rock. But the double- wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension feature high-performance Bilstein dampers to further dial it in.
There’s also a front strut tower bar to help keep everything flat in the bends, and Brembo brakes at all four corners allow for fade-free speed scrubbing of speed. Out back, there’s a mechanical limited-slip differential, for maximum traction. The 124 Abarth is available with a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters — but the six-speed stick is the one drivers will want to opt for.
In keeping with its Abarth roots, it’s a package that’s designed to be flogged lap after lap, and while the quad exhaust tips obviously help with the aural experience, it’s worth noting they look great too.
Also on hand were an original 1967 Abarth, and a modern Spider Abarth Rally. The former is almost comically small, in that it’s significantly tinier than a contemporary VW Beetle, and just imagining the button-cute coupe — with its 18.2-horsepower in-line two-cylinder — navigating American roads of the era inspired a feeling equal parts whimsical abandon and abject terror.
In comparison, the rally car looked downright sinister. As you might expect, it’s not street legal, and as a result, it’s a couple hundred pounds lighter than the road-going version. With 300 ponies on tap, it’s got almost twice the power, and has been a runaway success in the rough-and-tumble world of rally.
The price is north of 100k, but if you’re looking for a turn-key rally car? It’s a potent solution.
After checking out the assembled hardware, we headed into the classroom to get some instruction from Terry Earwood, the Chief Instructor at Skip Barber Racing School, and it’s no exaggeration to say Earwood is a legend in the motorsport community. In addition to being a NHRA Super Stock National Champion, he also dominated road racing, and holds the most wins of any driver to compete in the Firestone Firehawk Endurance Series.
Along with being a certified hot shoe, he’s also one heck of a funny guy, and constantly peppered his explanations of racing lines, weight transfer, and apexes with hilarious asides like, “the five most expensive words in motorsports are: I think I got this.”
Now, there was obviously a lot of important info conveyed when Earwood was at the whiteboard. But one thing that was mentioned repeatedly was that drivers should look where they want to go. Meaning don’t look at something you don’t want to hit — because our brains are hard-wired to target what we’re looking at.
With the classroom instruction complete, we headed for the skidpad and autocross courses to practice some car control exercises before we hit the track. Predictably, both were a total blast. At the skidpad, we drove the 124 Abarths around in a tight circle that’d been drenched by a water truck, going faster and faster, until we could feel the back end starting to lose traction.
The goal was to induce a skid, so we could recognize how the car feels at its absolute limits, and then correct it, to get going back in a straight line.
To make things more unpredictable, a couple of times during my session, Earwood pulled the handbrake when I was right on the edge of grip, which caused the rear to snap out before I expected, and it took some “fast hands,” as he called it, to catch the car.
On the autocross — which is essentially a coned-off course in a parking lot — we again drove with an instructor, in both the 124 and 500. They pointed out the racing line, and told us when to turn in, brake, and accelerate to take best advantage of the available pavement. During an exercise like this, there’s never an instant to spare, as it’s a constant cycle of cornering and prepping for the next turn, so much so that you’re never really thinking about the corner you’re in, but prepping for the next one.
It was an exhilarating experience, and great preparation for the big track — where we’d apply the same techniques at exponentially higher speeds.
Unlike at the skidpad and autocross, there was no one in the other seat when we took to the circuit. Instead, we followed a Challenger that served as the pace car, and helped everyone stay on the racing line. Having that point of reference was awesome, because when you’re behind the wheel of a 124 Abarth, The Ridge turns into the best roller coaster you’ve ever ridden.
At some points, I used a little more throttle than strictly necessary, and hung the tail out a tad. When you get it right, it’s a fantastic feeling, and the 124 never made me feel like I could get it wrong.
Regardless of what was in front of it, whether it be a long sweeping bend, a tight hairpin, or a steep descent, the 124 performed beautifully.
While you have to make sure you keep the revs up to stay on the turbo, the feedback through the wheel and the stiffness of the chassis was so confidence-inspiring, I pushed it harder and harder as we lapped the course.
While I’m far from an expert, I’ve been told when you’re doing it properly, driving a race track is less a series of turns than one fluid, continuous motion, and that’s how it felt to me that afternoon.
There were plenty of sections where I was flirting with the edge of grip as I flew from apex to apex, and never once did I feel like the car was about to bite me. At some points, I used a little more throttle than strictly necessary, and hung the tail out a little. When you get it right, it’s a fantastic feeling, and the 124 never made me feel like I could get it wrong.
Overall, it was an awesome session, and I came away beyond impressed with how easy it was to drive at the limit. If they hadn’t insisted I pull in, I’d happily still be lapping The Ridge.
After I unenthusiastically climbed from the cockpit of the 124, I scrambled to find a 500 with a stick shift for my next laps. Unfortunately, I failed, as other media folks had already called dibs. But even without a third pedal, flinging that little FIAT around the track was an absolute hoot.
Because when confronted with the circuit, the 500 Abarth responded like a territorial French Bulldog seeing a Great Dane peeing in its yard — it barked its head off and rushed forward as if possessed.
Hurling it into corners was a joy, and it slid confidently, displaying balance you wouldn’t think possible from a front-wheel drive car with such an offset weight bias.
On the front straight, I managed to crack 100 mph, and when I got aggressive with the brakes, it would wiggle slightly, communicating exactly where it was with grip.
That said? The exhaust note was absolutely unhinged, as its raspy scream is full of pops and crackles that recall a high-strung ’70s rally car more than anything you can buy at a dealership in 2019. There are proper supercars that don’t sound this good. It’s just beautiful.
I was still laughing maniacally while I was unbuckling my helmet, and thinking about all the trouble that pocket rocket and I could get into on my daily commute. So if you’ve considered buying a 500 Abarth? Be prepared, because you’ll smile so much it hurts — and don’t pass up an opportunity to rally it around a track. Tire-squealing fun is in its DNA.
For more information on the 124 Spider Abarth, 500 Abarth, and the whole range of 2019 FIAT vehicles, contact your local AutoNation FIAT dealer.