124 Spi­der Abarth blends pure fun and af­ford­abil­ity

Af­ter peppy up­dates, Fiat’s sporti­est model of­fers sat­is­fy­ing ride at sur­pris­ing price point.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Charles Flem­ing

The Fiat divi­sion of car gi­ant FCA is cel­e­brat­ing the 70th an­niver­sary of its high­per­for­mance Abarth seg­ment, cur­rently ap­pear­ing in the guise of the Fiat 124 Abarth and Fiat 500 Abarth.

Th­ese are sporty ver­sions of sports cars. The 124 Spi­der is Fiat’s con­vert­ible twoseater. The 500 se­ries is the com­pany’s retro-cool run­about.

Fiat’s re­la­tion­ship with the Abarth com­pany be­gan shortly af­ter for­mer Euro­pean mo­tor­cy­cle race cham­pion Carlo Abarth (some­times known as Karl) founded the com­pany in 1949. Over the years, the Abarth shield — yel­low and red, with a scor­pion to rep­re­sent the founder’s as­tro­log­i­cal sign — would ap­pear on many Fiat race cars and road cars.

Fiat pur­chased Abarth out­right in 1971, and it be­came part of FCA af­ter the merger with Chrysler in 2014.

Now the Abarth moniker rep­re­sents the sporti­est Fi­ats avail­able.

To whip up West Coast buzz for the an­niver­sary, Fiat rep­re­sen­ta­tives in­vited two dozen lo­cal en­thu­si­asts to at­tend a day­long ses­sion of the ac­claimed Skip Bar­ber Rac­ing School, and to take some laps around the Wil­low Springs race­track in Abarth cars.

Bar­ber in­struc­tor Terry Ear­wood be­gan the Wil­low Springs day with a chalk talk. A wry South­erner, Ear­wood spe­cial­ized in home­spun wis­dom, ap­plied to rac­ing. “Any time they say, ‘Hey y’all watch this,’ you bet­ter run the other way or brace your­self for the crash,” he said.

He had spe­cial warn­ings for the men in the group, who he said tend to be lead­footed on the gas pedal.

“For some rea­son all God’s male chil­dren want to hurry up and get to the crash site faster,” Ear­wood said. “The prob­lem is, the right foot is placed too far from the com­puter, so it’s stupid.”

Thus in­structed, some drivers were sent to learn to con­trol slides at the “skid pad” area, while oth­ers were bused to the nearby “au­tocross” course to prac­tice cor­ner­ing and brak­ing tech­niques.

It be­came clear, quickly, that while the 500 was pep­pier and more fun to drive than its non-Abarth coun­ter­parts, the 124 was the day’s ve­hi­cle of choice. Soon, all the drivers were clam­or­ing for an­other run in the Spi­der.

The two cars share a 1.4liter turbo en­gine that makes 164 horse­power and 184 pound-feet of torque. Both are of­fered with man­ual and au­to­matic trans­mis­sions.

The 500 is front-wheel drive; the 124 is rear-wheel drive. The 124 can only be had as a con­vert­ible, the 500 as a hard top or with a re­tractable soft top.

There the com­par­isons end. The 500, more of a fam­ily car and a gro­cery get­ter, seemed slug­gish on the track. Though it cor­nered bet­ter than I ex­pected, it felt top heavy in the turns.

In fact, the 500 sits 2 inches higher, and is 4 inches nar­rower, than the go-kart like 124.

And the Spi­der — well, it’s a real sports car.

The mod­ern 124 Spi­der made its de­but in 2015 as a model year 2016 car, mark­ing the re­turn to Fiat of a sto­ried name­plate, from a Pin­in­fa­rina de­sign, that the com­pany sold from 1966 to 1985.

It was some­what ridiculed in the mo­tor­ing press — in­clud­ing by me — as a “Fi­ata,” be­cause some of its parts were based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata and were man­u­fac­tured in Mazda’s plant in Hiroshima, Ja­pan.

But it quickly grew on me. Nim­ble, ag­ile and sporty, the stick-shift ver­sion of the 124 I drove was will­ing to go as fast as I could push it through the slop­ing up­hill and down­hill course — and would have gone much faster with a pro at the wheel.

Hav­ing done some prac­tice slides dur­ing the “skid pad” in­struc­tion pe­riod, I found I could al­low the rear wheels of the 124 to break loose just enough to main­tain cor­ner speed — bear­ing in mind what Ear­wood had said about get­ting around the course faster.

“What we’re look­ing for is exit speed,” Ear­wood ex­plained. “How soon can you get your front tires straight and be­gin ac­cel­er­at­ing?”

The two dozen drivers man­aged to end the day with­out any in­ci­dents. No Fi­ats were harmed.

I came away im­pressed by the Spi­der’s han­dling and the pure fun of driv­ing it at speed.

Per­haps the most sur­pris­ing thing about the 124 Spi­der is the price. The car is sold in three trim lev­els. The Clas­sica starts at $26,290. The Lusso lists at $28,890. But the Abarth be­gins just a lit­tle higher, at $29,590.

(The au­to­matic trans­mis­sion model adds $1,350 to that. The Brembo per­for­mance brak­ing sys­tem tacks on $1,495 more.)

Cus­tomers seem to be re­spond­ing to the sporty feel. Fiat said about 40% of 124s sold in the U.S. are Abarth mod­els. Al­though the “take rate” on man­ual trans­mis­sions on all Fi­ats sold in the U.S. is about 30%, more than half of Abarth 124s sold have stick shifts — sug­gest­ing they are be­ing bought by peo­ple who want a more dy­namic, en­gaged driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

FCA en­cour­ages that. The com­pany of­fers a free day of Bon­durant Rac­ing School with ev­ery Abarth ve­hi­cle sold.

busi­ness@la­times.com

FCA

THE FIAT 124 SPI­DER ABARTH has a 1.4-liter turbo en­gine that pro­duces 164 horse­power and 184 pound­feet of torque for a nim­ble and ag­ile ride. The sports car starts at $26,290; au­to­matic trans­mis­sion adds $1,350.

Pho­to­graphs by FCA

THE 2019 FIAT 124 Spi­der Abarth was the ve­hi­cle of choice dur­ing a re­cent day­long ses­sion at the ac­claimed Skip Bar­ber Rac­ing School.

THE MOD­ERN 124 SPI­DER, which launched in 2015, im­presses not only in han­dling but also in price.

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