Shelton, WA - In a world where electronic driver aids and fully autonomous “driving” seem to be all that so many of the manufacturers want to talk about, it seems as if the only place those of us who actually want to have our feet on the pedals and our hands on the wheel (and if we’re lucky, our hand on a shift lever) will be able to do so is on the track.
OK, that’s maybe a little extreme. But Fiat launching the 2019 versions of its Abarth 124 roadster and Abarth 500 city car at the Ridge Motorsports Park in Washington was welcome news, to say the least. It was a chance for us to experience two of the brand’s most granular, driver-focused cars in the settings for which they were designed – an autocross course, a skid-pad and the open track.
It was also an opportunity for Fiat to celebrate its 120 years of existence, and for its Abarth tuning arm to celebrate its 50th year of existence. To drive that point home, they even had one of their original mashups, a 1967 Abarth 695 SS, on hand to show us where it all began. There was also a current 300-hp rally-spec 124 there to show us how far they’ve come.
Fiat Abarth 500
The latest 500 is a pretty far cry from the original on one hand, but on the other it sits a lot closer to it than you may think.
First, though, the different stuff: the 500 is much bigger than the original, which should come as no surprise, but it’s also had its powertrain completely flipped around from a rear-engine and rear-wheel drive configuration to front-engine, front-wheel drive.
It makes more sense in that it allows for a surprising amount of space, not so much in the back seats themselves but in the cargo area if you flip them down. You could fit two adult-sized hockey bags in there; believe me, I’ve done it. Of course, the back seats are much more usable than they ever were on the old car, but that can be said for many modern takes on older vehicles.
Then of course, there’s the power. The 695 was one of the hottest original 500s ever made, turning in a whopping 40-or-so hp. The 2019 Abarth 500? Try 135 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque shoving around a curb weight of just 1,142 kg. How that all feels when it comes together on the track is something we’ll get to in a minute.
In terms of similarities, there’s the styling, for one. The obvious bits are rounded headlamps and taut dimensions with little to no overhangs and profile. The current 500 really does look like a classic on growth hormones in profile, save for the way the original’s hood seems a little longer when compared to the rest of its body.
Also, when I sat inside the old car, I couldn’t figure out how to open the door at first – strange, I know, but the door release handle isn’t as obvious a shape as modern cars today. What helped me eventually figure it out was the way the handle in the new car looks; it’s unique and like the rest of the car, it’s a modern interpretation of the classic, and that’s how I managed to finally free myself.
The old car, like the new, also has a surprising amount of headroom thanks to its tall roof – I could sit nearly bolt straight, even at 6’3”. Clearly, those who designed the new car didn’t forget what made the old one so good.
Those who engineered the Abarth version, however, also kept in mind what it takes to make a car fun on the track. Indeed, with a few exceptions, there’s a lot to like here.
You will have to get adjusted to the seating position first, of course. Especially if you’re coming out of the low-slung 124 as I was. You sit quite upright, and everything around you follows suit. The shift lever is high-mounted, the wheel is quite vertical and large, the pedals are upright and the windscreen ahead of you has very little rake. It’s a bit odd to be on an autocross course sitting like this, and downright strange to be on an open road course.
Is it ever happy on the autocross track, though. There’s some perceptible turbo lag at the outset, but once you get on boil and into second gear (where we’d stay for the duration of the time on-track), it is a real hoot. The seating position doesn’t allow it to go full go-kart but the response from the controls is such that you’ll get over that quickly.
Turn-in is crisp and immediate, and though it’s a front-driver, the back end can step out a little here and there as you get on the brakes and unload some weight back there (even more so on the sharp downhill section of the open track, designed to mimic the famous Laguna Seca Corkscrew).
Then, the twist-beam rear axle is allowed to play in all its glory, helping bring things back online as they go a little squirrely. It’s just about doing your best to clip your apexes, identify your braking zones (note: you can almost always brake later than you thought you should) and start to muscle your way around the track, your reflexes doing their best to match the bulldog-like tenacity displayed by the 500. This is a proper autocross car; make no mistake.
The open track is a slightly different story. At first we followed an instructor who kept speed low at the outset, so we could get our bearings, giving us time to note the awkwardness of the cabin. I also found the side bolsters not quite up to the task of keeping my butt in check, and I wound up having to jam my right leg against the side of the centre stack for stability, which isn’t all that comfortable.
Since we were shifting gears more in this circumstance, it’s also where I rediscovered the rubbery shift lever action, which is a carryover from previous models I’ve tried. I even completely missed a second-to third shift once – yes, blame driver error to be sure, but it never happened in the 124, I can tell you that. The stitching on the shift knob also started to grate my palm a little. I probably just need to toughen up, is all. Or wear gloves.
After all that, though, there’s a lot to like about the 500, even in this scenario. All that responsive handling that was manifest on the autocross course is here to be exploited, as well. Power isn’t huge, so it gives you ample opportunity to get your braking just right, clip your apexes and meet your exits with relative ease. It won’t blow your socks off on the straights, but it’s so approachable that it would be a great way to cut your teeth on the race track.
Understeer, meanwhile, was rarely an issue even here, even on long sweepers – a testament to a honed chassis that makes the most of what it’s got. Plus, there’s the wonderful fanfare of that burbly twin exhaust, which has become a bit of a calling card for the Abarth. The pop-pop-popping you get on overrun and during downshifts is awesome, too.
Fiat Abarth 124
As you’d expect, the 124 is a very different animal. You do sit very low, as if your posterior is just inches above the tarmac below. Which it essentially is – especially if you’re tall like me and need to fit an XL crash helmet underneath the roof. I eventually just gave up, however, and dropped the top – much better. Now, it was that much easier to focus on the task at hand.
I knew the 124 would have a responsive steering rack – any vehicle that shares so much of its guts with a Mazda MX-5 should. Still, I was surprised by just how quickly everything happens when you add even a bit of lock – it even makes the 500 feel slow in this regard.
As you start to twist that nice, compact wheel, the whole car follows effortlessly behind you; it’s almost as if it could change lanes completely laterally, like that crazy ramp car in one of the Fast and Furious movies. Apex after apex is licked and dispatched on the way to a perfectly met exit, your outside tire kissing the kerbing just so and having you on your way.
Other than its MX-5 cousin, there are few vehicles that can make you feel as much a hero behind the wheel as this does. It is just such a fun, tossable car, but be forewarned: there’s less space than in the 500. It required me to make the seatback just a little more vertical than I’d otherwise like, because the seat is jammed against the bulkhead and that’s the only way I could move it back far enough to comfortably fit my legs into the footwell.
Of course, the 124 and cars of its ilk do ask you to sacrifice a little bit of comfort in order to keep everything compact and light, and you have to decide if that’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make. Personally? I would, so long as it wasn’t my only car.
If we’re honest, the chances of a 124 Abarth being someone’s only car are pretty slim; I’d say it’s much more likely that the Abarth 500 would fit the bill, as it is the more practical alternative and is, for all intents and purposes, a city car aimed at younger buyers. The 124 is more of a toy, but it’s a good one so long as you save it for the right occasion.
Like the occasional track day.