Back on the track in the small cars with the big growl
Earlier this summer, I attended a track school at GingerMan Raceway
to learn track driving skills in a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. After a day of driving the 5,000-lb. SUV on the track, my instructor told me any other car would be a breeze. A couple weeks ago, I was able to determine the validity of that statement and put those skills to the test in another track driving experience, only in cars less than half the size of the Grand Cherokee.
It was a picture-perfect day at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, IL and a line of Fiat 124 Spider Abarth and Fiat 500 Abarth models lined the track waiting to be driven. Initially, one might not think of Fiat as a performance-minded brand, but the new Abarth models certainly looked the part with various options of racing stripes, appearance enhancements and 17” gun metal wheels. Drawing even more attention was a rally edition of this car that had been taken off the rally raceway to provide guys like me a few quick laps in an experience like none other.
Fiat has introduced new options for its 2019 124 Spider Abarth that make this zippy little convertible even more fun to drive. One of the most ‘notable’ additions is the new record monza exhaust which provides an unmistakable growl. This new voice of the 124 Spyder Abarth not only sounds great on the track, but adds to the performance capabilities of the new Fiat Abarth line. Throughout the day, one could hear the fine-tuned exhaust notes on Fiats racing down the track, performing in skidpad tests, or flying through slaloms on an autocross course.
Driving the Fiats on the track was quite a different experience than the Grand Cherokee SRT in which I had initially been instructed. Weight shift on a 2,400-lb. roadster happens a lot quicker while following the driving lines to hit proper apexes was much easier. The turbo engine in the 124 Spider Abarth provides a responsive driving experience while generating 164 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. Steering on the 124 is light and responsive with the use of an electric power-assist (dual pinion) system. These cars were a blast on the track as we did 1.5-mile laps around the North track. With features such as front and rear Bilstein sport suspension, mechanical limited-slip differential and a front strut tower bar, it’s evident that Fiat’s dynamics team wanted create an ultimate Italian roadster. The 124 comes with a standard 1.4 liter MultiAir Turbo four-cylinder engine which is the engine’s first application in a rear-wheel drive vehicle. Other features such as a Brembo braking system and Recaro seats only add to the authenticity of the 124 Spider Abarth racers.
Fiat also had their 124 Abarth R-GT Rally Car on-site to showcase an even higher level of performance. The Fiat rally car was the same one that participated in the Mt Washington hill climb last year. As a professional driver took us around the track, this car was all over the place in the best of ways. Outfitted with a driving cage, five-point harnesses and not much else, this light rally car drifted around corners for an experience unlike anything else. While I don’t know our top speed, I know that the driver handled the track with ease and I walked away with a childlike grin.
Fiat also provided a several front wheel drive 500 Abarth models for the track and autocross driving. The 500 was an entirely different experience. My expectations weren’t high for the ‘cute’ little Italian hatchback that has been known more for being an economical city car. However, I was pleasantly surprised getting in the iconic Abarth model, which is immediately identifiable by exterior badging, wheels, and pin striping. As soon as I started the car, the Abarth tuned exhaust system reminded me this wasn’t the small hatchback I was expecting. Off the line, the 5-speed manual’s 1.4-liter multi-air turbo 4-cylinder engages the driver. Generating 160 hp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque, the small but mighty 500 handled the track well. As a FWD vehicle I had to adjust my driving since this car had to both propel and steer around the corners. Braking and turning happened later and the car didn’t weight shift like the RWD 124, but overall the 500 was fun to take around the track. The clutch shifting was responsive and the available sport mode created an even more engaging driving experience. Overall, the 500 Abarth package is worth every penny of the $4k increase in price from the base model 500. There isn’t much, if any, other performance minded hot hatches like the 500 Abarth that start just over $20k.
Aside from our track driving, we also had the opportunity to drive both the 124 and 500 on an autocross course. These are the type of cars I enjoy taking on an autocross course; they are small, nimble, and responsive in these scenarios. These cars had just the right amount of power to easily maneuver through quick turns, slalom cones, and punch it on short straightaways. Watching the cars zip through the autocross was just as entertaining to see (and hear) as they zoomed past and screeched tires around every turn. The lower profile of the 124 gave it the advantage in autocross, but both brought back memories of go-karting on similar style tracks.
The legendary bloodline of the Abarth models are based on Karl Abarth’s mission: “Go faster than yesterday, win more” and its apparent this mission was taken into consideration with the development of the Abarth line. These small performance cars pack a lot of punch without breaking the bank. They look the part with their head-turning appearance packages and perform on the track with their fine-tuned engine dynamics. The 124 Spider Abarth is perfect if you’re looking for that second (or third) “fun” performance car that you can drop the top and just cruise. And, if you’re looking for something more practical, the 500 Abarth will certainly make city driving and dodging pot holes feel and sound a lot more fun!
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