Performance Cars

Takin' it to the streets (of Willow) in the 2019 Fiat 124 and 500 Abarth

Skip Barber Racing School instructors help me make the most of Abarth’s pint-sized sports cars at Willow Springs International Raceway.

Barry Hathaway

Fiat's Abarth sub-brand is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. And what better way to celebrate than by taking a pair of Abarth-tuned Fiats to different race tracks across America to show off what these little firecrackers can do?

Despite being very different cars, the Fiat 500 Abarth and 124 Abarth have a number of similarities. For starters, they both use the same 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four engine, good for 160 horsepower and 183 pound-feet of torque in the 500 and 164 hp and 184 lb-ft in the 124. They also have the same raucous exhaust note along with almost identical wheelbase lengths and weight specs, despite being based on two different platforms.

Where they differ, aside from body style, is in how that turbocharged power is put to the ground. While the 500 Abarth uses a front-wheel-drive setup, the 124 Abarth sends its power to the rear.

Fiat invited Roadshow to a track day at Streets of Willow in the California desert to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Abarth.

Fiat

To help me experience the similarities and differences of these sports cars in a safe environment, Fiat employed the skilled professionals of the Skip Barber Racing School and brought me out to Willow Springs International Raceway, just north of Los Angeles.

The day's first activity was a Skip Barber-designed autocross, the goal being to teach me about balance. Here, I could learn how to properly shift weight to the front of the car before entering a corner, in order to avoid understeer -- or, as the Skip Barber instructors call it, "under response."

Both cars performed well here, but even at these relatively low speeds, the 124 proved itself the easier-to-place car, mostly thanks to its light, accurate steering. The easy-driving dynamics of the 124 made it an encouraging partner for this autocross course, inspiring lots of driver confidence.

The 500 Abarth, by comparison, felt heavier and a little more clumsy in this autocross scenario. It wasn't nearly as much fun to toss around, and the high seating position, combined with the narrow track, made it feel a lot less stable under tight cornering.

Following the autocross, we moved to a wet skid pad to learn how to recover from a spin, using the throttle to steer the car. The instructor would yank on the parking brake to get the car to spin, and I'd have to recover. The most important thing I learned here was that you should never look where the car is skidding -- always look where you want the car to go.

Fiat brought out a team from Skip Barber Racing to give those in attendance a little education in driving fast.

Fiat

A wet skid pad teaches you a lot about car control, or how willingly and quickly a car will respond to your inputs. I found the 124 Abarth to be a willing accomplice here, easily kicking out its rear end when provoked, but just as happily reining it back in with a few small corrections. We didn't use the 500 Abarth on the skidpad because its front-wheel drive layout would be much harder to provoke into a spin.

After the smaller autocross and skid pad exercises, it was time to hit the big track. Specifically, Streets of Willow -- a 1.6-mile road course. It's old, rough and has been featured in more car commercials than you can imagine. It's also hilariously fun, and a fairly low-stakes track, with wide sections of asphalt and lots of runoff area should things go haywire.

I was encouraged to try both the 500 and the 124 on Streets. All I can say about the 500 is that it was absolutely the tougher of the two to drive well -- it takes a lot of work to properly place this tippy, front-drive Abarth through corners and the rear end also tends to  wiggle around during hard braking.

The 2019 Fiat 124 Abarth, meanwhile, is a joy. In this higher-speed situation, I found myself once again appreciating the accuracy of the steering and the high levels of feedback through the wheel. The suspension is relatively softly sprung for a sports car, but the motion you get in corners adds greatly to the sensation of speed and, in a way, makes you feel like you're doing more. You pitch the car into a corner, the body rolls and it settles down neatly as you power out of a corner. It's great fun.

The 124's brakes are also worth noting. Fiat's little roadster is relatively light and doesn't have a lot of power. But I never felt an ounce of brake fade after an afternoon of fast lapping, with a pedal that stayed firm in feel, with easy-to-modulate action. Same goes for the gearbox and clutch: They're both high on feedback and delightful to use.

Neither the 500 Abarth nor the 124 Abarth are about outright speed or fast lap times, they're about fun. Both cars have limits that are easily found and played with in an environment like Streets of Willow. The instructors took ample time to gently nudge us up to and then slightly beyond our comfort zone and in so doing gave me a newfound confidence behind the wheel.

In a marketplace filled with crazy powerful and so-fast-you'll-get-a-nosebleed performance cars, the Abarth twins proved themselves to be wonderful teaching tools.