Thursday, May 30, 2019

Track Time: Fiat Abarth 500 and 124 Spider

Fiat 500 Abarth on track

The snap … the crackle … the pop. The hissing, growling, and popping that Fiat’s turbo-charged Abarth make is infectious. Their grunting and crackling sounds boost me as I swoop around corners, downshifting through all the gates in order to catch the steep downhill chicane successfully. Cornering in an Abarth makes me smile. Straightaways in an Abarth make me giddy. I didn’t want to leave the racetrack. I wanted to stuff my Abarth 500 and 124 Spider in my back pockets and run away forever.

Fiat Abarth Line

FCA recently hosted a Skip Barber racing class / Fiat Abarth track day at Washington’s Ridge Motorsports Park. Several NWAPA journalists were on hand to experience the 500 and 124 Spider’s Abarth fury after taking a class from the legendary Terry Earwood via the Skip Barber Racing School.

Terry has been working with Skip Barber for over 35 years and has been an instrumental racer, teacher, and mentor in the automotive industry. Plus, he is awesomely hilarious and entertaining.

Fiat 500c autocross

I’ve had little time on a paved racecourse as a driver, and found the Skip Barber class very beneficial. Learning about things like trailing-throttle oversteer or trailing-brake oversteer is, and how to prevent it, was important. This can help you understand how to smoothly and successfully navigate corners.

Another thing we learned about was CPR. We all know what CPR is in medical terms, but CPR can also be a life-saving technique when encountering a skid. C: stands for correction—steer into the direction of the skid. P: pause, holding the correction to catch the slide. R: recovery, straightening the steering wheel to avoid a “hook-slide” caused by the second-reaction bounce. More lessons were taught. More laughs were had. We completed the morning’s classroom in time to head out to the track.

We took turns via a kidney-shaped road cone course and skid pad. Several colorful 500s and 124 Spiders sat poised for track time—both manual and automatic transmissions were offered. Each vehicle had a co-driver to guide you through the road course. We were coached when to start braking, how to brake or shift, and which angles to drive to complete directional changes successfully. We were told what we did right, and how we can improve; it was great. Although I felt most comfortable in the 500 (we’ve previously reviewed 500 Abarths and written about this model numerous times over the last several years), but the 124 was also a kick in the pants to drive, too.

Fiat 124 Spider on skidpad

The skid pad was a bit unnerving for me, at least to start with. I’ve never skidded in a controlled environment before. A huge tanker truck doused water on the circular track, and of course, did so right before I drove—ensuring optimal skidding opportunities. As I drove in circles, I was told to keep increasing my speed. “Keep going … faster … smoothly … go, go, go!” As the Abarth started to skid, my heart jumped a bit, but my Midwestern snow-driving roots kicked right in and I steered into the skid to not lose control. I did things exactly as needed. “Keep looking where you want to go, not where you think you’re headed, however,” says a Skip Barber professional. Throughout this exercise, I skidded a lot but stole a quick glance or two to ensure I wasn’t going to throw my Abarth into Jersey barriers. But, as soon as I looked, I realized I gave up control. Even though I did very well at the skid pad, thanks to my snowy and icy upbringing, it was interesting to understand the actual dynamics of a skid in a controlled environment.

Back inside we went, and learned how to correctly apex different types of corners, when/where/why to downshift, correct and incorrect ways to brake, and so on. There’s a lot to learn before playing on the big track! After lunch we headed out to the racecourse. I quickly dove into whatever manual-transmission-equipped 500 or 124 Spider I could find. I didn’t care about color it was or if the 500 was a convertible—I needed my stick shift!

The only two rules were: don’t pass the pace car and after a few laps, go to the end of the line to let the next person lead. As my turn came up, I grabbed my loaner helmet, head sock, and hopped into a white manual 500 Abarth. The 1.4L, 160-HP MultiAir turbo four-cylinder engine brambled loudly as I got everything dialed in for take-off—and, we’re off!

Silver Fiat 500 Abarth on race track

The first lap or two was at a slower speed as everyone became familiar with the racetrack. Tight turns, elevation changes and long straightaways were leaned—this course was gonna be fun. As we sped up, things got massively fun. The 500’s highly-bolstered bucket seats enveloped me as I shifted my way into extreme happiness. The Abarth-tuned chassis included performance upgrades like KONI frequency selective damping (FSD) front shock absorbers, which automatically provide dampening needed for a racetrack or uneven roadways. Add to that a lowered ride height, beefier rear suspension with stiff spring rates, larger brakes, and wider tires, and I quickly found myself in tarmac heaven.

As we continued to the final lap, I got the hang of how to enter, continue through, and exit apexes. It’s harder than you think; at least it was for me. The growl and popping noises from the engine, as well as its planted demeanor on track, gave me giddies as I rolled my way to the finish line. What an exhilarating experience!

Fiat 124 Spider on race track

The 124 Spider was equally as entertaining to drive on track. This roadster’s 1.4L MultiAir turbo engine, delivering 164 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, was a hoot to navigate through the corners, as well as accelerate in the straightaways. Both the 500 and 124 Spider Abarth models offer up short-throw shifters, making the driver experience even that more engaging. Add to that Abarth’s well-known chattery snaps, crackles, and pops—and my awesomely entertaining track day will soon not be forgotten.

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