It’s easy to look at the Fiat 500 Abarth and see a goofy little clown car, but that would be a naive mischaracterization. It would be a goofy little clown car only if the clown in question were wearing a comically large pair of fire-retardant racing shoes and a helmet. The 500 Abarth is definitely a performance car and a surprisingly good time on the track.
But how does it compare to the other Abarth in the Fiat high-performance family, the 124 Spider Abarth that’s derived from the Mazda MX-5 Miata? Does its $8,000-plus premium over the 500 Abarth equal $8,000-plus worth more fun?
Fiat invited us to sample the Abarth dynamic duo at Autobahn Country Club racetrack in Joliet, Ill., both on the 1.5-mile road course and on the go-kart track. Both cars have a surprisingly similar power-to-weight ratio with 160-ish-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter engines, and weighing roughly 2,400-2,500 pounds, but distinctive personalities stood out after tossing them around these small circuits, which were perfect for experiencing the modestly powered Abarths.
The 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive roadster weighing 2,477 pounds with a 164-hp, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, starting at $30,585 with destination. The front-wheel-drive, $21,790 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth is technically a four-seater — though it might as well be a two-seater with its tiny backseat — and weighs 2,512 pounds with a very similar turbocharged 1.4-liter engine making 160 hp when Sport mode is activated and 135 hp when it isn’t. Both come with manual transmissions (five-speed for the 500 and six-speed for the 124 Spider) and optional six-speed automatics.
On the faster circuit, the 500 Abarth is a snarling, almost demonic little car with loud pops and barks from the exhaust. It’s easily maneuverable, though despite its stature is no dainty car. There’s heft in the steering wheel that fights back as you saw on the wheel to get the bugger across an apex, and it’s a wild ride when the rear end pops out in a slide while trail-braking into a corner. The 124 Spider Abarth makes similar grunty noises thanks to the newly optional Record Monza exhaust fitted to our test cars, but the bullish exhaust is deceiving: Behind the raucous sound is a poised, precise machine with sophisticated dynamics that don’t match its loud appearance and aural presence. The steering is light and quick in action, and the 124 Spider Abarth effortlessly turns into a corner, though like the 500 Abarth, sometimes the rear end turns faster than the front — the tail is prompt to swing out.
The slower but tighter go-kart track showed that despite similar weight, the 124 Spider Abarth carries its mass lower, hugging the ground for a more planted, controllable ride versus the taller-riding, sloppier 500 Abarth. Both cars felt hindered by more-than-expected body roll, though the 124 Spider was less disturbed by the extra sway. The 500 had trouble laying down power when exiting tight corners because of an open front differential and its propensity to roll; the front tires chattered and skipped while the traction control attempted to match front-wheel speeds. The 124 Spider’s limited-slip rear differential distributed power more evenly out of a corner, helping the it snake fluidly through the tight course.
At the end of the day, the 500 Abarth is still not a bad way to spend $21,000 if you live near a go-kart track that’s nice enough to let you drive this crazy little car around it. Local autocross circuits or tight, curvy roads work, too. The 124 Spider Abarth is certainly more money, but I think the classic roadster vibe, rear-wheel-drive dynamics and a healthy dose of the Abarth signature attitude are worth it, though that loudness (visible and audible) might not be for everyone.
And if it’s not, I drove the updated 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata on the same course the day after driving these two Abarths, which might be the way to go considering the MX-5’s new telescoping steering wheel (not on the 124 Spider), new engine with silky smooth 7,500-rpm redline, 17 more hp than the Abarth and a 138-pound-lighter curb weight in soft-top form. Plus, its base price splits the middle of the two Abarths at $26,625. It might seem odd that I’m gushing over the 2019 MX-5 right now, but it’s also the foundation of the 124 Spider Abarth and a good part of why the Fiat drives as well as it does.