By Derek Price
In 1949, Karl Abarth founded a company that sold race-inspired modifications for small European cars.
His famous fiberglass-lined mufflers not only gave the cars a distinctive growl and more power, but they also helped fund Abarth’s passion for racing — a notorious vortex of cash to this day.
Within a few years, his company was making 300,000 mufflers each year and employing 375 people. His business was purchased by FIAT in 1971, ensuring the cars bearing his name and his astrological sign, the scorpion, would continue for decades to come.
To mark Abarth’s 70th anniversary, FIAT invited me to the perfect celebration venue. Located on 304 hilly acres southwest of Dallas, MotorSport Ranch has an undulating road course that proved ideal for sampling the two vehicles that carry Abarth’s scorpion badge today: the four-seat FIAT 500 and the two-seat Italian cousin of the Mazda Miata, the 124 Spider.
Both cars have performance upgrades that separate them from the non-Abarth models, including specially tuned suspensions and a louder, throatier exhaust.
Until this year, though, I was always disappointed that the 124 Spider Abarth didn’t really sound like an Abarth — the most important sensual aspect of a brand famous for its mufflers. Fortunately, FIAT finally fixed that by offering what it calls the Record Monza exhaust for 2019 that makes it sound deliciously loud and poppy, just like an Italian sports car should.
Personally, I think this exhaust should come standard on the Abarth model. I can’t imagine buying this car without it, but FIAT asks buyers to pay an extra $995 to make their Abarth actually sound like an Abarth.
The Record Monza upgrade is brilliant, though. If you go easy on the throttle, it stays reasonably quiet, devoid of the annoying highway drone that plagues some aftermarket exhaust systems. Push it hard, and a bypass valve opens to maximize the exhaust flow and deliver its signature growl.
More importantly, the 124 Spider Abarth feels inspiring on the track. Like its Mazda cousin, it is solid, composed and playful when you push it hard, letting drivers explore the limits of tire adhesion in a way that’s fun and lighthearted, not terrifying.
Skip Barber Racing School provided instruction for the day. Alternating time between classroom lessons and real-world experience on a wet skidpad and the rhythmic road course helped bring out the best in the 124.
It was in its natural element on the track, doing the job for which it was designed. The standard Bilstein sport suspension, limited-slip differential and optional Brembo brake package combined to make the 124 Abarth a sheer joy in corners. Its turbocharged 1.4-liter, 164-horsepower engine feels more than adequate in such a lightweight car, too.
People who need a back seat will find plenty to love in the cute 500 Abarth, but it was the 124 that stole my heart. As much as I love the Miata, the FIAT roadster’s Italian styling touches and especially the new Record Monza exhaust make it seem more adventurous.
Pricing for the 124 Spider starts at $25,190 for the base version and ranges up to $29,290 for the Abarth.
The 500 Abarth is priced from $20,495, making it one of the best fun-per-dollar bargains on the market today.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2019 FIAT 124 Spider Abarth ($29,290). Options: Brembo performance brakes ($1,495), Record Monza Exhaust ($995). Price as tested (including $1,495 destination charge): $33,275
Wheelbase: 90.9 in.
Length: 159.6 in.
Width: 68.5 in.
Height: 48.5 in.
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder (164 hp, 184 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy: 26 city, 35 highway
Why buy it?
It’s spectacularly enjoyable both on the street and on the track. Its optional new Record Monza exhaust system finally makes the Abarth version sound right.