A Tuner Anniversary

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.

The 2019 FIAT 124 Spider Abarth has a head-turning look and distinctive sound from its optional Record Monza exhaust.

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.

The 124 has a cabin that is focused on the driving experience but still manages some creature comforts. Its top has a brilliant design that makes it easy to raise or lower with one hand in a matter of seconds.

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

Style: 9
Performance: 9
Price: 8
Handling: 10
Ride: 7
Comfort: 7
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

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.

Posted in Fiat

Ranger Makes Its Return

By Derek Price

If you still think of the Ford Ranger as a small, simple, inexpensive truck, you’ll be in for a surprise when you drive the new one.
After taking a seven-year hiatus, the Ranger is back, if only in name. This resurrected version is so much bigger, pricier, more capable and more refined now that it feels like an ever-so-slightly scaled-down version of the F-150.
While technically considered a mid-size truck — designed to compete with the old guard of Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier like before, but also the fresh Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon rivals — the new-generation Ranger drives almost like a full-size pickup.
It’s priced like one, too. The Ranger starts at $24,300, within spitting distance of the F-150’s $28,155 base price. Options on my tester pushed the window sticker over $40,000, something that seems to leave room at the bottom of the market for an even smaller, more stripped-down truck that actually resembles the Ranger of yesteryear.

The new Ford Ranger looks and feels similar to a downsized F-150. It has much more room, capability and refinement compared to the old truck that bore its name.

For now, this is the smallest Ford pickup you can get. For people who don’t need the F-150’s bigger size and appetite for fuel but still need to do real work — including towing up to 7,500 pounds or hauling 1,860 pounds of payload — the Ranger checks the right boxes.
It does so in a thoroughly modern way, too, starting with its powertrain.
A turbocharged 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine is mated to a spectacularly well-sorted 10-speed automatic transmission to deliver smooth acceleration, quick response and effortless shifts. Everything under the hood feels like it was stolen from a pricey car, even if the solid rear axle with leaf springs makes it clearly a truck on bumpy roads.
The optional Sync 3 infotainment system on my tester was easy to use through its 8-inch touchscreen. Other snazzy upgrades include dual-zone climate control, push-button start, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, Ford’s Blind Spot Information System, and a Bang & Olufsen-branded sound system with 10 speakers.

An optional eight-inch touchscreen running the third generation of Ford’s Sync interface makes the new Ranger feel contemporary.

Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection comes standard on all trims.
While I liked the overall layout of my SuperCrew Lariat test truck, including the roominess up front and a back seat that is reasonably specious for adults, I wasn’t as wild about the material choices considering this is the top trim of an all-new truck for the U.S. market. Heavy reliance on hard plastics makes the cabin already feel dated in places.
A pleasant surprise was the Ranger’s supple ride. It feels smooth and softly sprung, a good match for highway cruising.
An available FX4 Off-Road package is a better fit for driving off the pavement. Its Terrain Management System and Trail Control, skid plates and an electronic transfer case mean you can drive straight from the dealer to the trails, if that’s your thing.
Ford also is offering the ever-popular blacked-out trim group for a custom, sinister appearance. With its wonderfully straightforward name, the recently announced Black Appearance Package comes with a black grille, running boards, wheels, mirrors, fender vent surrounds and more, something that helps bright colors such as Lightning Blue paint scream even louder.
So far, around two-thirds of Ranger buyers are opting for an appearance package, Ford claims. Other choices include the Chrome Appearance Package with lots of shiny bling and the Sport Appearance Package with an accent color called “Magnetic.”

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 Ford Ranger Lariat SuperCrew ($34,385). Options: Trailer tow package ($495), 501A package ($1,795), sport appearance package ($895), 18-inch aluminum wheels ($895), spray-in bedlinen ($495). Price as tested (including $1,195 destination charge): $40,155
Wheelbase: 126.8 in.
Length: 210.8 in.
Width: 77.8 in.
Height: 71.1 in.
Engine: 2.3-liter EcoBoos four cylinder (270 hp, 310 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 21 city, 26 highway

Style: 8
Performance: 9
Price: 5
Handling: 6
Ride: 8
Comfort: 8
Quality: 7
Overall: 8

Why buy it? 
It can do serious work, including towing up to 7,500 pounds, but has a more appealing size, price and fuel economy compared to full-size trucks.

Posted in Ford

New X4 Sleek, Sporty

By Derek Price

Every time I think the market for crossover vehicles is completely saturated, someone comes along with a new permutation that slices it even finer.
Thus is the case with BMW’s X3, a vehicle that takes the classic SUV formula and puts a powerful, premium, car-based, sporty-handling twist on it. For people who need to haul car seats and groceries, but still imagine themselves picking the best line around a racetrack, it fills a niche.
It’s interesting, then, that the X3 has a cousin, called the X4, that slices the market even thinner, making it the prosciutto of the automotive world.
By giving the X3 a sleeker, fastback-style rear end — and slightly bumping up the price — the X4 is both less practical and more expensive than its X3 relative, which sold nearly 10 times as many copies last year.
I suspected the X4 might meet the same fate as the Honda Crosstour and Toyota Venza, two short-lived cars that tried a similar “fastback for families” approach. But no. The X4 is back for an all-new second generation, and I spent a week getting a taste for what it offers.

The BMW X4 enters 2019 with an all-new design. It retains its distinctive rear styling while gaining a wider track, better aerodynamics, a new suspension and a lower center of gravity.

For starters, its handling is absolutely brilliant, just as one would expect from a BMW product.
While I’ve always thought the idea of putting a sport-turned, corner-carving suspension on a high-riding crossover is pure madness, the X4 is legitimately fun to drive. If you need the attributes of a crossover — ample cargo space, good road visibility and the go-anywhere traction of all-wheel drive — getting a taste of sports-sedan excitement is a nice bonus.
The engine in my tester is one of the smoothest four-cylinders I’ve ever driven. Called the xDrive30i — as opposed to the six-cylinder M40i — it uses a twin-scroll turbocharger to wring out 248 horsepower from just 2.0 liters of displacement. It makes the six-cylinder car’s 355 horsepower seem like overkill, although to be fair, overkill is part of the appeal of driving a European luxury vehicle.
I also was pleasantly surprised at the fuel economy of my tester. It’s rated for 29 miles per gallon in highway driving, which seems remarkable in a vehicle that feels so solid, substantial and fast when you mash on the gas pedal.
Inside, the X4’s cabin matches the body’s vibe. Lots of aluminum trim, an electric shifter, a big digital screen with a touch controller and a contemporary, wraparound design that flows smoothly from the doors to the dash gives it a thoroughly modern look.

The X4’s redesigned interior matches its fashion-forward body with a contemporary, sleek look.

Seats are similarly sporty, with an unusually firm feel for a crossover.
Then there’s the good-looking but impractical elephant in the room: the X4’s signature rear-end styling.
While the fastback look makes it appear sportier than the more brick-like X3, it definitely makes the rear seat feel more cramped, the rear visibility less clear and the rear storage less voluminous.
Are those tradeoffs worth the X4’s sleeker, more aggressive styling? It depends on how much you like the fastback shape, a purely subjective decision.
Pricing starts just over $50,000 for the xDrive30i, or $10,000 more for the M40i.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 BMW X4 xDrive30i ($50,450). Options: Dark graphite metallic paint ($550), red leather ($1,700), convenience package ($1,000), driving assistance package ($500), driving assistance plus ($1,700), parking assistance package ($700), premium package ($1,600), dynamic damper control ($1,000), 20-inch run-flat tires ($950), wireless charging ($400). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $61,545
Wheelbase: 112.7 in.
Length: 187.5 in.
Width: 75.5 in.
Height: 63.8 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder (248 hp, 258 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 22 city, 29 highway

Style: 7
Performance: 8
Price: 6
Handling: 8
Ride: 7
Comfort: 7
Quality: 9
Overall: 7

Why buy it? 
Its sloping, coupe-like rear roofline makes it stand out amid a sea of lookalike crossover vehicles. Outstanding handling, power and refinement make it feel every bit a BMW.

Posted in BMW