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A peppy update to the 124 Spider Abarth, the sportiest of the Fiats

The Fiat division of car giant FCA is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its high-performance Abarth segment, currently appearing in the guise of the Fiat 124 Abarth and Fiat 500 Abarth.

These are sporty versions of sports cars. The 124 Spider is Fiat’s convertible two-seater. The 500 series is the company’s retro-cool runabout.

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Fiat’s relationship with the Abarth company began shortly after former European motorcycle race champion Carlo Abarth (sometimes known as Karl) founded the company in 1949. Over the years, the Abarth shield — yellow and red, with a scorpion to represent the founder’s astrological sign — would appear on many Fiat race cars and road cars.

Fiat purchased Abarth outright in 1971, and it became part of FCA after the merger in 2015.

Now the Abarth moniker represents the sportiest Fiats available.

To whip up West Coast buzz for the anniversary, Fiat representatives invited two dozen local enthusiasts to attend a daylong session of the acclaimed Skip Barber Racing School, and to take some laps around the Willow Springs racetrack in Abarth cars.

Barber instructor Terry Earwood began the Willow Springs day with a chalk talk. A wry Southerner, Earwood specialized in homespun wisdom, applied to racing. “Any time they say, ‘Hey y’all watch this,’ you better run the other way or brace yourself for the crash,’’ he said.

He had special warnings for the men in the group, who he said tend to be lead-footed on the gas pedal.

“For some reason all God’s male children want to hurry up and get to the crash site faster,” Earwood said. “The problem is, the right foot is placed too far from the computer, so it’s stupid.”

Thus instructed, some drivers were sent to learn to control slides at the “skid pad” area, while others were bussed to the nearby “autocross” course to practice cornering and braking techniques.

It became clear, quickly, that while the 500 was peppier and more fun to drive than its non-Abarth counterparts, the 124 was the day’s vehicle of choice. Soon, all the drivers were clamoring for another run in the Spider.

The two cars share a 1.4-liter turbo engine that makes 164 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Both are offered with manual and automatic transmissions. The 500 is front-wheel drive; the 124 is rear-wheel drive. The 124 can only be had as a convertible, the 500 as a hard top or with a retractable soft top.

There the comparisons end. The 500, more of a family car and a grocery getter, seemed sluggish on the track. Though it cornered better than I expected, it felt top-heavy in the turns.

In fact, the 500 sits 2 inches higher, and is 4 inches narrower, than the go-kart like 124.

And the Spider — well, it’s a real sports car.

The modern 124 Spider debuted in 2015 as a model year 2016 car, marking the return to Fiat of a storied nameplate, from a Pininfarina design, that the company sold from 1966 to 1985.

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It was somewhat ridiculed in the motoring press — including by me — as a “Fiata,” because some of its parts were based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata, and were manufactured in Mazda’s plant in Hiroshima, Japan.

But it quickly grew on me. Nimble, agile and sporty, the stick-shift version of the 124 I drove was willing to go as fast as I could push it through the sloping uphill and downhill course — and would have gone much faster with a pro at the wheel.

Having done some practice slides during the “skid pad” instruction period, I found I could allow the rear wheels of the 124 to break loose just enough to maintain corner speed — bearing in mind what Earwood had said about getting around the course faster.

“What we’re looking for is exit speed,” Earwood explained. “How soon can you get your front tires straight and begin accelerating?”

The two dozen drivers managed to end the day without any incidents. No Fiats were harmed. I came away impressed by the Spider’s handling and the pure fun of driving it at speed.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the 124 Spider is the price. The car is sold in three trim levels. The Classica starts at $26,290. The Lusso lists at $28,890. But the Abarth begins just a little higher, at $29,590. (The automatic transmission model adds $1,350 to that. The Brembo performance braking system tacks on $1,495 more.)

Customers seem to be responding to the sporty feel. Fiat said about 40% of 124s sold in the U.S. are Abarth models. While the “take rate” on manual transmissions on all Fiats sold in the U.S. is about 30%, more than half of Abarth 124s sold have stick shifts — suggesting they are being bought by people who want a more dynamic, engaged driving experience.

FCA encourages that. The company offers a free day of Bondurant Racing School with every Abarth vehicle sold.

2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

Times' take: A perky performance sports car

Highs: Fun to drive, easy to afford

Lows: Some “Fiata” jokes possible

Vehicle type: Two-door, two-passenger sports car

Base price: $29,590

Price as tested: $31,085

Powertrain: 1.4-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine

Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 164

Torque: 184 pound-feet

EPA fuel economy rating: 26 miles per gallon city / 35 highway / 30 combined

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