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2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth makes drivers want to stretch summer

If you want squeeze every drop of summer — and maybe even freeze your way into fall and winter — there few ways as fun as the 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. It adds a bit of punch to the standard two-seat convertible, and the handling is a dream.

The 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth adds more sportiness to an already sporty two-seater convertible.
The 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth adds more sportiness to an already sporty two-seater convertible.Read moreFiat

2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth: And you thought summer was over.

Price: $37,020 as tested. The trim level starts at $29,090. The racing stripe was $2,195 and Brembo brakes, $1,495. More options mentioned below.

Conventional wisdom: Top Gear likes the “less-stressed, torquier turbo engine, and more aggressive than the Mazda — if you like that sort of thing. Good daily driver, too,” but not that it’s “expensive, and at this price the rivals are tempting. Also the chassis doesn’t feel as fluid as the Mazda. And the driving position is too high.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Performance is in the air.”

Reality: You’ll keep driving with the top down until icicles hang from your nose.

Catching up: Sure, four weeks ago I dubbed a Z4-Gladiator challenge the end-of-summer top-off, but that was before climate change. Now here’s the official end of summer.

What’s new: The Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is a classic two-seater convertible. The body is borrowed from Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, but Fiat uses its own engine and transmission.

The Abarth upgrades the 124 Spider for maximum sportiness, adding Bilstein sport suspension, front strut tower bar, Sport Mode selector and chrome exhaust pipes blaring what Fiat calls “the world-renowned Abarth sound.”

Up to speed: The 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo four-cylinder creates 164 horsepower (that’s +4 horses over the standard 124 Spider), and a beefy 184 pound-feet of torque. It’s not a tire squealer, but it moves quickly. Zero to 60 takes 6.7 seconds, according to Car and Driver’s review of a 2017 model.

But the joy of the 124 Abarth is passing and climbing small hills. The little car just wants to go between 60 and 80 mph — everywhere. If you’re not paying attention on the side streets, you’ll be going way faster than you thought.

On the curves: What a blast — not unexpected. The 124 Abarth zips around mountain roads and country dips like few other cars.

It also has the added benefit of skidding around corners into a straight line, especially when pulling out, so drivers can get a taste of their best movie car chase on occasion.

Shifty: The six-speed shiftable automatic ($1,350) makes the little car almost fun enough, with the paddle shifters or leather shift knob to choose from, but still I yearned for a clutch pedal.

The floor shifter seemed a little slushy, and it often missed gears. The paddles were more precise. The transmission also offers plenty of aid in downshifting to maintain momentum up small inclines in the middle gears.

Play some tunes: It seems as if every week I’m whining about how much treble new stereos are emitting. I’m starting to fear that my ears are too old for this.

The 124 disabused me of that notion. This bass can thump — straight into Excedrin territory. But once the top is down, this bass becomes a requirement.

The system uses a typical Mazda setup (the 124 Spider is based on the MX-5 platform), with a console dial for controls, with a separate volume knob. I used to love it, but it’s tough if you feel like fiddling from station to station.

Sound is a B+ or so — only bass and treble controls leave out the all-important midrange.

Exhausting: The stereo also has to fight the 124 Abarth’s exhaust note — which sounds quite as if some gearhead left the muffler off the car. It becomes tiring over time.

Friends and stuff: There’s room for only two in here, but you knew that. Legroom and headroom are at a premium, as is cargo space — a couple cubbies behind the seats and a tiny console are all you get.

The Recaro Leather/Alcantara Sport Seats ($1,195) offer superb grip and reasonable comfort. I wouldn’t want to be bigger than I am sitting in this seats — or in this car.

Trunk space is 4.94 cubic feet, smaller than small.

Keeping warm and cool: The top goes down and you’ll cool right off, except when the sun is baking you.

But the HVAC keeps up quite well, even if you need extra AC or heat because you just can’t bring yourself to put the top up on a mild September evening.

Simple: The hand-operated convertible top could hardly be easier. Pull the T-bar and push the small switch at the rearview mirror and it unlatches and heads right back to its resting place, where a solid thump locks it into place. Then, to reverse the process, pull the T-bar that sits behind your head and between the seats. As half a bonus, the windows roll down halfway automatically but don’t return to position.

Night shift: The headlights shine just where you want them, and the interior lights don’t get in the way of the road. The rearview and sideview mirrors cast an awful lot of glare, though, and do require extra caution after dark.

Sporty enough: A sport mode switch never seemed to make any changes, and no indicator ever showed up on the dashboard.

Fuel economy: I averaged a disappointing 18 mpg in a riotous week of driving. The 124 prefers premium, grazie.

Where it’s built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports gives the Fiat 124 Spider a predicted reliability of 2 out of 5.

In the end: The Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is a road-rally dream and still decent for commuting.