Fiat 124 Abarth vs. Mazda Miata Club: Which Is Best on Track? – RoadandTrack.com

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2016

That superior balance in the Miata is manifestly assisted by the extra few hundred rpm on the tach and the greater eagerness of the naturally-aspirated two-liter to respond to minor changes of throttle compared to the Abarth’s smaller turbocharged mill. So if you need to rotate the Fiat in midcorner, it will take a solid lift to make that happen, but with the Miata you can often ask for a little more power and get it quickly to turn the nose.

Yet in my first lap, I’ve easily gapped Travis a full ten cars by the time we cross start/finish. What’s going on? It’s as simple as this: The 124 is just easier to get up to the limit of the tires on an unfamiliar track. In the “bowl” that finishes every lap of the Lightning course, the Fiat just takes a set on its nose and accepts full throttle. The Miata, by contrast, has to be finessed. Once I realize this, I suspect that I will, in fact, be seeing Mr. Okulski again in the near future.

That suspicion becomes a certainty in Turn One when the brake pedal goes soft. We know that the Brembo-equipped Miata Club comes with an impeccably solid pedal, so what gives? It could be the hundred extra pounds of the 124, or it could be the fact that I outweigh Travis by fifty pounds and have a passenger, but it’s most likely a difference in the condition of the pads and/or fluid in the two cars as they were supplied to us. Regardless, my inability to brake to the limit means that Travis is now well and truly back in the hunt.

For four long laps, I hold Okulski off, exploiting the 124’s extra shove out of the slow turns and throwing it into the bowl at above the proper speed knowing that I can scrub speed with the front tires two hundred feet or so past the first apex. But we’re not alone on the track, and when I have to yield to a couple of AER race cars on the entrance into the bowl Travis pounces, setting me up in the midcorner then effortlessly motoring by on the main straight. When my brake pedal goes to the floor at Turn One, we call it a day and hand the victory to the Miata.

After cooling everything down and letting the cars sit for a while, we head back out. This time, Danger Girl and I are in the Miata and Travis is in the Abarth. We’re both thoroughly re-acquainted with the Lightning course now, and that spells doom for the handsome Fiat. I’m four-wheel-drifting through Two and Three before lifting sharply, yanking the wheel hard, and going full on the throttle to snap-oversteer the Miata through Four with very little lost momentum. A cloud of dust from our right rear wheel’s off-track excursion confirms that we’ve gotten about all we can out of that corner.

The 124 Abarth is a very good track car. The Miata Club is better than that.

The 124 Abarth is a very good track car. The Miata Club is better than that. It’s straight-As all the way across the report card. Power? Plenty, thank you, and the razor-sharp response from the engine management lets you dole out the revs in 50-rpm increments. Brakes? Flawless. This is one of those cars where you only get into the ABS deliberately because the threshold for max braking without is just so wide. Steering? As communicative as any other car on the market at any price in 2016.

The tippy-toe suspension that disappointed so many buyers in the NC Miata is long gone. In its place is a settled, thoroughly competent damper and spring setup that mimics the best aftermarket upgrades.

Amazingly, the Fiat and Miata truly are very different cars on-track. The 124 responds best to the classical three-phase cornering strategy laid out by Bondurant and Barber. Get it in straight on the brakes, then turn in with very little brake and use midcorner throttle to spool the turbo. Once you see your exit, unwind and go. If you can stick to that, the Abarth will be your devoted trackday companion and you’ll pass a lot of people.

The Miata, on the other hand, has the adaptability of Paul Chambers backing Coltrane in the fifth minute of an “outside” solo. If you drive by the numbers, it is only a tiny bit slower than the 124. As you approach the edge of tire traction, the Mazda starts to truly shine. By the time you’re sliding, you’ll have transferred your allegiance from Fiat to the store brand. The Club model is, of course, the best possible variant to have for this silliness.

Once you are truly comfortable with the track and the car, the Miata’s singular greatness verges on cliché. Brake late and throw it in? No problem. Inadvertent early apex? Just brush the Brembos and counter-steer on the way out. By the end of the session, I’ve long since dropped Travis; the Fiat isn’t slowing down for him any better than it did for me. Now I’m dicing with the true race cars from the lower classes, setting up a Spec E30 BMW in Two then slipping by over the hill in Five before setting my sights on the next victim. There’s nothing you can’t do in this car.

Well, almost nothing. You’ll never hang with the truly well-driven Corvettes and the M3s in a Miata. But that’s besides the point. If you can swallow your pride and focus on your own development—and your own enjoyment—as a driver, the Miata Club is simply the best. And better, it must be said, than the 124 Abarth. If only the Fiat didn’t look so damned cool in the paddock, with that flat-black hood and the open Italian mouth. So the question is: do you want to be fast, or do you want to be (almost) famous?

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