Taking to the skies in the somewhat excellent new Abarth rally car
Extreme cornering in a well set up and stiffly bodied car will sometimes result in one wheel getting up in the air.
When there are two wheels off the deck, that’s a mark of a special sort of car. Or driver. Or both.
The person achieving this feat today is Abarth test driver and former World Rally Championship competitor Alex Fiorio. The car in which he’s performing this trick (and many more) is the new Abarth 124 Rally.
We’re on the special stage rally section of Fiat’s Balocco test complex, the bit that combines poorly fettled Tarmac with a lot of vicious turns, and we’re feeling a bit queasy. It’s nothing to do with the local food. It’s more to do with the fact that it’ll soon be our turn behind the wheel – and we’re the first outsiders to be granted driving access to this car, the first prototype of the Fiat 124 Rally breed. “It’s our first baby,” says technical development chief Maurizio Consalvo. “We love it.” Ah. No pressure then.
Even if we weren’t driving it, just reading the 124 Rally’s mechanical spec would get the average heart beating. Instead of the standard car’s 168bhp and 184lb ft, there’s 296bhp and a slightly mad-sounding 444lb ft pouring through the back wheels of a vehicle weighing just 1050kg.
All that urge is coming from the 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol engine that normally features in the Alfa Romeo 4C, here mounted slightly further back than the 124’s regular 1.4-litre lump to generate 50/50 front/back weight distribution, a useful stat in a car that spends hardly any of its time going straight ahead.
You pick your gears via big carbonfibre paddle shifters. They reside in a dog-ring sequential gearbox with no synchronisers to delay the flow of torque between shifts. There’s a mechanical limited-slip differential, and a clutch pedal, but you only use that once when you’re starting off.
Most of the 124 Rally’s major controls – indicators, headlight flashers, horn, wipers, washers, starter, launch control – are on the steering wheel. The buttons are miniature but they’re all within a thumb’s reach.
Two small rotary knobs have also taken up residence on the wheel boss. One is labelled ALB, the other TC. ALB modulates throttle sensitivity over five positions, from a softer response for loose surfaces like gravel or snow to a much more urgent one for sticky tyres on hot Tarmac.
The traction control (TC) knob also provides five settings, each one giving the 124 Rally more driftability. The last click on this knob takes off every electronic intrusion. “It’s not very different from a road car in terms of the parameters it measures,” says Consalvo, “but it needs to be quick, aggressive, and to work in the hands of a driver with considerable experience.”
Time to shotgun, with Florio at the wheel. There are lots of tight 180-degree turns requiring plenty of action with the vertical fly-off handbrake, a few long sweeping curves, a jump, and the section where he hoists our side of the car into the air. He twiddles the rotary knobs, pumps the handbrake and seems to care not a jot about possible damage to the Abarth’s bodywork from the undergrowth and deep cracks in the verges that we’re crashing across with, it turns out, nary a jolt from the chassis.
Now it’s our turn. We’re wedged into the deep Sabelt race seat and waved on our way. After the predictable stall the engine displays a pleasing rortiness and a puppy-like willingness to zip round to the limiter, a stutter heard embarrassingly often despite the warning LEDs because it’s all too easy to be distracted by the mechanical whines, exhaust blare and general road racket.
The Abarth’s lightweight and entirely forgiving handling means it doesn’t take long to feel comfortable with both track and car. It’s refreshing to sit behind an unfashionably vertical windscreen, and the Fiat’s modest dimensions make it simple to thread yourself along a tidy and quick line. The low seating position puts you right in touch with the road, or whatever surface you’re on, another highly desirable attribute.
In no time at all we’re replicating Fiorio’s airborne activities. The Fiat happily switches direction with instant obedience and no threat of retribution for driver clumsiness. It’s easy to believe Fiorio’s claim that the Rally’s ideal weight distribution “eliminates understeer”.
The ride is little short of incredible, stifling huge bumps with ease. The brakes are firm and progressive, combining with the zestiness of the powertrain to deliver sparkling entertainment.
Destined to compete in the once-dormant (but now revived by Abarth) two-wheel-drive FIA R-GT class, the Rally is designed to “ignite the passion of a new generation as well as old-fashioned rally lovers,” according to Consalvo. It’s a slow burn, this class, with only four teams in it so far, but for those of limited means it would be a brilliant entry into competitive rallying. By the looks of the production line we’re shown, with eight more 124 Rallys being prepped for next season, it looks like the message is getting out. Consalvo is hoping that other companies will create cars for the class.
Of course, ‘limited means’ in rallying means something different. The price of a factory 124 Rally is €140,000 plus VAT, equivalent to about £153,500 all in. Sounds expensive, but remember that this is an off-the-shelf pukka rally car.
There’s no intention to build road-legal versions of the car, but Consalvo does reveal that the rally car has standard suspension pick-up points – and Abarth does have a reputation for offering plenty of tuning bits for its cars. Interesting.