COME OUT AND PLAY

LONG TERMERS

SN

Sporty little Fiat hits the long and winding road

FIRST WEEK of an Australian summer, the perfect opportunity for a top-down foray into the countryside. Or so youíd think. Even putting aside Melbourneís notoriously fickle weather, the fact that a number of Australian states are simultaneously under snow/on fire makes the arrival of a new season feel somewhat irrelevant.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and the raindrops falling from the ones overhead should make this drive in the Abarth even more entertaining.

Plenty of kilometres have passed beneath the 124 Spiderís wheels over the past three months, but they have largely been incidental - time for a day-long, just-for-the-hell-of-it drive. Six hours, 400km, innumerable corners and all manner of road surface, a solid litmus test for any car.

Will I be begging for it to end, or keen to turn around and do it all again?

The route should be familiar to most Victorian enthusiasts; if not, it should be. Head east through Melbourneís rapidly developing urban sprawl, turn north at Pakenham and continue through Gembrook; the road to Launching Place is a cracker, though if itís been raining, like it has today, certain corners are diabolically slippery. The Abarthís rear-end wiggles as the 205mm-wide Bridgestones try and fail to contain 250Nm of torque.

Hang a right at Yarra Junction and from here you delve ever deeper into the Loch Valley along the C425, the road becoming interesting after the small timber hamlet of Powelltown. Thereís a good pub at Noojee, but thereís no time for a parmy or a photo at the historic trestle bridge. If youíre short of time, turn right at the C465; youíll be back on the M1 in 30 minutes and have a lot of fun in the process.

Continue on and for the next 40km the road is rarely straight for more than a couple of hundred metres, a narrow ribbon of often bumpy tarmac, with lush greenery leaning in on either side. If it sounds like the perfect environment for a tarmac rally, youíd be right - the Mt Baw Baw Sprint uses this road each year and the prospect of it closed to other traffic is a tantalising (though daunting) one.

Plenty of caution is needed because many of the corners are blind and it only takes one log truck to come the other way, but the Abarth thrives in this environment. At higher speeds the 124 Spider can feel a bit edgy as you approach the limit, the relatively soft set-up and quick responses resulting in occasional moments of nervousness.

Appropriate levels of care mean youíre usually well within the tyresí grip capabilities, but every now and then thereís a well-sighted hairpin and you can turn in abruptly and get hard on the power, the rear end slowly rotating as boost builds; itís not oversteer per se, just a little throttle steerability.

TIME FOR A SIX-HOUR, 400KM, JUST-FOR-THE-HELL-OF-IT DRIVE WITH INNUMERABLE CORNERS

The ESP is pretty well calibrated, not killing the fun completely, but as the road gets bumpier it becomes more of a hindrance, tripping the Abarth up even in a straight line.

The 124 Spider isnít particularly fast, but itís fast enough. In contrast to the MX-5, which thrives on revs, you short-shift the Abarth like a Group N rally car, changing up at 5500rpm to cannonball back into the pool of torque.

Drop the roof and not only do the gorgeous smells of the surrounding rainforest fill your nostrils, all manner of noises become apparent that are usually stifled by the fabric roof: the suction of the turbo, the crisp exhaust note, the scuff of the tyres on the road. It certainly adds to the experience and, should it start to rain, you arenít soggily sitting there waiting for the electric motors to do their thing - three seconds and the roof is clasped.

The ascent to the Mt Baw Baw summit is outrageously steep, even the gutsy 1.4 struggling to add speed once third gear is selected. Donít hang around too long at the top in warmer weather, as the Alpine-spec tarmac will literally melt to your shoes and tyres, and itís a pain to remove.

As entertaining as the drive has been, the idea of doing it all again to get home is a bit much. Thankfully, thereís another way, if youíre feeling adventurous. Turn left at the base of Baw Baw and youíll be faced with 25km of some of the best gravel road youíll ever find. Itís wide and well maintained; in fact, itís probably smoother than the tarmac route! Abarth sells a 124 rally car in Europe, the 221kW R-GT, but even the road car will put a smile on your face a mile wide. Next month, weíll see if it can do the same thing on track.

SN