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Fiat Abarth 124 Spider long-term review

By Scott Newman, 22 Mar 2020 Reviews

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider long-term review feature

A sports car with Japanese and Italian passports

Introduction - The Dual Citizen

Not everyone is a fan of the growing trend of jointly developed sports cars. It’s a hot topic at the moment due to the arrival of the Toyota Supra, itself a product of collaboration with BMW, but it’s been going on for a while now and will only become more prevalent.

The reasons why are obvious – globally, the sports car market is shrinking, making it difficult to justify investing in a bespoke platform; far better to hop into bed with another manufacturer and work towards a common goal.

There are a number of ways to go about this, each of which has been illustrated in recent times. The easiest is to simply make the same car and switch the badges, like with the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ; then there’s the approach of taking the same box of bits but developing them separately, like Toyota and BMW have done with the Supra and Z4 respectively. The third way is to change certain parts in the hope of imbuing a unique personality, which is the tack taken by Mazda and Fiat with the MX-5 and our new long-termer, the Abarth 124 Spider.

These two cars share a chassis and are built in Mazda’s Hiroshima plant, a fact that played a major role in the 124’s gestation. Originally, the partnership was between Mazda and Alfa Romeo, with the ND MX-5 set to provide the basis for a new Alfa Spider, but following the late Sergio Marchionne’s dictate that Alfas must be built in Italy, a new partner within the FCA fold was sought. Enter Fiat.

The original Fiat 124 Spider was built between 1966 and 1985 and was surely one of the cars that provided inspiration for the original MX-5 in 1989 – lightweight, rear-wheel drive and with a highly tuned four-cylinder engine under the bonnet.

It’s a recipe the new 124 Spider adheres to, though it actually uses a smaller engine than any of its predecessors. The 124’s four-pot displaces just 1368cc, but a turbocharger provides plenty of extra punch.

Overseas markets have access to a Fiat 124 with 103kW/240Nm, but Australia scores only the hotter 125kW/250Nm Abarth variant. In addition to the extra grunt, which drops the claimed 0-100km/h time from 7.5 to 6.8sec and lifts the top speed from 215km/h to 232km/h, the Abarth scores Brembo four-piston front calipers, Bilstein suspension, a limited-slip differential, exterior makeover and a much shoutier soundtrack courtesy of the Monza exhaust. 

MOTOR comparison: 124 Spider v MX-5 v BRZ

The standard 124 Spider starts at $41,990 for the six-speed manual (before on-road costs) or an extra $2000 for the auto. However, until October you could put your bum behind the wheel from just $38,750 drive-away, which strikes us as a bit of a bargain.

Our new garage occupant, though, is one of 30 Monza Editions. This is essentially a fully loaded 124, including the two-tone leather seats and Visibility Pack – adaptive LED headlights, rear park assist, blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert – which are cost options on the standard car.

It retails for $47,580 (again, an extra $2K for the auto), but if you’re quick you might be able to nab one for $44,340 drive-away. If you’re curious, the warranty is three years or 150,000km, though you’ll be doing well to hit the latter before the former.

Picture: Sexy two-tone Recaros are heated and an option on the standard Abarth 124

Over the next five issues we’ll examine the case for buying the Abarth. The default choice in this segment is the car on which it’s based, the Mazda ND MX-5, which outsells the ‘Italian’ at a rate of about six-to-one.

In the case of the mechanically identical Toybaru twins, buying one or the other is likely to simply be a case of badge preference, but by replacing a high-revving naturally aspirated engine with a torquey turbocharged one, the case in this instance is likely to be less clear cut. On first impressions, it should be fun finding out either way.

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Fruity exhaust
2 - Slick gearshift
3 - Torquey engine

Things we hate
1 - Ride isn’t great
2 - Doughy throttle
3 - Blind spot beeper

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Update 1: Training the Eye

A closer look at the Abarth’s, err, looks

Place the Abarth 124 Spider and the Mazda MX-5 side by side, remove the badges and ask someone unfamiliar with the parentage of each car to identify which is Japanese and which is Italian and I suspect that most would get the answer wrong.

Consider the evidence: one is a smoothly sculpted, shrink-wrapped roadster powered by a high-revving, naturally aspirated engine, while the other is aggressively styled with a heavily turbocharged downsized donk. Tradition would suggest the former would be Italian and the latter Japanese, but the reverse is true.

Of course the MX-5 now has more than three decades of history and the ND doesn’t stray markedly from that, but it’s interesting that Fiat felt the need to change the recipe. After all, retaining the MX-5’s zingy engine as well as its platform would have provided a clear link to the original Abarth 124 Rally from the 1970s, which used a 1.8-litre DOHC four-pot with twin Webers to produce 94kW and 159Nm. But we’ll focus on the Abarth’s mechanicals in a future update; for now, it’s back to the styling.

The 124 Spider is the work of Fiat’s ‘Centro Stile’ studio in Turin and it doesn’t share a single body panel with the Masashi Nakayama-penned ND MX-5. According to Fiat, the 124’s styling is “classically beautiful with well-balanced proportions and a sporty cabin-to-hood ratio”. Hmmm.

Personally, I think the 124’s bold design looks like it has fallen out of a Japanese comic book. Back to my earlier point, not only does the Fiat not look Italian to my eyes, it looks distinctly far-east. Its unusual looks are growing on me, but I certainly wouldn’t call it classically beautiful.

Centro Stile tacked on a massive 139mm in length, though it appears to have divided this roughly equally between front and rear, which is perhaps what Fiat means by “well-balanced proportions”.

This might sound like I have a bit of a downer on the 124’s looks; perhaps initially, but its unique styling is growing on me. Others too, it seems. Last month’s update generated a few comments from readers who unequivocally preferred the Abarth to the Mazda purely from a design perspective, though they may be a vocal minority, as a highly unscientific social media poll had 75 per cent of respondents favouring the MX-5.

There’s much less to quibble about on the inside, for the two cars are virtually identical aside from the seats and some cosmetic differences. One thing I don’t understand is why the 124 Spider hasn’t adopted the reach-adjustable steering column introduced in the MX-5 at update time – the cars are produced in the same factory with bits from the same suppliers. The Abarth’s driving position isn’t too bad, but the wheel is a little low and far away for my tastes, forcing a Stirling Moss-style straight-arm technique.

Future updates will cover off proper performance driving, so it’s probably a good idea to discuss what the 124 is like day-to-day, coping with the tasks it will complete for the vast majority of its life.

It’s a lot of fun, primarily because of that 1.4-litre turbo engine. With the quad-tip Monza exhaust, the noise it emits is truly ludicrous, a bassy, almost flatulent note that’s redolent of a Group N Mitsubishi Evo. From behind the wheel it’s great fun, especially as every now and then it releases a vicious crack on an upshift, but if you start early or finish late, your neighbours might not be so chuffed.

There’s plenty of torque on tap, the maximum 250Nm produced at 2500rpm, but selecting Sport is key if you wish to avoid substantial turbo lag. On a few occasions I’ve pulled out into traffic, spoiled by the response of most modern engines, only to be left with another motorist approaching rapidly and my foot on the floor, willing those little impellers to spin up quicker. Sport sharpens throttle response markedly, but adds unwelcome steering heft.

The ride can be pretty sharp, though a recent stint in an MX-5 2.0 proved there isn’t much difference between the two, and now the weather is getting better, being able to drop the roof in a matter of seconds with one hand is proving handy. It really is a brilliantly clever piece of design: quick, easy and intuitive.

Next month, a decent drive with a fellow platform-sharing Italian sportster.

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Unique styling
2 - Fuel economy
3 - Droptop motoring

Things we hate
1 - No reach adjust
2 - Turbo lag
3 - Blind spot beeper

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Update 2: The Italian Job

Abarth tries its hand at running with the bulls

Two italian sports cars roll into the carpark of Warrugal Woolworths, yet only one of them is attracting any eyeballs. The Abarth 124 Spider shouldn’t too feel slighted though, as it’s competing for eyeballs against one of the first Lamborghini Huracan EVOs in the country. Presumably MOTOR is the first outlet to drive it, as the glamorous white wedge has just 146km on its odometer.

Editor DC will be providing a full feature drive next issue, but in the meantime its presence provided an opportunity to tag along in the 124 to not only act as a camera car – tracking shots are a lot easier with a convertible – but also to answer an important question: what is Italianness (apart from a word I just made up)?

Y’see, like the Abarth, the Huracan EVO carries a pair of passports. Just as the 124 Spider shares plenty of DNA with the Mazda MX-5, the Lamborghini is a close relative of the Audi R8. Are there any shared traits between these two very disparate cars that are quantifiably Italian?

One trait of the author is that he’s an idiot. No sooner had we reached our photography location than the fuel light in the Abarth blinked on, thanks to me having forgotten the crucial latter half of the wash-car/fuel-car combo.

Not to worry, the nearest town isn’t too far away. However, a few quick passes for Brunelli’s camera eats into the range like Cookie Monster let loose in the biscuit tin and I’m quickly in dire straits. My maths isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough to realise that a sat-nav saying 19km to destination and a fuel readout displaying 7km doesn’t add up, particularly when I’ve already been driving as economically as possible for the past 15km.

As it turns out, the Abarth is incredibly pessimistic. Arriving at the servo with beads of sweat on my brow, having looked at a big, fat zero for the past five minutes, the 124 swallows just over 37 litres, well short of its quoted 45L capacity. Still, better pessimistic than optimistic.

With a full belly of 98RON, the run back up our photography road is a lot more enjoyable than the journey down.

Attempting to keep the 470kW Lambo in sight is a fool’s errand, but enjoyable nonetheless; every ounce of pace the Abarth has is required to stick with a cruising DC, but I’m arguably having more fun, especially as the beautiful V10 music washes over me with the roof down.

The 124 isn’t a particularly easy car to drive quickly. It might be firmer than the MX-5, but there’s still a lot of body movement that requires deft inputs to manage; there’s j-u-s-t enough torque to be able to steer the car on the throttle in slow corners, but more often than not you can just mash the right-hand pedal on exit. All-wheel drive traction means you can generally adopt a similar approach in the Huracan, but your wits need to be somewhat sharper, as the rate it screams down the road is a little more brisk.

Once the automotive world has finally switched to electricity, an example of the Huracan’s powertrain needs to be displayed in a museum somewhere, preferably with one of those little buttons you hit so it makes a noise. It has gobs of torque, revs to the heavens, has power to burn and the gearbox is sensational. The EVO is also a sharper handler than its predecessor.

It might sound trite, but there is an attribute that the Abarth and Lamborghini share, one that gives them a little extra Italian flavour: attitude. Particularly under the bonnet.

Compared to the R8, the Huracan is louder and more aggressively mapped, while the Abarth mightn’t be any quicker than an MX-5 – it’s actually slower, which we’ll get to next month – but the conspicuous blare from that Monza exhaust ensure it’s never going to pass unnoticed. Unless, of course, it’s tailed by a brand new Lamborghini Huracan EVO. 

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Dropping the roof
2 - Adequate grunt
3 - Matching claims

Things we hate
1 - Forgetting fuel
2 - Steering modes
3 - Sunburn

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Update 3: Come out and play

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 you’d think. Even putting aside Melbourne’s 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 Spider’s 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 Melbourne’s rapidly developing urban sprawl, turn north at Pakenham and continue through Gembrook; the road to Launching Place is a cracker, though if it’s been raining, like it has today, certain corners are diabolically slippery. The Abarth’s 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. There’s a good pub at Noojee, but there’s no time for a parmy or a photo at the historic trestle bridge. If you’re short of time, turn right at the C465; you’ll 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, you’d 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. On a road like this, though, constantly switching between second and third gears, the Abarth’s agility, torque-rich engine delivery and slick gearchange make it extremely enjoyable.

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

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 isn’t particularly fast, but it’s 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 aren’t 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. Don’t hang around too long at the top in warmer weather, as the Alpine-spec tarmac will literally melt to your shoes and tyres, and it’s 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, there’s another way, if you’re feeling adventurous. Turn left at the base of Baw Baw and you’ll be faced with 25km of some of the best gravel road you’ll ever find. It’s wide and well maintained; in fact, it’s 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, we’ll see if it can do the same thing on track. 

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Long drives
2 - Slippery surfaces
3 - Hardy brakes

Things we hate
1 - Bumpy roads
2 - Sticky tarmac
3 - Dawdling drivers

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Update 4: United Nations

Hitting the track with a selection of European friends

What better track day to take an Abarth to than one run by Pilota Sportiva? Any more Italian and Pavarotti would be singing Nessun Dorma with prosciutto in one hand and a prosecco in the other. The man behind Pilota Sportiva is Steve Pizzati, race driver, driver trainer and former Top Gear host. Every track day is subtly different and Pizzati’s is more casual than most, each driver able to do as many or few laps as they please.

A motley crew assembles, primarily machinery of various vintages from the European Union. There’s a new Audi RS4, Porsche 911s old (G-series Carrera) and new (Carrera T) as well as a 944, a Toyota Supra (of Austrian birth), a Lotus Elise Cup 250 (still in the EU as of writing…) and Alpines. So many Alpines (what is the collective noun for Alpines? A rally? A rally of Alpines…). A tenth of all the A110s currently sold in Australia, in fact, including a new Legende edition with its sexy wheel design and added luxury.

MOTOR comparison: A110 v 718 Cayman v 4C Spider

The venue is Bryant Park Hillclimb, colloquially known as Haunted Hills, which should be familiar to you from our numerous magazine and video shoots there. It’s a fantastic facility. The slow-speed nature of the course makes it relatively easy on standard road cars, yet there’s nary a moment’s rest thanks to the constant barrage of lefts and rights. What’ll really bake your noodle, though, is the constant change in the vertical axis. As Pizzati succinctly puts it: “If you laid it out flat, it would probably be quite boring but the undulation is a big challenge.”

It’s the perfect playground for cars like the Abarth 124 Spider. The relative lack of under-bonnet urge matters little as there’s only one brief straight worthy of the name and the adjustable chassis not only helps with the constant direction changes but tests the driver at the same time. The Abarth is a fairly simple proposition; if you want to find out what happens at the edge of adhesion, you have to deactivate the ESP (one quick press is all it takes) and sort the rest out yourself. There is no Sports ESP mode to flatter your mistakes or cover your blushes.

To keep things simple we’re not running full laps, making it more akin to an actual hillclimb, and nor is it timed. Fun is the only goal here. Leaving the pits with a chirp of wheelspin it’s full throttle and a quick change to second through the first right-hander and then a short shift to third before the first left to avoid an awkward change on the exit. It’s a tricky corner, completely blind on exit, so best be confident about your line before flooring it.

The run down the hill is steep and fast, the approaching right-hander taken at around 100km/h. It’s the scariest part of the track, for the surface is off-camber and there’s a braking zone directly after it; there’s time to be gained if you’re brave, but this is not the day for heroics. The following left is annoying as gravity conspires to drag you away from the correct line, which is extremely important to carry speed over the infamous Oh S*** crest.

Responsible for more accidents than any other bit of Bryant Park, Oh S*** is blind, fast and no matter how many times you tackle it, the fear that the road has somehow moved since last time is guaranteed have your knees weak, arms heavy and palms sweaty. The car goes light and wobbles slightly but keep the steering steady and there’s little cause for concern as the next braking zone is steeply uphill and speed washes off quickly.

The following right-left-right complex rewards patience and heavy use of the kerbs, unless it’s wet in which case the red and white strips offer all the grip of polished ice. The Abarth has just enough grunt to power into oversteer over the crest on exit, the rear end continuing to wander under brakes as the track again plunges downhill into a tight left, before once again steeply climbing over yet another blind crest.

Finally, a straight(ish) section, but the respite is brief. The next corner, a long downhill right-hander, reveals everything you need to know about the Abarth’s handling. It’s all about what I personally find is the hardest part of driving, the release of the brake pedal on the entry to a corner. If the speed of both the car and brake release is right, you’ll peel beautifully into the bend, the rear-end edging just wide of the front, ready to accept the power once again. Too much speed and not enough brake pressure will create understeer; too much brake pressure and you’ll be catching oversteer, time ebbing away while you wait to accelerate again.

It’s also, of course, a massive amount of fun and keeping the accelerator buried will have the 124’s tail swinging from side to side. The Abarth’s light weight means its tyres hold up well to such immature antics, especially when sheets of rain slick the surface. In moments like this, it’s hard to imagine how a faster car could possibly result in more fun. Light weight, modest power and modest grip – is this the future of performance motoring? 

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Driving on track
2 - Unlimited laps
3 - Light cars

Things we hate
1 - Tyre wear
2 - End of track day
3 - Lack of top end

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Update 5: Ciao for now

Sporty little Fiat hits the long and winding road

BEFORE WE delve into the business of bidding farewell to MOTOR’s long-term Abarth 124 Spider, let’s cover off some facts and figures I forgot to include in previous updates. The drag strip is not where the Abarth does its best work, but the numbers it generates do provide some context. You see, drive the 124 Spider back-to-back with an MX-5 or 86/BRZ and you’ll swear it’s the Abarth that is the quickest car, but the numbers don’t back this up.

Strange as this may sound, you can almost ignore our best figures of 6.77sec to 100km/h (0.03 quicker than the claim – yes! Victory!) and 14.81sec for the quarter mile. Unless all the planets perfectly align you’re looking at 7.0sec and 15.0sec respectively all day long. At least it’s consistent. Those times are good enough to be virtually lineball with the Toybaru twins, if not a shade quicker, and used to be good enough to be snapping at the heels of the 2.0-litre MX-5.

That is until the MX-5 scored its engine upgrade from 118kW/200Nm to 135kW/205Nm. When we last strapped the timing gear to the latest iteration of Mazda’s roadster it clocked 0-100km/h in 6.37sec and rattled off 14.54sec at 155.12km/h over the quarter mile, putting clear distance between it and its Italian cousin. So why is it at first acquaintance the Abarth feels like the punchier of the two? Easy. Torque.

Whereas the Mazda produces its peak twist at 4000rpm the Abarth grunts out an extra 45Nm (a total of 250Nm) from just 2500rpm. The effect of this can be seen in the in-gear acceleration numbers. The two are neck-and-neck when accelerating from 80-120km/h in third at 4.6sec, but in each successive gear the 124 just walks away from the MX-5 at an ever-increasing rate. In fourth 80-120km/h takes 5.3sec (MX-5, 5.8sec), fifth 6.6sec (8.1sec) and sixth 8.5sec (11.8sec). This flexibility makes it feel quicker as when you put your foot down at anything other than maximum rpm, the Abarth surges forward whereas the Mazda takes time to build.

The other side of this is while the MX-5 sings to a crescendo, the 124 badly runs out of puff above about 5500rpm when its tiny turbo reaches the limit of the air it can flow. If there was one thing Abarth could do to improve its open-top sportster, it would be to fit the 177kW/350Nm 1.75-litre turbo four from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta/4C. It fits just fine, for it does duty in the R-GT rally car, and would not only endow the 124 with a serious turn of speed, but it’s a more satisfying engine to exploit producing maximum power at 6000rpm with peak torque available from just 2200rpm.

Still, at the beginning of this long-term odyssey the question we most wanted to answer was: is there a case for buying the Abarth over the vastly more popular Mazda with which it shares its underpinnings? The answer is yes, but it must be said that the 124 is only a better car for a very specific sort of customer.

Paradoxically, for a car that’s supposedly focused on top-down driving escapism, I most enjoyed the 124 Spider during the day-to-day commute. That Monza exhaust makes a rude noise, you’re always in the meat of the torque band, the engine flexibility is useful in plugging traffic gaps and it’s not too painful to get in and out of. Just make sure you drive it in Sport mode all the time as it can be painfully sluggish when off boost in Normal. More than once I pulled out of a junction with what I thought was plenty of time to spare only for a car to bear down on me as I had my foot welded to the floor, desperately willing that snail to spool up.

Venture out into the hills (or on track), however, and the Abarth will definitely put a smile on your face – how could a lightweight, rear-drive roadster not? Its stiffer suspension setup with Bilstein dampers gives it a little extra control when cornering hard without robbing it of its inherent playfulness but, sadly, engaging Sport mode – a necessity, as just mentioned, to wake up the engine – adds unnecessary and annoying weight to the steering. It feels like it was added just for the sake of doing so. That said, with space to play it has the grunt and balance to happily swing its rear end around and the brakes hold up well.

The other case for buying the Abarth is if you’re the tuning type. A little extra investment in the 124’s 1.4-litre turbo mill can lift it to 170kW or so with basic bolt-ons (according to the internet), which would result in a very different driving experience. However, in standard guise, the 124 Spider is fun, but its differences over the MX-5 on which it’s based don’t really add anything. It’s just... different. Hopefully Abarth sticks with the formula as the world needs more fun cars, just give it a little more power! 

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Attitude
2 - Everyday torque
3 - Light cars

Things we hate
1 - Needs more grunt
2 - Sport steering
3 - Strong rivals

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