It seems the world has gone crazy for SUVs, crossovers and high-riding hatchbacks, so it’s refreshing to drive a new drop-top sports car. It’s even nicer to drive a new small, Italian sports car, even if the Abarth 124 Spider isn’t exactly all-new or, for that matter. All-Italian. The Abarth is the more performance-orientated version of Fiat’s new 124 Spider, which is a less sporting version of Mazda’s MX-5.
If you didn’t know already, the 124 and MX-5 share the same basic underpinnings, but different engines and suspension calibration has given each one a different character.
Abarth has approached the 124 in much the same way as it has Fiat’s 500 in the past. This means more power, significant suspension revisions, more aggressive styling and substantially more noise.
Where the Fiat looks elegant, if a little bit like a Disneyfied version of an Italian sports car, the Abarth’s revised styling immediately gives it a more menacing presence. However, the Abarth retains much of the Fiat 124’s basic appearance, so It still looks slightly too large and a little cumbersome, almost as if a full-size, unaltered MX-5 could be hiding beneath the 124’s panels.
The Abarth’s visual aggression comes from a deeper front bumper, bigger wheels and four exhaust pipes instead of two, while the most obvious change on our test car is the matt black bonnet and boot, which are a no-cost ‘heritage look’ option.
So the Abarth certainly looks the sportiest of the Fiat/Abarth/Mazda trio and, thanks to the noise it makes, it sounds it too. As soon as you start the 124 there’s a loud blare from the exhaust that then settles into a deep, guttural rumble. Surrounded by Italians who are fascinated by this new and, Importantly, Italian car, the noise feels wholly appropriate. How suitable it will feel In a country such as the UK. where overtly sporty cars are often frowned upon, is another question altogether.
Once on the move the noise doesn’t seem to get much louder and you can lower the roof without fear of being deafened, but even so it could never be described as subtle. Given the Abarth uses the same 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine as the Fiat, the tremendous noise seems somewhat excessive given the modest displacement. Rather than making do with the Fiat’s 138bhp, though, Abarth squeezes 168bhp and 184lb ft of torque from just 1368cc. (For comparison, the 2-litre MX-5 produces 158bhp and 147lb ft.)
It isn’t just the engine where Abarth has tried to find more performance. The car also gets four-piston Brembo brakes (for the front) and a limited-slip differential and there are Bilstein dampers tuned to Abarth’s own specification, stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars, The LSD and anti- ro II bars bring a small increase in weight over the Fiat, adding 10 kg to take the total to 1060kg.
Unlike its siblings, the Abarth has a Sport mode. It’s engaged via a toggle switch aft of the gearlever and it relaxes the ESC, adds some weight to the steering and makes the accelerator feel more urgent. The more immediate throttle helps heel-and-toe downshifts, not that they’re difficult in the default mode as the pedals are nicety positioned, but the quicker response from the engine makes It just that bit easier to get the desired revs when you blip the throttle.
Inside, the Abarth 124 Spider is nowhere near as thoroughly modified as some other Abarth models; it doesn’t get proper bucket seats, lashings of carbonfibre or machined aluminium trim like a 595 Competizione, for example. Instead, the interior looks and feels much like an MX-5’s. Some of the trim is plusher, although the Abarth hasn’t forgotten it’s supposed to be the sports car, so Alcantara covers many of the surfaces, including the instrument binnacle to reduce reflections on the windscreen. One difference is the gearlever: it feelsshorter, with a fatter gearknob, and the shift action isn’t quite as light and snickety as the Mazda’s. More force is required, but the gearbox feels meaty and robust, so quick, determined gearchanges are satisfying.
It isn’t only the interior that feels like an MX-5, The way the Abarth drives – even with more power – is similar too.
The body moves in an exaggerated manner, small inputs to the throttle, steering and brakes causing the Abarth to squat, roll and dive accordingly. This gives the sense you’re really working the chassis, and when you’re unfamiliar with the car and the road, these traits make the Abarth a very dependable and faithful companion. It reacts in an intuitive manner and the engine’s muscularity means there’s always enough oomph for you to manipulate your line with the throttle.
The engine is unashamedly turbocharged, whistling and chirping over the cacophony made by the exhaust. There’s an obvious increase in boost at around 4000rpm but the slightly irregular power delivery doesn’t detract from the experience. It might not have a screaming, sonorous top end, but the 1.4 compensates with mid-range punch that can be used to great effect midcorner. And what it lacks in character it makes up for in volume.
“With the back end squatting as you work the throttle, the Abarth can be extremely good fun”
The engine and chassis make the traction control work hard, and even in Its sportier setting it feels like it’s restricting the Abarth. With the system fully off, the car feels like it can breathe and fully express itself, and without huge reserves of power it’s never intimidating. The limited-slip differential is well tuned to the rest of the car, the speed and degree at which it locks up really helping the Abarth feel instinctive and transparent. With the back end squatting as you work the rear wheels with the throttle, the Abarth can be extremely good fun.
As you become more comfortable, your confidence and your desire to go faster grow. But push harder and start to rely more on front-end grip and the Abarth becomes less enjoyable. As loyal to your inputs as the rear end is. the front axle is equally as vague and aloof.
The steering feels remote while the slightly soft suspension seemingly adds another, impenetrable layer for any feedback to get through. On our Italian test route the Abarth’s structure feels more solid than the shaky Fiat 124 and MX-5. so the steering wheel doesn’t constantly quiver in your palms, but still trying to gauge just how much the front tyres can cope with is practically impossible, and sadly the II mlt of grip from the 205/45 R17 Bridgestone Potenzas is relatively low, too.
” The excessive body roll then makes the 124 feel scruffy and frantic from behind the wheel”
Th is combi nation of I ittle gri p and not much feel means it’s all too easy to carry too much speed into a corner. The resulting understeer can abruptly transition into oversteer as the weight moves to the outside and the whole car leans significantly. The excessive body roll then makes the 124 feel scruffy and frantic from behind the wheel.
The wayward body means you’re never completely sure how the Abarth will react, so you tend to overcompensate with exaggerated reactions.
Braking harder and deeper into a corner does help prevent the front from pushing on, but then the severe shift in weight makes the usually trustworthy rear end start to feel unruly too. Over wet tarmac where grip Is constantly changing, it’s difficult to settle into a rhythm with the Spider. It will easily break traction on the wet surface, at either axle, but just as in the dry, once you’ve lost the front there’s very little satisfaction to be had.
The Abarth 124 Spider isn’t as extreme and uncompromising as some other Abarth models, but it is a charming and enjoyable car. It looks and sounds fun, and if you keep it within the limit of its front tyres it’s entertaining to drive, too. However, It isn’t leagues ahead of a well-specced MX-5 In terms of pure thrills, which could make its £5000-plus premium hard to justify for some.
Engine: In-line 4-cyl, 1368cc, turbo
Torque: 184 ft @ 2500rpm
0-62 mph: 6.8sec (claimed)
Top speed: 143mph
Basic price: £29,850