Simplistically, you can describe Abarth as the performance arm of Fiat cars. But to understand the brand, you need to go back to 1949 when celebrated racer and speed engineer Karl Abarth had a vision that racing needn’t be an elite sport. He started producing performance car kits and exhaust systems for the average Joe via his own company Abarth & C.
Then, he embarked on a racing association with Fiat in which he would give Fiats the Abarth performance makeover in the quest for podiums. (He won the Italian 1100 and Formula 2 championships with his first build, the 204A Roadster derived from a Fiat 1100.) Breaking numerous racing records over the years, Abarth, along with its scorpion badge (used because the founder’s astrological sign is Scorpio) became a symbol of power and performance to Italians in the ’60s. It even entered the vernacular in that they would order Arbarth coffees when they were after an extra-strong hit.
Abarth was absorbed into the Fiat Auto group in the early ’70s, but it wasn’t until 2007 when it began leveraging the heritage and value of the brand to deliver accessible speed and performance to the everyday man. The result was a refreshed range of vehicles with a greater distribution network. That pretty much answers why in silhouette, the cars look like Fiats, but under the hood and behind the wheel, they drive like a race-car. Since 2007, the Abarth brand has developed a cult following through a number of its models, but mostly through the popular Abarth 595, a performance upgrade from the iconic Fiat 500. Enter the Abarth 124 Spider – a clever reincarnation of the iconic Fiat 124 Spider, particularly the Pininfarina-designed 1966 original. GQ’s been invited to Fuji Speedway in Japan for an official showcase ahead of its summer release in Australia. The location may seem an odd choice for the launch of an Italian roadster, but Japan, in many ways, helps to understand both the cult status of Abarth and how the brand has been able to deliver the 124 Spider with performance and price to match.
The showcase has been well timed with a drive day for passionate Japanese Abarth owners, and there’s a procession of Abarth 595s on display. Hundreds in fact. Unusual that so many Japanese would take a day off work, but that speaks of the passion and the cult-like community built around the brand in Japan. Each Abarth 595 is, of course, similar in shape, but looks distinctive, bespoke even, to the driver behind the wheel, based on colour, detailing or whether it’s a limited-edition, such as the divine Abarth 695 Maserati, which drips with luxury. Seeing them en masse, you could be forgiven for thinking the Abarth obsession is akin to an adult version of a collectibles craze like Shopkins or My Little Pony.
Japanese cult status understood, the Abarth 124 Spider rolls off the Mazda MX-S production line at the Japanese marque’s Hiroshima plant, sharing the same chassis as the famed affordable sports car. Adding the Italian flair and performance, Abarth ships its four cylinder 1.4-litre turbocharged engine with either a six-speed manual or auto, along with the sport-tuned exhaust, suspension and limited-slip differential. Notably, just before GQ’s first drive around Mount Fuji, the Abarth 124 Spider arrives with a purr (which Abarth claims as its own distinctive soundtrack) through a chrome quad-tip sports exhaust, as standard. A quick walk around the little beauty before hopping in and you see the cues from the original Fiat Spider – the headlight cutouts, grille shape and hood contours, which deliver a sporty, and some say aggressive, appearance.
Getting into the Abarth 124 Spider, you instantly feel you’re in a higher performance vehicle compared to its competitors, namely the Mazda MX-S ‘ on which it’s built. The interior boasts leather-and-Alcantara sports seats and, taking off, you feel the advantages of a rear-wheel drive package and an engine that propels from 0 to 100km/h in just 6.8 seconds. (Note this GQ test pilot is no performance driver, so that acceleration’s on paper only.) Describing the drive of an Abarth 124 Spider, no other word can be used but ‘fun’. It really is a joy. For the average driver, the handling, the agility and the driving feel are fantastic. Even on Fuji Speedway where you’re allowed to test that ability, you feel that the car will get you around any tight corner safely and down the home straight in fast form. This is due to much of the weight being concentrated between the axles and a weight-to-power ratio that Abarth says is best in category.
It’s also down to the suspension and braking systems, which deliver both cornering stability and great effectiveness when it comes to short braking distances. You may not be able to drive it on a speedway, but this car will fit perfectly into the Australian market: think top down, along coastal roads for a weekend away – magic. Catching up after a spin around the speedway with President and CEO of Fiat Group Japan, Pontus Haggstrom, the response to the drive is validated. “The combination of low weight and punchy engines make Abarths fun to drive,” he says. “It’s centered around the fun-to-drive aspects, rather than the pure numbers aiming at that particular torque metric, or whatever, so we play in a unique place.”
Haggstrom is wearing a Panerai watch, a very Italian brand with Swiss functionality. After witnessing the cult status of Abarth and the mix of Italian flair and Japanese know-how, GQ asks whether parallels can be drawn between it and Panerai. “Yes,” says Haggstrom. “Wearing a Panerai seems to hold a similar brand identity. It’s individual, distinctive, unusual, with a curious design that appeals to only a select few. You’ll find a very strong link between cars and watch fanatics inmost countries. Perhaps Panerai is the watch that goes with the Abarth.” And what will the 124 Spider do for the Abarth brand? “It’s important for us to offer more cars in the line-up,” explains Haggstrom. “The Spider offers another choice and body style. I think it’s more like a car for couples. Abarth is a wry masculine brand, like Alfa Romeo, where 95 per cent of buyers are men. So hopefully this will drive a different conversation with our consumers, where their partners or wives will also come in and want this car, too.”