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Abarth 124 Spider review: 170bhp of Abarth motoring in a car based on the Mazda MX-5 – what could possibly go wrong? Not a lot, actually, but prepare to dig deep for the privilege.
There are quite a few cars you could buy for around the price of an Abarth 124 Spider. A BMW M140i, for instance, if you like understated, fast rear-wheel drive hatchbacks or maybe an MY18 Nissan 370Z if you want something with old-school brutish charm.
You could even save up a bit and get a Ford Focus RS, which is a bit of a legend around supermarket car parks, or something a little more family-friendly but still fast in the form of the VW Golf R.
Then again, going sideways in the Toyota GT86 is very tempting and you would have change left over. Or you could splash the cash on a Mazda Mazda MX-5 and get someone to turn it into a highly-tuned, track-owning destroyer.
With all that choice, the Abarth 124 Spider has a lot to live up to. So why would you spend £30,000 on an Abarth 124 Spider when you could settle for one of the many alternatives, almost all of which are faster and more practical?
Abarth 124 Spider review: What makes it special?
Abarth is a company that famously built a car with an engine that protruded from the boot so badly it looked as if someone was trying to drive off with it, which makes a number of sporty extras – including a noticeable increase in power – hardly surprising.
Besides the option of a matte black boot hatch and bonnet and red accents? Well, there is a tuned version of the 1.4-litre turbo engine in the standard Fiat 124 Spider, which has been tuned to deliver 168bhp and 184lb/ft of torque – up up 30bhp and 7lb/ft, respectively.
It also gets a limited-slip differential, as you do in the top-spec Mazda MX-5 that shares the same platform, and the front and rear of the car have been modified to provide space for larger air intakes and the menacing ‘Record Monza’ quad-exhaust.
Then there is the addition of Bilstein dampers, a stiffer chassis, anti-roll bars and a grippier Bridgestone Potenza tyre for keeping it out of a ditch.
Beneath the loud exterior is the same underpinnings as the Fiat 124 Spider, which shares the same platform as the Mazda MX-5. Yes, this is a rare partnership of Italian and Japanese design and engineering, with Abarth adding the finishing touches.
In terms of aesthetics, the 124 Spider is actually based on the 1960s car it shares its name with. Long bonnet, two seats, small boot and a pretty aesthetic – it’s a job well done and the added Abarth modifications make it harder to ignore.
The inside of the Abarth 124 Spider is largely similar to the Mazda and 124 Spider, but that is no bad thing because there is enough character to keep you from looking too closely at some cheap buttons and a few even cheaper plastics.
Being the Abarth version, you do get a plaque between the seats that tells you what production number you own and the legendary scorpion on the steering wheel, backrest and when the occasionally iffy infotainment system loads up. Nothing too bling, but welcome additions all the same.
People stare it at, sometimes out of confusion but mostly in a good way
Just avoid staring at the interior for too long.
Abarth 124 Spider review: How well does it drive?
Abarth’s tuning efforts make the Fiat 124 Spider a bit more frenetic, more akin to the MX-5 it shares a platform with. But the sizable amount of torque available from 2,500rpm, up 7lb/ft to 184lb/ft, means it can make swift progress with a much gentler foot.
Initially, it appears the Abarth 124 Spider is a bit slow but the modest 0-62mph of 6.8 seconds only tells half the story. Above 3,000rpm, the turbo finally kicks in and you get a satisfying punch of acceleration up to 5,500rpm where it flatlines – 500rpm above the standard 124 Spider.
Compared with the Toyota GT86, the delivery is much less linear and that makes it vastly more exciting when your only source of driving fun is trying to out-drag (the race, not wearing a dress) the car next to you at the traffic lights.
Holding up on the mode selecter puts you into sport, which really makes the Abarth 124 Spider keen to go. The throttle sharpens up noticeably, while it is less inclined to lose as much speed when you lift off the accelerator.
Not only that, the quad-exit exhaust system becomes noisier. It is loud all of the time to the point people assume you’re off to hang around in a supermarket car park, but the savageness of the pops in sport mode would offend a Focus RS.
In some ways you could be disappointed with the Abarth 124 Spider because it is actually almost as comfortable as the standard 124 Spider, with no annoying quirks beyond the very slightly angled seating position.
But where your bog-standard 124 Spider never quite satisfies a craving for power, the Abarth 124 Spider is much more convincing. Initially we were of the mindset it should have 200+bhp and be utterly ridiculous (we are still open to this idea, Fiat), but as the week wore on we started to appreciate the balance and restraint that makes it such a competent handler.
That is not to say it is slow overall. While you may need a long road to reach the 142mph top speed, it will make progress with enthusiasm at 70mph – even in sixth gear. Which is exactly what a car with 124hp per litre and a sub-tonne weight should do.
Honestly, it was getting frustrating trying to find somewhere to see what the Abarth can do because its lightweight body, 50:50 weight distribution and rear-wheel drive nature make for seriously impressive cornering that has the potential to upset expensive performance cars.
The steering feel is more vague than it should be, but there is enough feedback to know when you need to back down. As a result, it scythes through country roads better than most four-wheelers, especially when Sport mode also beefs up the steering weight so it is more intuitive.
Understeer can rear its head if you get too cocky, but you would have to live in the middle of nowhere with very empty roads to really explore some of its handling extremes, particularly when you consider it has a limited-slip differential to help you exit a corner faster.
Yet for all of its performance pedigree, you can enjoy heating, radio and a windscreen and cruise home at a gentle place, with only the cramped cabin and lack of seat adjustment reminding you it is a very small two-seater roadster.
The ride quality can be a bit firm, but there are hatchbacks that are worse off in this department. A subtle softness to the suspension (the same setup as the 124 Spider) makes it more comfortable than an MX-5 and therefore better suited to longer drives and bad roads, even with the Eibach dampers.
Obviously the Abarth 124 is best served at speed, but the seating position, small cabin and long bonnet all contribute to a sense of the 1960s car it is based on. It has a retro and refreshingly simplistic quality that makes it really pleasing – like each journey is designed to be an experience.
We only tested the six-speed manual gearbox, but unless the automatic is the best automatic ever to grace a car (and we doubt that highly) it will undoubtedly feel out of place.
In any case, the gap between each gear on the manual is so short you can change up and down fast and we appreciate the hefty mechanical feel.
Honestly, you would be hard-pressed to find a car that combines impeccable handling, day-to-day comfort (if you are not too tall) and a distinctly rewarding driving experience quite so brilliantly.
It makes driving fun, plain and simple.
Sometimes a little more horsepower would be welcome.
Abarth 124 Spider review: Can I use it as a daily driver?
You definitely could although you would feel guilty racking up the miles on a car as special. The fuel economy is routinely around the late 30s at sensible speeds, which means it can go a pleasingly long way before you need to fill it, and the CO2 of 148g/km is respectable, too.
Where the Abarth 124 Spider falls down most is the lack of space. There are no door bins and the little storage compartment between the seats, of which there are only two, is hardly generous and there is no glove box.
None of this would be an issue if the boot was large, but large would be the overstatement of the century. Beyond one medium-sized holdall, a pair of shoes and a toothbrush you may as well give up. A mixture of just 140 litres of space and an irregular, non-flat shape is anything but helpful.
Tall people could also have an issue with the lack of height adjustment with the roof on and leg room was okay for our six-foot frame, but it certainly feels claustrophobic. Or cosy, if you prefer to be positive.
It is also quite noisy at motorway speeds, thanks to lots of wind noise with the roof up, but then you can spec a Bose stereo and block out a portion of it with your own preferred racket.
Some people may also find issue with the roof mechanism, which needs to be done manually, but then your average buyer of a comfortable roadster will probably buy a BMW Z4 or Mercedes SLC or SLK. Abarth is for the sporty crowd who would recognise the scorpion badge a mile off.
Like the 124 Spider, it is surprisingly comfortable if you can fit inside it.
There are shopping bags with more space.
Abarth 124 Spider review: What about the price and specs?
So it’s moderately cheap to run, what about buying the thing? Well, a basic spec Abarth 124 Spider Scorpione with a six-speed manual gearbox costs from £26,920. Not crazy money given the badge prestige.
But it will be another £3,000 extra for the Spider Heritage Look and Spider versions that offer full leather seats, as opposed to part-leather and part-microfibre, and the option of the automatic as well as the matte black bonnet and boot hatch for the former.
Abarth 124 Spider review: Should I buy one, then?
If the Abarth badge means a lot to you and you crave an impractical but rewarding car that will never be as common as the cheaper MX-5, go for it. If you dislike the idea of having a hatchback but want performance and sportiness, it’s another yes from us.
If, however, you need something sporty and somewhat practical you are better off buying just about anything other than a two-seater roadster. Well, except a Caterham. Because when it comes to shopping and holiday luggage potential, the Abarth 124 is as bad as it gets.
A few minor issues such as the interior quality and high cost keep it from being an outright classic, but there is no disputing the fact the Abarth is a talented B-road killer that takes less effort to enjoy than an MX-5 – not to mention it has considerably more badge appeal.
We did find ourselves wishing it was a little crazier (not engine-out-the-back crazy, mind you) from time to time, but then that is what the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is for.
Nobody can dispute the fact the Abarth 124 Spider is expensive, but if it’s fun you want there is little chance of being disappointed with your purchase.