Road Test: Abarth 124 Spider
There’s more to Abarth’s lively drop-top than good first impressions, reckons Alex Grant.
SECTOR Roadster PRICE £31,935 FUEL 42.8mpg CO2 153g/km
Retro revivals are a dark art – but it’s one Fiat perfected in one hit. In the last 11 years, it’s enjoyed global success with the chic 500, resurrected the Abarth performance brand, and brought the 124 Spider back into showrooms too. And, if retro is your proverbial cup of tea, Abarth’s re-working of Fiat’s stylish drop-top offers more than just classic kerbside appeal.
With 4,441 UK sales in what was a record 2017, Abarth isn’t a mainstream choice, but it’s an attractive component of FCA’s multi-marque fleet offer with user-choosers on its radar. And, if the cutesy 500 took well to some track-bred attitude, then the 124 Spider – derived from the excellent new Mazda MX-5 platform and by no means a soft option anyway – seems tailor-made for it.
This is a retro revival in its own right. Abarth had, in the early 1970s, been responsible for turning the 124 Sport Spider into a road-legal rally car – the newcomer’s no-cost option satin black bonnet is a nod to the anti-glare paintjob offered on the original. Upgrades here don’t extend to lightweight body panels and plastic windows, as used 45 years ago, but they’re enough to turn Fiat’s lively roadster into a firmly-focused driving machine.
You get a sense of that from the moment the engine snarls and pops angrily into life. Fiat’s 1.4-litre petrol turbo is upgraded to a feisty 168bhp, putting that power to the rear wheels through a limited-slip differential and choice of manual or automatic transmissions, accompanied by a very vocal sports exhaust system.
It’s a modest output next to today’s compact hot hatches, but at 1,060kg the 124 Spider is only slightly heavier than the 595 city car, spreading that weight evenly over its front and rear axles. They’re good foundations; its low weight means straight-line acceleration is brisk from almost any point in the rev range, while the re-tuned dampers and anti-roll bars add sure-footed cornering to its razor-sharp steering responses.
Abarth could easily have upset the real-world usability of its Fiat sibling – but it’s not harder to handle despite the theatrical exhaust note and that extra pace, and that’s true even when it’s competing with the worst of the British climate. You can even forgive the sluggishness of the automatic gearbox tested here, as long as you’re happy to use the paddles behind the steering wheel.
Not all of its Mazda-derived engineering works, though. The cabin is shared, with controls positioned within easy reach of the driver and a large central rev counter at the centre of the instruments. But it’s not for tall drivers, offering limited headroom and seat adjustment, and no way to change the reach of the steering wheel. Mazda’s infotainment isn’t overly intuitive, either, missing out on Android Auto or Apple CarPlay altogether, and only offering satellite navigation as an option.
Which is where this becomes an exclusive choice. Unlike the 500, the 124 Spider is a brilliant driver’s car without the Abarth bolt-ons, and turning the roadster’s performance up to 11 adds a sizeable price premium into the mix. This is the better driver’s car, but if retro thrills are your proverbial cup of tea, don’t overlook the Fiat version.
What We Think:
Raucous, aggressive and huge fun to drive, Abarth’s 124 Spider punches well above its weight as a driver’s car, without being a tiresome for commuting. The trouble is, the same is true of the much cheaper Fiat 124 Spider.