Impossible, I think, not to approach Abarth’s prototype version of the Fiat 124 Spider without some trepidation.
Fiat’s in-house tuner hasn’t always made a brilliant job of fettling Fiat products; the notion of what it might do to a light-weight, lightly powered and just plain lovely Japanese roadster is an ominous thought.
Abarth prefers not to mention the M-word, and – to cut their engineers some slack – that’s probably fair enough.
After all, it’s not for them to reason why when Fiat hands them a car; their job is not to construct platforms, but to improve what’s already there.
Accordingly, their Spider was developed alongside the Fiat version – but always as a separate entity from it.
To that end, the wick of the same turbocharged 1.4-litre Multiair engine has been turned up, rendering 168bhp where previously there was only 138bhp. The torque rises modestly, too, to 184lb ft, and peaks very slightly later (although both are significantly different to the naturally aspirated engine found in the MX-5).
More importantly, the Abarth version gets the mechanical limited-slip differential missing from the cooking Fiat model, and while it shares the Spider’s basic suspension, it sports Bilstein dampers, not to mention its own specific tune of anti-roll bar and spring rates.
Under the arches are 17in alloys, shod in Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tyres (uprated from S001s on the regular 124), and it's stopped by Brembo four-piston brakes at the front.
The automated six-speed manual transmission isn’t really meant for the likes of us: it’s a necessary evil for Fiat’s Stateside operation – and that’s good to know, because the transmission, in the best tradition of Essesse ’boxes, is mediocre.
Left to its own devices, it rummages around its ratios like a distracted shopper searching for a multi-storey car park ticket, upshifting through pockets desperately in its default mode, then fixating on one continuously in Sport.
It paddleshifts more agreeably in manual mode, but still with an occasional bad-mannered shunt and never without needlessly strangling the four-pot’s best intentions. The net result is like an MX-5 with the blood drained from its vital organs and as thrilling as a half-empty jar of low-fat mayonnaise.
The saving grace is the obvious quality of Abarth's chassis tuning. Just as with the Fiat 124 Spider, there’s a soupçon of extra heft to the steering and greater assurance when initially turning in.
The Mazda’s tendency to lean is cleverly tamed, because here there’s no detrimental effect to the way the Bilstein dampers manage secondary infringements on the still very supple ride quality. All up, the chassis feels more serious, then, but not desensitised.
Accordingly, the manual gearbox version of the car really takes these virtues and runs with them. The six short-throw cogs (plundered from you know where) are the key not only to unlocking the Multiair’s mid-range vitality but also to liberating the Abarth’s almost absurd levels of handling playfulness.
Each, of course, is intertwined. With the driver in unmitigated control of clutch, selected gear and throttle, it is far easier to keep the four-pot locked in its 3000-5000rpm groove. There’s still a slushy spot of low-down turbo lag to negotiate, but the car’s sharper intent and the improbably huge noise issuing from the quad exhausts do a good job of encouraging you to endlessly negotiate it.
The Abarth isn’t dramatically quicker than the standard model, although with the limited-slip diff now providing the traction and the suspension's stiffened anti-roll bars managing the mass, it’s the same thwack of predictable twist that makes the Abarth 124 feel not only noticeably faster in the real world than the quickest Mazda, but also terrifically easy to adjust on the throttle.
In this regard, the Abarth threatens to break new ground. The progressiveness of the driven axle's breakaway, and the utterly benign, easily fixable attitude it adopts, is laugh-out-loud exhilarating. Forget the MX-5: there’s something Caterham 160-esque in the way that the car's chuckable balance, predictable limit handling and robust lateral body control have you joyfully whittling away the tread of the rear tyres at the exit of every sharp bend.
A comparison to a 490kg, live rear axle Seven sounds ridiculous – but for 40 minutes on an admittedly greasy hill in Veneto, the 124 earned it. Too short a go to tell if it will survive transference to UK roads, and too early yet to justifiably call it a seminal moment for Abarth, but the omens are exciting – and only part mitigated by Fiat’s decision to charge an outlandish £30k for the manual version.
At the very least, the car shows what Abarth’s comparatively tiny team are capable of when presented with an already very good rear-drive car, followed by permission to fettle it to suit a very small niche (to which they themselves belong). If this is Abarth from now on, then more please.
Abarth 124 Spider
Price £29,565; Engine 4 cyls, 1368cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 168bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 184lb ft at 2500rpm; 0-62mph 6.8sec; Top speed 143mph; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Dry weight 1060kg; Economy 44.1mpg (combined); CO2 148g/km