From £28,8259
The Abarth version of the 124 may only be a mildly tuned upgrade of Fiat's standard car, but it's a revelation

Our Verdict

Abarth 124 Spider

More raucous take on Fiat’s Mazda-based roadster promises open-top thrills

  • First Drive

    Abarth 124 Spider 2017 review

    An expensive proposition, yes, but the Abarth 124 Spider thrills and excites enough on UK roads to send its price to the back of your mind
  • First Drive

    2016 Abarth 124 Spider prototype drive

    The Abarth version of the 124 may only be a mildly tuned upgrade of Fiat's standard car, but it's a revelation
Nic Cackett
8 June 2016

What is it?

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. 

What's it like?

First up, we'll deal with the automatic gearbox. 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.

Should I buy one?

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.

Be that as it may, the tuner’s contagious enthusiasm percolates from this roadster. 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; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1060kg; 0-62mph 6.8sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 44.1mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 148g/km, 26%

Join the debate

Comments
22

8 June 2016
Why is it that Cackett can't write a review without every time inflicting the reader with his constant banal analogies, spoils the piece every time…just put down an honest review without trying to be clever…you'll find that more people will make it to the end of the piece if you do...

8 June 2016
Waiting in hope wrote:

Why is it that Cackett can't write a review without every time inflicting the reader with his constant banal analogies, spoils the piece every time…just put down an honest review without trying to be clever…you'll find that more people will make it to the end of the piece if you do...

I agree. Autocar, please stop paying Mr Cackett by the word. As for the car, the handling sounds great, the engine mediocre and the price is crazy.

8 June 2016
Like that, and the basic shape. Black bootlid looks silly and overall it sounds wholly underwhelming. Yet another FCA disappointment.

8 June 2016
Waiting in hope wrote:

Why is it that Cackett can't write a review without every time inflicting the reader with his constant banal analogies, spoils the piece every time…just put down an honest review without trying to be clever…you'll find that more people will make it to the end of the piece if you do...

I know. It's utterly CRINGEWORTHY!

3

9 June 2016
Like many others who enjoyed your review and style, stick to it Nic, you are far more interesting and insightful than some impoverished readers.
Flavour and context create nuance and feel
Love your work.
Perhaps Fiat have let the lads off the leash finally, lets hope so. Gosh I loved my yellow Fiat coupe 220!

8 June 2016
Looks like Fiat have done a really good job of creating their own version of the MX5. For my money, I think it looks better too, though I'm not sure about that two-tone colour scheme.

8 June 2016
The bonnet looks good, not sure about the boot lid though! As the opening is quite narrow, it looks a bit dwarfed by the wear wings!

8 June 2016
Abarth seem to have nailed this little roadster in terms of fun-to-drive and looks (the black elements, by the way, are optional, you can have it without them), but the price is a little too steep: 5.5 grand more than a top of the like Miata 2.0 Recaro?! A lot of potential customers are going to walk away when they get the sticker shock.

8 June 2016
Does anybody else think the front looks a lot like a 260Z?

8 June 2016
jason_recliner wrote:

Does anybody else think the front looks a lot like a 260Z?

Yes - matt black bonnet is a 240Z Rally-car thing. Not sure if it was originally nicked from Abarth..

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