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Driven: Abarth 124 Spider. Image by Matt Robinson.

Driven: Abarth 124 Spider
Fiat takes a Mazda MX-5, changes the body, drops in a turbo engine and hands it over to Abarth.

 



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Abarth 124 Spider

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Good points: Exhaust note, turbocharged performance, excellent chassis, attractive exterior styling

Not so good: Interior very similar to MX-5 cabin, yet prices start at nearly 30,000

Key Facts

Model tested: Abarth 124 Spider
Price: Abarth 124 range starts from 29,620; car as tested 32,010
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: two-door roadster
CO2 emissions: 148g/km (VED 200 first 12 months, 140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 44.1mpg
Top speed: 143mph
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Power: 170hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 2,500rpm

Our view:

The Abarth 124 Spider is the first product of Fiat's revived sporting division that isn't a hotted-up Fiat 500 of some description. Instead, it's a hotted-up Fiat 124. Which, in turn, is a re-bodied Mazda MX-5. Yes, that's right - this is another modern example of platform-sharing. It's very good news for Abarth, though, because the resulting 124 Spider tested see here is one of those rare automotive jewels that's just waiting to be discovered by an appreciative, if largely unknowing audience.

It'll face a tough fight for recognition, however, as the MX-5 has a reputation that could totally overshadow the 124 Spider. And it's apparent that there's a schism already emerging between petrolheads, regarding whether you're a fan of the Mazda or the Abarth. Determining where your allegiance lies revolves around two main tenets. Firstly, do you prefer the angular, aggressive look of the Japanese car or the more elegant, retro-inspired European roadster? Secondly, are you a fan of naturally aspirated engines or turbocharging?

If you've read our previous reviews of the MX-5, you'll know we love it - but our main reservations regard its slightly complicated appearance and the fact the 1.5-litre model feels like the sweeter car. But we are also confirmed fans of natural aspiration: given a choice between the crisp throttle and linear performance of an atmospheric engine, up against the torque-rich midrange but reluctance to rev of a light-pressure turbo, we'd always go for the former.

Nevertheless, we'll plant our flag early in the review and admit the Abarth 124 Spider is our preference. And it's quite a clear margin of victory for the Italian, too. You'll see from our MX-5 reviews that we gave the 1.5 a full five-star rating whereas we've refrained from doing so for the Abarth, but that's because the Spider is considerably more expensive than even a fully-loaded MX-5 2.0 Sport Nav. And yet the manually-opening roof and the 124's interior are both almost identical - inside, an Alcantara dash insert, red rev counter, different seats, an alternative gearlever and the scorpion-branded boss for the steering wheel are the only changes from Mazda to Abarth. That will be a disappointment for some, who reckon you should get more for your extra outlay than just an additional 10hp and 50Nm. Yet in terms of the overall driving experience, the Abarth is more entertaining than anything the MX-5 can (currently) serve up, making it worth the significant premium in our eyes.

For a start, it's going to be a much rarer sight than the Mazda, which brings an appeal of its own. It also looks utterly superb, being - in our opinion - a far more cohesive piece of design than the Japanese motor. You don't have to have the 124's 'Heritage' finish, which brings in the contentious black bonnet/bootlid and red detailing that upsets some folk, but we adore it, and when it's teamed with the 400 Turini 1975 White paint, we can't think of any reason we'd opt for any other specification for the Abarth. In this guise, it looks about twice as expensive as it actually is.

It also sounds about twice as powerful, too, once you fire up the breathed-upon 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo motor. That's because Abarth has fitted the 124 Spider with a Record Monza quad-exit exhaust that heightens the dynamic experience each and every time you get into the car. You won't hear a turbocharged four-cylinder drivetrain that sounds better than this Abarth. It gargles and gurgles at idle like a track refugee and it transforms into a hugely alluring and burbling voice through the 2,000- to 4,000rpm bracket. Then it really gets into its stride as you close in on the 6,500rpm redline. Click the 124 into Sport, sharpening the throttle and putting the exhaust into full flow, and you can't help but laugh out loud as the Abarth goes through its full vocal repertoire.

The Spider also feels healthily quicker than the Mazda, no matter where you are on the rev counter. It's half a second quicker from 0-62mph than the 2.0-litre MX-5 at 6.8 seconds, and 10mph faster flat out at 143mph, but the margin of its performance advantage seems considerably greater when behind the wheel. The 1.4 is a lovely motor, sharp on the throttle and keen to rev beyond its 5,500rpm point of peak power. And the rest of the chassis is every bit as good as the Mazda: same brilliant steering, same diff-equipped rear axle that can be used to steer the car, same strong level of body control and what has to be the most perfect set-up for heel-and-toe downshifting.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of how much we enjoyed driving the Abarth 124 is the meagre 21.2mpg fuel economy we got out of it across 100 miles in its company. We only drove it on local country back roads, but on every single journey it does its utmost to encourage you to get the best out of it once its oils are warmed through. It was also the only car for a long while in which we've considered going out for a drive, just for the sheer hell of it.

So no, it's not practical or particularly comfortable for day-to-day driving - the ride quality is uncompromisingly firm - but the Abarth is every bit as good as the Mazda, and then it's a little bit more engaging besides. We can totally understand why you'd go for the MX-5 instead, and we wouldn't be surprised if you did so. But our recommendation is to make the stretch to the 30,000 Abarth 124 Spider, which, by any measure, is a truly fabulous, affordable, rear-drive sports car.

Alternatives:

Fiat 124 Spider: Fiat's softer take on the MX-5 underpinnings. It's still good to drive but a little slower with 140hp, although it's considerably cheaper too - starting from less than 20k.

Mazda MX-5 2.0: Punchy enough with 160hp, despite the lack of a turbo, yet we find the 1.5-litre Mazda just a touch sweeter than the more potent 2.0-litre.

Toyota GT86: About the only 'outsider' rival to these open-topped, affordable roadsters, the Toyota is all about the oversteer - engine needs working harder than the Abarth's, though.


Matt Robinson - 18 Mar 2017









      - Abarth road tests
- Abarth news
- 124 Spider images

2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.

2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.2017 Abarth 124 Spider drive. Image by Matt Robinson.








 

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