► Abarth 124 Spider tested
► New GT version recently launched
► The MX-5 you’ve been waiting for?
The Fiat 124’s been Abarth’d. After years of hard work on hatchbacks and city cars, you get the feeling Fiat’s performance subsidiary couldn’t wait to get its hands on a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive two-seater.
The Abarth 124 Spider is the product of two and a half years’ work, and developed in parallel to the standard 124. The Abarth crew have tweaked the standard set-up with a lower ride height, Bilstein shocks and unique settings for the springs, anti-roll bars, steering and stability control.
The black-bonneted wonder also gets a mechanical limited-slip differential as standard, a tweaked version of the Fiat Punto Abarth’s 1.4 turbo four-pot nestling longitudinally under the bonnet, Brembo brakes and a freer-breathing exhaust.
Looks pretty funky
It’s amazing how good a matt black bonnet and boot can look, and they're a nice nod to Abarths past – although plain body-coloured schemes are also available. The Abarth 124’s further differentiated by black wheels, bespoke Bridgestone tyres, a more aggressive front bumper and side skirts.
Inside you get a little competition car chic in the form of a welcome smattering of alcantara, a red rev counter, a red stripe to the top of the wheel and an Abarth certification plate screwed to the bulkhead between the seats. There’s also a Sport button, which sharpens the steering, throttle and the gearbox response (if you’ve inexplicably gone for the auto) and lowers the stability control threshold.
Fundamentally, little’s changed from the 124 or MX-5, so there’s an optional but excellent iDrive-style infotainment system (with a less excellent sat-nav system), a fine driving position that’s not quite as adjustable as you’d like, the same clever, quick and ultra-light folding soft-top and the general feel of a cockpit right on the cusp of cosy becoming claustrophobic – 6ft-plus pilots will struggle.
Sounds funky too?
Oh yes. Ok, so it’s not the most sophisticated of noises – this being a modern turbocharged four – but the Record Monza exhaust is vocal and adds plenty to the driving experience, broadcasting every movement of the throttle pedal with a rasping, metallic blare that’s entirely in keeping with the Abarth’s retro styling touches – and it sounds for all the world like a ’60s twin-cam four-cylinder on maximum attack.
Too loud? On a mainstream car it’d be unacceptably wearing but here it feels entirely appropriate.
All mouth and no trousers?
Just as you’re pondering whether 168bhp is enough, consider that the manual 124 Abarth only weighs 1060kg. And that turbo torque, which chimes in at 2500rpm and is really kicking on by 3500rpm, lends the 124 a deceptive turn of speed.
A Fiesta ST will leave you for dust, certainly, but at speed in the Abarth, with the engine roaring through its exhaust, you couldn’t care less.
The delivery is impressively linear, so much so that blundering into the 6500rpm rev limit is easy. But while you could argue that isn’t how a little sports car engine should behave, in truth this is the best engine yet to grace the MX-5 platform.
It makes a playground of every first, second and third-gear corner, and brings calm assurance to overtakes. The Abarth knocks less than a second from the Fiat’s 0-62mph time but at the wheel the feeling is of a significantly stronger motor.
And to steer?
Thanks to those excellent Mazda fundamentals (low weight, 50:50 weight distribution, rear-wheel drive) and Abarth’s superb chassis set-up, it’s great fun.
The set-up feels somewhere between the two MX-5 options: the standard tune and that of the Bilstein-equipped 2.0-litre cars. The Fiat rides almost as well as the softer Mazda but controls body movement like the Sport-equipped MX-5. And there’s such balance and transparency to everything it does that within a mile you’re flicking to Sport for its sharper responses, knocking off the stability control and having a blast.
Its key advantages are torque and that limited-slip diff. Together they mean meaty traction and drive when you want to keep things neat and the potential for slow-motion slides when you don’t. Top marks also to the light, accurate steering – you can feel grip levels across the front axle ebb and flow as you pass from dry road to damp – the strong, linear brakes and the lovely six-speed manual ’box.
What about the latest Abarth 124 GT version? What’s that like?
The GT is the range-topping version of the Abarth 124, revealed at the 2018 Geneva motor show and on sale in the UK from May 2018. [At the time of writing, pricing is yet to be confirmed.]
If you’re hoping that the GT label signifies a special high-performance version of the 124, you might be disappointed – this is a GT in cosmetic terms only.
Primary difference is a new carbonfibre hardtop, which not only looks pretty purposeful but also (slightly) increases the car’s torsional rigidity when in place. The soft-top hood remains in place beneath it, so you can whip it off in summer and still enjoy top-down sun chasing.
There currently isn’t a motorised hardtop version of the 124 available, as per the Mazda MX-5 RF and Fiat hasn’t spoken of any plans to offer one.
Together with the carbonfibre roof the GT also gets its own set of 17-inch OZ alloys and the top Bose sound system as standard. If you like you can have the mirror caps in carbonfibre too as an option, along with an insert for the front bumper. It certainly looks the part, but it’s a shame there’s not a bit of extra go to match the show. It’s the same 168bhp 1.4 turbo four-pot engine, as the regular Abarth 124 without any extra boost. Same 44.1mpg and 148g/km CO2, or slightly poorer figures if you pick the optional six-speed auto gearbox.
Same Record Monza exhaust as the regular Abarth 124 Spider too, so it makes a similarly throaty sound.
The hardtop has a plush lining on the inside and decent-sized heated rear window. It’s attached by four bolts, and the same header-rail clamp as the soft top. That makes it supposedly pretty easy to take on and off, but since we didn’t have any spanners with us on the launch we’ll have to take Abarth’s word for it. It weighs 16kg, but the with each OZ alloy weighing 4kg less than the standard wheels, the GT doesn’t weigh any extra than the regular Abarth 124.
You can feel the extra rigidity of the hardtop in play – it’s not a night and day difference, but there is a little less scuttle movement and the steering feels a shade more precise. There is, however, a little extra wind noise as the airflow licks around the trailing edge of the roof at speed, and there are plenty of insistent creaking noises from the hardtop, especially on bumpy roads.
The GT’s carbonfibre lid looks great (to this tester’s eyes) but overall it doesn’t feel like an obvious choice to buy. The 124 feels in its element when its roof is down and the sun is shining, and while the slight extra torsional rigidity the hardtop brings is welcome, this isn’t necessarily a car that’s all about apex shaving anyway. Without any mechanical upgrades to speak of, there’s little to truly recommend the GT over the regular Abarth 124.
Abarth 124 Spider: verdict
Comparing the £30k Abarth 124 Spider to the MX-5 is inevitable but unfair. A 1.5 SE Mazda is more than £10k cheaper and a 2.0-litre SE-L Nav still under £22k (in April 2018).
The BMW 220i M Sport packs a little more power and is a fair bit more practical, but it’s also an awful lot heavier at 1595kg for the convertible. A 2.0 TFSI Audi TT will surely out-grip the Abarth but can’t touch it for driving satisfaction or emotional clout. Both Germans are more rounded products, more versatile. But if you find yourself really wanting to own an Abarth 124 Spider instead, we don’t blame you.
Read more Abarth reviews here