Abarth 124 Spider: UK Review

Now this should be a bit more like it. Regardless of its more laid-back pretensions, injecting a bit of Italian brio - we'll get the Italian cliches in early - to the 124 Spider formula sounds like rather a good idea. More power, more noise and more drama - who wouldn't want that from their roadster? Let's not forget either that Abarth is the same company that, in the most extreme case, has taken the Fiat 500 to the 695 Biposto; it has form in making very silly small cars.

They'll hear you before they see you...
They'll hear you before they see you...
For the Abarth 124, things start well. While the overhangs are probably still a bit awkward and the ride height a little tall, the Abarth is a far sportier and more exciting thing to look at than a regular 124. The red accents work, the black bonnet is a nice feature and the wheels look cool as well, although four exhausts might be a bit much.

Inside, any thoughts about the amount of Alcantara and scorpion logos that can be squeezed into one interior are cast aside once the noise from those exhausts is heard. This really is a very, very loud little car. And that's before the Sport mode is selected. It will make people look, whether you want them to or not, because it's a proper old din. Sometimes it sounds great, all fizzy and angry four-cylinder sports car, and occasionally it sounds like an outboard motor. It sounds authentic at least, the pops and bangs that sometimes emerge from behind you seemingly from driving hard and not because the ECU says so.

There's a broader point to consider here though: the aggressiveness of the exhaust and the firmness of the suspension send very clear signals that this is no longer a soft and accommodating 124. This is the sports car, the car to channel the emotional, exciting Italian spirit. It therefore must be judged as such...

Plenty of noise from here; not much power though
Plenty of noise from here; not much power though
There are good points, honest. But the amount of scuttle shake can make it hard to isolate them. It was a point made by Mike Duff last year, the toughening up of the 124's suspension not helping its structural integrity. In Britain on bumpy and wet roads the flex really dents your confidence as the car feels to be pulling itself in different directions.

Moreover, while the firmness has added some extra precision, it still hasn't solved the rather skittish behaviour that afflicts both 124 and MX-5 in damp conditions. The Abarth feels like its springs have been stiffened but the dampers left unchecked, even though the press material speaks of 'Abarth by Bilstein' items. While it leans and lurches less than a standard car, the Abarth still doesn't engender much faith at the limit as the control of wheel and body movements feels rather slack. It's a bizarre sensation in a car so light.

The limited-slip diff is a worthwhile addition though; no longer is power squandered through an inside wheel and, with good response from the pedal, the Abarth can be adjusted easily on the throttle to a pleasing degree. Again though the driver isn't entirely comfortable because of the slightly glassy steering, a common trait throughout these cars. You don't know much about what the front is doing, so the first you know is when the rear is letting go. Best be quick...

Nice in here, but is it £30K nice?
Nice in here, but is it £30K nice?
To be fair to the Abarth, it actually indulges your silly side at sensible speeds by offering a good chunk of torque low in the rev range. The gears are pleasingly short too. Trouble is - hopefully you're spotting a theme here - that when you want to extend the engine it doesn't feel all that willing. It's a small turbo that's very much about its mid-range, rather than the upper reaches. Arguably that's less appealing in a sports car, a point forced home by the revvy and eager 2.0-litre used in the MX-5.

The brakes are very good, the gearbox still excellent, and there's a real pleasure to be had in driving something small on British roads - it feels really well suited. Lots about the Abarth impresses, it's just that lots frustrate as well. And for all the noise and four-exhaust fury, it still isn't that fast.

Finally, while Abarth of course has history with the 124, here it feels misplaced. If the standard car is meant to be the more relaxed and refined version of the MX-5, why force it into a sportier suit? As mentioned when we drove the MX-5 RF, that more luxurious hard top variant would surely sit more comfortably with the Fiat's remit. That leaves the MX-5 there to base the racier variants on, as has happened so successfully over the past quarter of a century.

It is fun, but you can do better
It is fun, but you can do better
As it is, the Abarth is difficult to recommend. It's a better 124, and rather good fun in certain situations, though that fun comes at a cost: £30,000, to be precise. Not only is a 2.0-litre Sport MX-5 preferable, that sort of money brings a turbocharged car into budget as well. A GT86 is £5K cheaper and more fun straight out of the box. Despite that, it's not hard to imagine the 124 proving popular with Abarth aficionados; look at the Abarth 500s, where a Fiesta ST is cheaper and better to drive - still see plenty of them, don't you? For fans of the look and image, they will find a lot to like about the Abarth; it's just disappointing that there's limited appeal here for those beyond the committed few.

: 1,368cc, turbocharged inline-four
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 172@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@
0-62mph: 6.8sec
Top speed: 144mph
Weight: 1,060kg
MPG: 44.1 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 148g/km
Price: £29,620





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Comments (55) Join the discussion on the forum

  • drgoatboy 08 Jun 2017

    Seems like Fiat missed a trick here by not making it significantly more powerful than the MX5 (or are they not allowed to?)
    Doesn't this engine come in more powerful guises elsewhere?

    Not that it really matters to me as I don't fit in the latest MX5 so I assume I won't fit in this either!

  • pfwilliams 08 Jun 2017

    Sticking with a manual I can't get the configurator above £32,265 - what am I missing?

  • staffs Mike 08 Jun 2017

    I don't think I would even consider the 124 over any alternatives mentioned. However I only test drove my Abarth 595 on a whim (the day I was meant to buy a Fiesta ST) and I bought it!

    It was difficult to explain to the Ford dealer why I decided a car that was worse in every quantifiable way was better than the ST but it really is just more fun... especially at legal speeds!

  • Phunk 08 Jun 2017

    I drove one of these and a standard 2.0 MX5.

    MX5 was miles better, I didn't like the sound the Abarth made and the MX5 was much more fun to drive.

    (I used to own a Abarth 500 too)

  • viggyp 08 Jun 2017

    I don't understand why Fiat didn't use the 1.8 from the Giulietta/4C rather than the 1.4. That would've been 200bhp minimum.

    Edited by viggyp on Thursday 8th June 16:18

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