What is it?
Carlo Abarth might just be smiling up there somewhere. Current FCA boss Sergio Marchionne almost certainly will be down here. After a long list of fairly forgettable cars wearing the sporting Abarth badge in recent years, along comes one that has the recipe for potential success: the Abarth 124 Spider.
For starters, the Fiat 124 Spider’s turbocharged 1.4-litre engine has been boosted by 30bhp and 7lb ft to a total of 168bhp and 184lb ft, and making sure everybody knows it is a standard Record Monza sports exhaust. That’s the punch sorted, then, but what about the poise? Well, a rear drive layout, 1060kg kerb weight distributed evenly, stiffened anti-roll bars and uniquely tuned Abarth-Bilstein dampers should see to that.
Rounding it all off nicely is a standard limited-slip differential, bestowed upon the more powerful Mazda MX-5s (the car with which the 124 shares its platform) but reserved here for the full-fat Abarth. There is one small problem, though: the price. Even the most expensive 158bhp MX-5 2.0 Sport Nav costs just £23,695, while the Abarth starts at a rather more cumbersome £29,565.
What’s it like?
But never mind that for the moment; what about the performance and the noise? The noise is certainly befitting of the badge, the 124’s little 1.4 gurgling, howling and popping at lower speeds, if never building to quite the crescendo you’d like at full chat. The performance is decent rather than outstanding, with Normal mode accentuating the 124’s turbo lag but sharper-throttled Sport making it feel pleasingly urgent.
Even so, it never quite feels as fast as Abarth’s pedigree suggests it should when pushed hard, and an official 0-62mph time of 6.8sec and 143mph top speed tell you just that. In reality, it’s brisk but never outright rapid. Nevertheless, its short-throw, six-speed manual gearbox has one of the sweetest actions going, and with its turbocharging comes good mid-range flexibility and more frequent cog-swapping enjoyment.
And the fact that this Abarth is hardly any quicker than a 2.0-litre MX-5 becomes all the more bearable considering its chassis. The Abarth rides very well most of the time and doesn’t allow the same level of lateral body movement as the MX-5. This, coupled with linear, precise steering, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable driver’s car. With Sport switched on and the traction control switched off, it allows for the sort of predictable low-speed, throttle-on adjustability that’s nigh on perfect on UK roads.
In fact, the only real downside is refinement. There’s quite a bit of buzz about the place under load and – like the MX-5, in fairness – while the manual cloth roof is splendidly easy to open and close, it doesn’t do a very good job of keeping road and wind roar at bay when in place. You’ll be turning the radio up and raising your voice on the motorway here.
Abarth has done a fine job with the 124’s chassis, but it’s fair to say Mazda’s heavy influence on its cabin is a good thing. As such, its surfaces and buttons look and feel the part and the standard 7.0in colour touchscreen – which can also be controlled via a centrally mounted rotary dial – is one of the best anywhere. Abarth’s seats provide good lateral support, too, and its (annoyingly only rake-adjusting) steering wheel, lashings of Alcantara and numbered plaque manage to maintain the air of quality and exclusivity.
Like any other 124, the Abarth seats two adults with ease and provides just enough storage to keep phones and keys from ricocheting about the cabin, if not much else. Behind sits a 140-litre boot no smaller than the standard car’; it will realistically take a couple of weekend bags, but that’s about your lot.
Should I buy one?
Nearly £30,000 for this manual model is considerable money for a medium-quick roadster, but the manual version is the way to go, based on our experience (and subsequent dislike) of the pricier auto. On a more subjective note, the matt black bonnet and bootlid you see before you are part of a no-cost optional ‘Heritage Pack’, and to these eyes at least, the 124 is better left without it.
Performance isn’t everything, though. More importantly, the Abarth 124 is capable of making you smile, not only for its addictive soundtrack, but also because it’s a proper hoot to drive on UK roads. The differences in handling between it and an MX-5 are negligible – both are extremely good – but other roadsters such as the Mercedes-Benz SLC pale in comparison. That the Abarth is also well equipped, and slightly cleaner and more frugal than a 2.0-litre MX-5, should only provide more ammunition in your reasoning to buy one.
Abarth 124 Spider
Location Surrey, UK; On sale Now; Price £29,565; Engine 4 cyls, 1368cc, turbo, 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/tax band 148g/km, 26%; Rivals Mazda MX-5, Mercedes SLC
What is it?