Hello gorgeous: Abarth 124 Spider road test and review
ISN'T she pretty?
With summer just around the corner you could choose a worse time to treat yourself to a drop-top roadster blending ample performance and striking good looks.
But before you hotfoot it to Mazda to deposit down on an MX-5 (though I wouldn't discourage it), allow me to tempt you with something offering a more Italian flavour.
It's an Abarth 124 Spider in case the hype hadn't struck you like a triple espresso shot, built on the same platform, and at the same Japanese factory, as the brilliant new MX-5. With Italian skin and boasting a more powerful turbocharged engine than found in the non-turbo Mazda, it is a markedly different beast.
Abarth has been hotting up Fiats since the 1950s, has a proud motorsport history (including being 1972 European Rally Champion), and we're familiar with the Scorpion badge here on the fruitier Fiat 500s.
Fiat has recently launched its 124 Spider roadster globally - a modern take on the 1966 124 Spider - but in Australia we're only getting the performance Abarth variant. No complaints there.
Despite this, if you pop down to your Fiat dealership you'll find these Abarth 124 Spiders priced not much higher than your top-spec MX-5s. At $41,990 before on-roads or with a $43,500 drive-away launch tag, that doesn't look half bad.
Not least as impressive performance components and cabin luxury abounds.
Roadsters are always snug, but the Spider's heated leather and microfibre sports seats are comfy things offering decent support during enthusiastic driving and over longer cruises. I did bash my knees a bit on the hard sides under the steering wheel during a track session, so a bit of padding here would be good.
There's a semi-premium sporty feel in the cabin with plenty of leather, red stitching and a red rev counter taking centre stage behind the little steering wheel, and the short throw gear shifter is a lovely compact thing in your left hand.
If feels like a pure roadster with a simple layout much like the MX-5's, but with a tad more Euro flair.
On the road (and track)
Eager to please, the Abarth's 1.4-litre easy-revving turbo is a riot of fun when on boost. Faster by half a second to 100kmh than the 2.0-litre MX-5 it also makes a more muscular note than the Mazda.
A Sport mode sharpens throttle response, makes the steering weightier and delays the traction control's interference; while the manual gearbox (no autos were available for our test) has a good chunky feel and it's joyous to quickly cog swap with a little dab on the throttle to keep revs up and the turbo working.
The recipe's a good one with that engine sending power through the rear wheels, and with a mechanical limited-slip diff aiding traction and communicating what the rear end's up to it's a real grin giver. The chassis feels stiff on its Bilstein sport suspension, while the body has noticeable lean (like the MX-5) which adds to the feeling of involvement.
On the track and on fast road sections the Abarth is in its element. It perhaps lacks the finesse of the MX-5, and some of its predictability and feedback, but drive the thing on the throttle and all is forgiven. It's meant to be the hairier performance roadster and nails it. Brakes are damn good too.
Take it out of Sport mode and it's no bone shaker; suspension is firm but not ludicrously so, meaning poseur cruises are a treat. As is blipping the throttle to induce that exhaust note.
What do you get?
Track fans can name drop Brembo brakes including four-pot calipers up front and Bilstein Sport suspension all round, while key performance inclusions are that LSD, a front strut brace, Sport Mode selector and fruity sports exhaust with quad tips at the base of the Abarth's tasty rump.
Other kit is equally pleasing: 17-inch gun metallic alloys, heated seats, keyless entry, start button, rear camera, 7-inch touch-screen, sat nav and Bose nine-speaker sound system.
Drop another $2k and you get lovely leather and Alcantara Recaro seats, or if active safety's more your bag, $2490 buys you a Visibility Pack with better lighting, rear park assist, blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert. An optional Monza exhaust is also there for even more aural excitement.
Come on, be fair, it's a two-seater roadster. Space is minimal inside but a large-ish cubby between the seat backs is quite practical, but cup holders are just down from your shoulder and bottles do rattle around.
Boot space is a titchy 140-litres, but at least this doesn't change with roof up or down. Two overnight bags and a bit of shopping is fine, but don't expect to be taking suitcases.
Positively, the excellent soft top roof does away with any complicatedness. Unclip a handle, pull the roof back and push it into place behind you. It can be done with little effort from the driver's seat and it's job done in about three seconds. Superb.
Close cousin Mazda MX-5 is your rival, with range-topping 2.0-litre GT the closest fit at $39,550.
Also consider the tin-topped Toyota 86 GTS ($35,990) or Subaru BRZ Premium ($38,650) if you'll never put an Abarth's roof down.
A striking design where you sit very rearward inside and peer out over a long and bulging bonnet. The 124's a pretty roadster indeed but tough too with its squat stance over gunmetal alloys, while the '60s-style horizontal ribbing across the seat centres is a classic touch.
Sadly though, the signature Abarth black painted bonnet isn't available here yet as it is in Europe, but they're working on it.
Roadster shopper? Lucky you.
Between the Abarth and Mazda MX-5 you have a happy choice. Both are beautiful and focused driver's cars with pure formulas, with the new 124 Spider the preferred choice for turbo fans or track day enthusiasts, or those seeking that more Euro body. The Mazda's the easier car to drive, but no less engaging.
The Abarth looks fine value for the included kit and luxury, and above all else is an all-senses-satisfied fun drive just like a performance roadster should be. You're going to love it.
Model: Abarth 124 Spider.
Details: Two-seat, two-door rear-wheel drive soft-top roadster.
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder generating maximum power of 125kW @ 5500rpm and peak torque of 250Nm @ 2500rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.
Consumption: 6.5L/100km (manual); 6.7L/100km (auto).
Performance 0-100kmh: 6.8s (manual); 6.9s (auto).
Bottom line plus on-roads: $41,990 or $43,500 drive-away (manual); $43,990 or $45,500 drive-away (auto).
What matters most
What we liked: Quality performance components, value, driving joy, style, a genuine turbo rival to the superb Mazda MX-5 and sounds better too.
What we'd like to see: Padding for the knee area, a few more extrovert colour choices, the classic painted black Abarth bonnet as seen on European variants.
Warranty and servicing: Three year/150,000km warranty with roadside assist for the same period. Servicing available at Fiat dealers.
Driving experience 17/20
Features and equipment 18/20
Functionality and comfort 15/20
Value for money 17/20
Style and design 17/20