Thrills and excitement – at a price
Not many Abarth-badged cars have lived up to the name of late, but spec-wise at least the Abarth 124 Spider has the look of something that might reverse the trend.
Abarth 124 Spider
Engine: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Top speed: 143mph
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Dry weight: 1060kg
Economy: 44.1mpg (combined)
CO2/BIK Tax: 148g/km/26%
The 1.4-litre turbocharged four from the Fiat 124 Spider has an extra 30bhp and 7lb/ft, and a Record Monza sports exhaust to make sure everybody knows about it. The rear-driven convertible spreads its 1060kg evenly front to back and adds stiffened anti-roll bars, bespoke Abarth-Bilstein dampers and a standard limited slip differential, normally seen only on the more powerful Mazda MX-5s with which the 124 shares its platform.
All good so far – until you get to the £29,565 price. That’s a whole heap more than the dearest 2.0 158bhp Sport Nav MX-5, at £23,695.
Let’s set that aside for a minute and concentrate on the drive. The noise is the first thing you’ll notice, with lots of gargling, spitting and general commotion even at lower revs. There’s no great buildup to a spectacular climax at the top end but the performance is certainly sharp enough on the Sport setting at least: Normal mode tends to draw undue attention to the turbo lag.
The claimed 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds and 143mph top speed describe a brisk rather than a properly quick car, but the combination of strong mid-range power and a beautifully satisfying short-action six-speed manual gearbox more than make up for any perceived shortfall in measurable performance. It’s not much faster than a 2.0 MX-5, but the excellent ride, reduced lateral body movement relative to the Mazda and sweet steering really deliver on driver enjoyment. In Sport mode with the traction control off, it’s a wonderfully predictable playmate for UK drivers.
There is a price to pay and that’s in cabin noise. It shares the MX-5’s buzziness. The ease of roof deployment testifies to its lightness and by extension to its inability to suppress road and wind racket. Motorway conversations are an effort.
Still, the Japanese influence on quality comes through in the Abarth’s control surfaces and buttons. The standard rotary dial or touch-controlled seven-inch colour screen is a fine piece of kit and the seats offer good lateral support. With plenty of Alcantara on view there’s a nice feeling of specialness. It’s just a shame that the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach, or that a bit more provision hasn’t been made for oddments storage. The Abarth’s boot is the regular MX-5 140-litre affair which means you can shove in a couple of soft bags.
The Abarth proves that there is more to life than simple performance. Its delicious soundtrack and playful, predictable handling will have you jumping in just for the hell of it. Ultimately the MX-5 delivers just about the same level of engagement, but the Abarth is slightly more economical to run and provides a more special experience. Either of them make other roadsters like the Mercedes SLC feel a bit soppy.