Abarth, to the UK car buyer at least, is perhaps best known for its 595 range of hot hatchbacks – tweaked versions of the Fiat 500 that offer great performance in a relatively affordable package.
Although the average motorist may not be able to tell the difference between a 595 and a regular Fiat 500 without looking closely, more and more of these cars are popping up on UK roads as an alternative to the likes of the Ford Fiesta ST or Suzuki Swift Sport.
Now there’s a new Abarth on the scene in the form of the 124 Spider, and again it relies on a Fiat model, also named the 124 Spider – which is essentially a rebadged fourth-gen Mazda MX-5 – as a starting point.
Cosmetically, Abarth’s take on the two-seater convertible is reasonably similar to the original, but it has been given a more aggressive look thanks to a matte black bonnet and bootlid. It also rides on 17-inch wheels, which tend to suit the car better than the smaller originals.
The interior has some tweaks in the form of a chunkier steering wheel and a dashboard covered with Alcantara, but it’s under the bonnet that the real improvements have been made. A 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine kicking out 168bhp propels the car from stationary to 62mph in 6.8 seconds, all the way up to 144mph.
What’s it like to drive?
The MX-5 – on which the 124 Spider is based – was already a fantastic car to drive, so you’d think much of the hard work was already done when it comes to a bracing experience behind the wheel.
Top Gear Magazine – who gave it a 7/10 rating – reckons Abarth have overegged the pudding though.
Despite complementing the car’s size, snappy gearbox and quick steering, they felt the Abarth 124 Spider was less supple than the MX-5 and lacked the fluidity of the Mazda, resulting in a less polished car.
They added that the car isn’t as ‘fulfilling or rewarding as you want it to be’ before accusing Abarth of hastily signing off the car before checking every aspect.
Autocar (4.5 stars) labelled the car as ‘laugh-out-loud exhilarating’ and preferred the Abarth’s stiffer lean, saying it made the chassis feel ‘more serious but not desensitised’.
Comparing its playful handling to that of the Caterham 160, they loved the car’s ‘chuckable balance, predictable limit handling and robust lateral body control’.
The noise an Abarth makes is one of the brand’s appealing factors and Evo – who also gave the car 4.5 stars – were keen on the ‘brazen, unapologetically loud noise emitted from its quad exhausts’. It’s enough to denote it as more aggressive than the MX-5 but stops short of picking fights with any nearby supercars.
They loved the ‘surprisingly heavy’ gearchange, which, with its stump of a lever and short throw, made it ‘incredibly satisfying to use’.
‘It feels like you have to manhandle it, but you can make quick, precise yet aggressive changes,’ they added.
Top Gear suggested the gearlever didn’t need much work, preferring to let the engine go to work. ‘It’s less stressful and while it’s still going to struggle to keep a Golf GTI in sight, the extra slug of power over the Mazda is useful,’ they wrote.
TG went on to say that the strong Brembo brakes are a suitable match to the car’s driving characteristics, concluding that the car just needed a little more time and effort from Abarth to make it feel more cohesive and achieve a tad more steering feel.
This extra finesse would have helped ‘join the two ends of the car together better so you, sat at the back, feel more in touch with what’s happening up front’.
Evo agreed, saying the front end always feels vague with skant driver feedback. They warned this poor feel often means you’ll enter a corner too quick, suffer understeer, and in slippery conditions, the car is ‘impossible to gauge’.
Overall, the Abarth 124 Spider is a barrel of fun, providing an appreciated power upgrade on the MX-5 and standard Fiat 124 Spider.
That bhp boost is matched by a welcome injection of aggression to the styling, but the final product is let down by what ultimately feels like a rushed job.