In the world of 2-seater sports cars, there isn’t a great deal of choice at what I’d class as the ‘affordable’ end. The Mazda MX-5 has pretty much had a monopoly for the last couple of decades. The new one looks rather good, and it also has a twin brother. You see, Fiat worked with Mazda on this car, and created their own car on the platform. Called the 124 Spider it seeks to be an affordable, fun 2-seater. And Fiat being Fiat, they didn’t stop there. They gave the car to their tuning arm – Abarth – to give it an extra dose of sportiness. I grabbed one for a week to see whether it’s any good.
Looks – 9/10
Half the appeal of a sports car comes before you even switch on the ignition. And would you just look at this Abarth 124. The Fiat 124 is a handsome machine, but that wasn’t enough for the styling team at Abarth. Oh no. They’ve made some adjustments and turned this into the quintessential bonkers Italian sports car… and I love it! At the front, the striking LED daytime running lights create a distinct image in the rear-view mirror of other motorists. If you go for the Sport Heritage look – and I would – then you get a matt black bonnet and boot lid. Coupled to the red mirrors and lower bumper dam, and contrasted against a grey or white paint scheme, it looks amazing. To the side the 17-inch dark sports alloys sit over the red brake calipers, and black side skirts. At the rear the quad-exit Monza exhaust is prominent, as are the LED rear lights. With the roof up or down, the Abarth has a serious presence, turning heads wherever it goes. For me it is far better looking than its Mazda MX-5 cousin.
Inside, that quintessential sports car feel continues, and it’s a brilliant place to be. The Sports Heritage look gets leather sports seats, in either black or black/red leather. The leather steering wheel has a red centre line, and sits over the dials, the centrepiece of which is an oversized red rev counter. One of my favourite materials is alcantara, and the Abarth 124 has it by the bucket load. The handbrake and gear gaiters, the armrest, and the lower dashboard trim are all finished in the stuff. Not only does this make the cabin feel sporty, but also gives a more premium finish than just plastics would. The multimedia screen is pod-like and sits proudly in the centre of the dash. It looks like it should be touchscreen, but it is in fact operated with a knob down on the centre console. Even the air vents are stylish, with the two main ones looking like they’ve just been lifted off the wings of an aeroplane. Flashes of silver trim and the alloy pedals complete the package, and what a great package it is.
Handling/Performance – 9/10
The engine in the Fiat 124 Spider is a 1.4-litre, turbocharged petrol unit, producing 140PS and 240Nm of torque. But to give the Abarth an extra bit of performance, those figures are upped slightly to 170PS and 250Nm. This is sent to the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual gearbox and a mechanical limited-slip differential. A 6-speed automatic gearbox is also available, but I really wouldn’t bother. Despite only being a 1.4, the performance is pretty good: 0-62mph takes 6.8 seconds and the top speed is 144mph. That will put the Abarth on par with most of the hot hatches, and the Monza sport exhaust ensures this punchy acceleration is accompanied by a sporty soundtrack.
There is a lot to like about how the Abarth drives. For starters, the driving position is spot on, although I would be interested to see if someone taller than I thought the same. The upgrades on the Abarth are not limited to the styling either: this car has some serious kit on it. Take the 4-piston Brembo brakes, which provide more than enough stopping power for this 1,060kg lightweight. The Bilstein suspension is designed to offer uprated handling, and whilst some would call it ‘a little firm’ I think that’s a ludicrous statement to make about a sports car. The 124 is composed over the country roads, and that differential gives an impressive amount of traction through those rear wheels. The steering is direct, and gives good feedback from the road surface. The short throw gearstick gives a snappy change, adding to the driving experience.
Economy – 10/10
The beauty of that little 1.4-litre engine, in conjunction with the fact that this car weighs just 1,060kg, comes in the form of surprising frugality. On a combined cycle, the Abarth 124 returns a very respectable 44.1mpg. Not bad for a sports car, on the face of it at least. You see the problem with any turbocharged engine, even this little 1.4-litre on, is that the eagerness of your right foot can have a drastic impact on consumption figures. And it’s very hard to resist the boyish charm of that sports exhaust. On the CO2 front, emissions of 148g/km result in a first year rate of £200, then the flat rate of £140 thereafter.
Practicality – 8/10
A 2-seater convertible is never going to be perceived as the most practical car around. But then if you need a car for the family and the dogs, then you probably won’t even be reading this review. But then if you only need one or two seats, then what’s the little 124 like to live with? It’s very easy to drive and, being the size of a matchbox, easy to park too. The exhaust doesn’t really have a quiet mode, and I will admit that at times I felt a bit silly driving through a quiet village. The manual roof is a brilliant choice: it can be up or down in a moment and saves the weight of an electric motor. Standard specification includes a touchscreen media system, push start button, Bluetooth hands free and a DAB radio. Optional extras include a BOSE sound system, Visibility pack (LED headlights with adaptive front lighting, rain sensing wipers and rear parking sensors) and a navigation system. Put simply, the Abarth 124 is great car to live with.
Fun – 10/10
One of the main purposes of a 2-seater sports car is to be fun. It’s all about thrills: man, machine and not a lot else. Take the roof off and you add to that sensory experience. It then becomes about the wind in your hair and the soundtrack to accompany it. And after spending a week with the Abarth that included a few sunny days, I have a reasonable grasp on what that experience is. I like it. The aforementioned loud exhaust come into its own on a country road, and out there it’s only the cows that can hear you. The performance of the 1.4-litre turbo is more than enough to have a good time, and the sports differential works superbly to give the most traction possible through those rear wheels. And with that bold colour scheme, parking it up in the village is bound to generate a bit of interest and turn a few heads. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you like that or not…
When I first cast eyes on the Abarth 124 Spider, I thought it was a little over the top. But actually, I really grew to like it. The madness of the colour scheme, along with that loud sports exhaust, give it an authentic Italian sports car feel. And thanks to the turbocharged 1.4-litre engine, it manages to be fast, fun and yet economical all at once. And what it does especially well, that the likes of an MX-5 just doesn’t, is turn heads. Driving through the local village you’d have thought I was in a Formula 1 car with the attention it got. Prices for the Abarth 124 Spider start at £26,920 and can get up to £31,000 with all the options. I think that’s still affordable, and with the likes of Bilstein suspension and Brembo brakes, at least you know the money goes on proper mechanical gear. For more information see a local dealer, or visit the Abarth website to configure your own. And if you’ve always wanted that 2-seater sports car for the weekend, this could well be it!
Total Score – 46/50