You know that thing about the Mazda MX-5 being a hairdresser’s car? Well, not that anyone who knows anything about cars has ever agreed with the sentiment, but for those still intent on their misguided view, meet the Abarth 124 Spider. Very much NOT a hairdresser’s car.
APR 20th 2017
Review: Abarth 124 Spider
The first lovechild of Fiat and Mazda’s union is the Fiat 124 Spider. An MX-5 by any other name, it wears a different suit but has the same chassis, switchgear, infotainment system, and so on. Mazda’s naturally aspirated engines are replaced by Fiat’s clever turbocharged 1.4, but other than that, same car. In other words, brilliant.
The Abarth 124, on the other hand, shows that a little Italian tuning goes a long way. This doesn’t feel like a zoom-zoom Japanese roadster, albeit the best-selling roadster of all time, with an Italian badge. This feels like a proper Barchetta, like a little slice of Roman pizza with extra chilli, like Pavarotti when he got angry, and like Italy must have felt in the Fifties, loud little rear-wheel open-top sexy sports cars zipping about through the narrow sunlit streets.
First: the noise. Well, actually, it’s the looks you notice first – the Abarth badges, the matt-black bonnet contrasting with the white bodywork and those cheeky bright red wing mirrors and splashes of red paint. But most of the public glance quizzically then look away.
Not so when you start it up, or trickle through traffic. Then people stare long and hard, they wander over and they ask what on earth this car is, with its crazy loud exhausts and burbling revs. Abarth has done a fantastic job – the 124 Spider doesn’t have a nasty boom, or a pimped-up crackle and bang: it has sonorous chatter, an Italian spritely bark and pop. It sounds precisely as it ought to. Fire her up, flick back the manual smart black fabric roof with one hand, and away you go.
At town speeds, off boost and under 3,000rpm, the engine is not much to shout home about – like Mazda petrol units, it’s a rev-happy beast. But luckily the six-speed manual shift is hugely satisfying (it comes with the option of an automatic, presumably for the American market – no thanks), so it’s no chore to keep down-shifting and keep the revs up and the turbo active. At about 4,000rpm, this car is on song: it sounds the business and it feels the business, with 170bhp, which is 32bhp more than the Fiat’s effort with the same engine, and 0-62mph in 6.8 seconds.
The handling of the Abarth is marked by its limited-slip diff, which adds a certain flavour to the standard rear-wheel-drive Fiat version, and a Sport switch, which frankly the car doesn’t really need for character, but it adds yet another layer of fun. The steering is as direct and linear as the MX-5’s, although the brakes don’t quite match the immediacy of the chassis.
But the question mark comes with the price: at £29,850, it’s a good deal more than the Fiat or MX-5, and, significantly, about £5,000 more expensive than the Sport Recaro MX-5. On the other hand, you have that stunning Abarth badge, an unbeatable exhaust noise and that limited-slip diff, which some heavier, more premium-badged two-seater sports cars don’t offer. Then again, the Toyota GT86 feels meatier, more focused and more dynamic.
And yet… there’s just something about this car: a little bit of la dolce vita, which has captivated us.
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