Abarth 124 Spider, an Italian dream or a Japanese copy?
The Italians have always been good at a few very particular things; fine wines, great food, beautiful women and the occasional great car. For all these great things, however, there have always been disappointments. For every Lancia Stratos there was a Lancia Ypsilon, for every Fiat 500 there was a Multipla and so on and so forth. The original Fiat 124 Spider was such a success and adored the world over. With over 200,000 sold (75% in the US), it was widely regarded as a massive achievement on Fiat’s behalf. In 2016 Fiat announced the return of this legend based on a Mazda and many people were very sceptical. Immediately many questions sprung to mind: can they make a great Italian sports car based on something Japanese? Will it just be just a Mazda in a different skin? Can this be a great car in its own right? Fortunately, I have the chance to find out for myself how the top of the range Abarth version of the 124 compares.
Like the original 124, this one has a turbo-charged engine, a 1.4 litre 170 horsepower unit that seems to have been lifted from the Abarth 595, which doesn’t seem like a bad place to start. This also makes it more powerful than it’s Mazda sibling. With its addition of a limited slip differential it seems to be adding up to be a great package. The 124 looks distinctively retro, with a combination of the two bonnet bulges and the sculpted front end which has been designed as homage to the original car. This combination looks to be a lot prettier than the Mazda and makes the classic car and retro styling lover inside of me ache for this car. I just hoped not to be disappointed by this.
When I discovered that Fiat had stopped production of the 124 and that Abarth would keep producing it but only as an automatic I was highly disappointed. In a car of this type you would hope for a manual, as it would be so much more enjoyable and give you so much more control. Driving this car with the automatic you sense that you could just get and feel so much more with the manual box. As a massive fan of the small sports car I have been waiting for years for a European car of some kind to compete with the small Japanese one, but this one, with the automatic gearbox, just doesn’t come close.
When you drive this car you do get a huge sense that Fiat and Abarth have put many hours of effort and stress into the development of this (despite the interior being extremely similar to the Mazda). With the addition of the limited slip differential it handles so well round corners for such a small car, and you will find no sports car in the same price bracket that handles anywhere near as well. If you so wanted to, you can get the back end to swing out and hold a smooth drift as you so desire, while also being able to take the car around a track at a quick pace. The exhaust system on this car is incredible. The Record Monza exhaust system which was originally released on the Abarth 595 (which depending on how you drive and the setting you choose) gives you a grunty throaty sound that compliments the car so well, and feels like another nod to it’s retro predecessor. Though despite all of this greatness, the automatic gearbox is a real flop. The gear changes in fully auto seem slow and lagging, and once I activate the “full manual” mode it wouldn’t let me select the gear I wanted properly, and seemed that after a few minutes of frustration with this, the car decided to go back to the full auto mode again.
I reiterate that if you are considering purchasing one of these, look at the manual used ones. The gearbox will be so much more responsive, and with that make it the best small sports car for the money! To buy a new one (only currently available in auto) will set you back at least £30,000, but if you want to buy yourself a reasonably new low mileage manual one, then you can get one of these for as low as £19,000. For that price I would highly recommend it over the Mazda MX5. If you are looking for a factory new car then go and buy yourself a cheaper Mazda MX5, which will give you so much more amusement and better bang for your buck. It really is a huge shame that they aren’t producing the manual anymore, it would really have been the MX5 killer.