We brought you a first drive report last summer on the Fiat 124 Spider. We spent the day driving the base model (Classica) and the luxury model (Lusso) through the hills outside San Diego, then spent an hour or two punting the more sporting Abarth model around an autocross circuit. Overall we liked it, though we were stuck with an automatic model most of the day. The Abarth though, was a hoot to drive. And it wasn’t just because a manual six-speed returned the joy to driving either. It seemed to be more focused, more sporting, more capable. We decided to spend a few days on the road with one to better evaluate it as a driver’s car.
The one we got was an attractive grey color with a black interior. The familiar body lines were nicely highlighted by the color, and it coordinated well with the darker gunmetal windshield pillar trim, roll-hoop trim, side-mirror trim, and wheels. The front and rear fascias are more aggressive looking than the standard ones found on the Classica and Lusso models. They make the Abarth look a little meaner than it’s siblings.
One interesting thing we noted was that there was only one Fiat badge on the whole car and it was on the steering wheel. Otherwise, there were only Abarth scorpion badges on the exterior of the car.
If you’ve spent any time in the new MX-5 Miata, you’ll recognize the interior instantly. Since the two cars were a joint collaboration between Mazda and Fiat, they share a lot of parts under the skin. Fiat limited it’s changes to chrome bezels around the air vents and control knobs, different door skins, and seats. The interior is cozy (“intimate” wouldn’t be inaccurate) but you quickly adjust to the limited space in the cockpit. Visibility out is good with the top up, fantastic with it down. Fiat invested more money insulating the driver from noise with a thicker acoustic glass, more sound deadening material, and an insulated top. It’s noticeably quieter than the MX-5 Miata with the top up. You can converse casually with a passenger or talk on your phone without having to raise your voice. It was quite impressive how quiet they managed to make it inside. Heated seats are standard (Yea!). The gauges are all highly-visible through the leather-wrapped steering wheel and the tach has a bright red gauge face to reinforce the sporting nature of the car. It’s a fun touch.
The top is a dream. To lower it, you simply unlatch it at the windshield header – a one-handed motion – and toss it back over your shoulder, where it falls back into the well behind you, then just make sure it locks into place. To raise it, you simply move your right hand next to your shoulder, pull the release latch, then reach back a little further, grab the spring-loaded top with that same hand, and pull it up until it reaches the windshield header and lock it into place – again, all with one hand.
The engine is once again Fiat’s 1.4L turbo Multi-air four-cylinder engine, making 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque – higher than the MX-5 Miata’s 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. However, for such a small turbo engine, the Multi-air really moves this car well. The turbo spools up quickly and at around 2000 rpm starts making good boost that only intensifies as it mimics the engine’s high-revving nature. Unless you come to a stop, you never really drop below 2000 rpms so you nearly always find yourself in the turbo’s powerband.
The Abarth also comes with a performance exhaust that really amplifies all the good noises. At idle it sounds just like an idling Dodge Viper – no lie. The sound is great and merely starting it turns heads. Once you’re underway though, it’s quieter and less noticeable – unless you really wind it out. Then you get to hear it again and it’s glorious. It’s obvious the engineers at Fiat were passionate about this little car. They sweated the details and really worked to give the Abarth more character than the other models.
The six-speed is an off-the-shelf unit from the last generation MX-5 Miata, which made more torque, so it’s a good fit for the turbo engine’s high torque. Throws are short, precise, and mechanical, like a good rifle bolt. Wind it out it a little and each shift puts you right back in the powerband again.
The front-engine/rear-wheel drive layout offers superb balance. The suspension is unequal length A-arms in front and a multi-link rear suspension in back. Bilstein shocks come standard on the Abarth. The suspension did a great job of keeping the car poised and controlled, limiting body roll and nearly eliminating squat and dive altogether. While the ride was firm, it was never harsh. Bumps and potholes were felt but never came through as uncomfortable. The car was more tail-happy than the last MX-5 we drove, and was a breeze to slide around corners. It was easy to drive hard, imparting easy confidence in it’s manners. And the optional Brembo brake package that our car came with did a great job of stopping the car without drama.
I get a lot of mid- to high-end cars to review but this little entry-level sports car was one of the most fun cars I’ve driven this year. Proof that a good car doesn’t have to be expensive. I drove it on every fun road in my area repeatedly, pushing it faster and faster through corners, braking less and carrying more speed. If I did have to brake, a downshift and a stab of the throttle were all it took to rocket back up to the speed. The quiet whine of the turbo and the ridiculously rumbly exhaust (on a 1.4L!) made wonderful sounds that encouraged me to leave the radio off and wind out the motor every chance I got.
It dives into corners, staying flat, grips, and goes. Transitional responses (steering back and forth) are stable and neutral, the car doing exactly what you want it to do.
Fuel consumption is rated at 26 city/35 hwy, and with my foot leaning hard on the throttle everywhere I went, I saw a solid 24 mpg average. Which is really good the way I drive. Had I done more freeway driving with it instead of back roads, I’m sure that number would have been much closer to 30-32 mpg.
The Abarth starts at $28,195. Our Abarth came in at $30,685, which is reasonable for this type of car and it’s ability and quality.
People who asked about the car nearly always asked which I liked better, the Fiat Spider Abarth or the MX-5. Really, they’re both great cars but I think I preferred the turbo engine in the Abarth better than the N/A engine in the MX-5. And the bright trim and the red gauge face for the tach added some much needed color in the interior that the MX-5 lacks.
If we could do one thing to improve the car, we’d like to see some fun colors. Besides red, there really aren’t any fun colors. A deep burnt orange would be fun. A deep blue. A steel blue maybe? A fun car deserves something better than two whites, a gray, black, and red. C’mon, Fiat. You’re from the land of style and couture. Surely you can do better.
Fiat has built a wonderful little sports car in the 124 Spider Abarth. It looks good, it sounds great, it accelerates quickly, brakes quickly, turns beautifully, and is a fantastic car to drive. There’s a saying I hear often: “The answer is always ‘Miata’.” I’d argue “The answer is also ‘Abarth’.”