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Car reviews - Abarth - 124 - Spider

Our Opinion

We like
Butched up styling, easy-to-use roof mechanism, communicative chassis and suspension, engine performance (when on boost)
Room for improvement
Challenging ingress and egress, interior not unique enough, engine performance (when off boost)

Abarth logo12 Dec 2016

By TUNG NGUYEN

Price and equipment

AT $43,500 driveaway, the Abarth 124 Spider sits proudly as the cheapest rear-drive European-badged convertible on the market. The flagship Mazda MX-5 2.0 GT costs $39,550, however that is the recommended retail price and does not include on-road costs.

For better or worse, the Abarth wears heavily reworked body styling, giving it the look of a much more expensive car from the outside. New front and rear bumper designs, different wheels, a longer bonnet and chunky rear end go a very long way in differentiating the 124 Spider from its Japanese sibling and, from certain angles, even looks like a proper thoroughbred Italian supercar.

We were certainly not the only ones that noticed the eye-catching bodywork either. In just a week with the test car, a manual 124 Spider finished in a gorgeous flat red, we received honks, waves, stares and even a photo or two from the everyday passer-by.

For the asking price, Abarth will throw in satellite navigation, a reversing camera, heated seats and Bluetooth and USB enabled infotainment system, automatic headlights and wipers, keyless entry and ignition and a nine-speaker Bose sound system with speakers in the headrests.

Our test car was fitted with the optional Monza exhaust, bringing tailpipe noises from exciting, but subdued, to downright demonic and apocalyptic on full throttle.

In fact, if we were to have one, we’d leave this option unticked unless the car was solely for track day and weekend cruising purposes. Maybe we are getting sensitive in our old age, but we sometimes found that the exhaust was just too loud for daily commuting purposes.

However, many people will love the aural drama.

Interior

Getting in and out of the low-slung, two door convertible might not be the easiest and most graceful of tasks, but it is well worth the effort once behind the wheel.

The seating position is perfect, with the gear shifter and steering wheel falling easily to hand. Although, we had the leather and synthetic suede seats positioned all the way back, so anyone over six foot should try before they buy.

Anyone who has sat in an ND MX-5 will feel right at home in the Abarth, with both cars sharing the same interior styling, infotainment screen and controls, and storage options (or lack thereof).

Subtle changes to the interior, including a chunkier gear knob, thicker bolstered seats, new instrumentation dials and a thicker leather steering wheel spruce up the Abarth, but we wish the car-maker had injected a bit more of its own personality or DNA to give it a more unique look and feel, which would help differentiate it from its Mazda donor car.

The biggest annoyance is the use of a speedometer with speed readings in 30km/h intervals, making driving between 30 and 60km/h, and at freeway speeds, more bothersome than necessary.

As it stands, the interior of the Abarth is functional, but we’d have like to see the Italian brand rework the inside as much as they did the bodywork on the outside.

Engine and transmission

Boost is what is missing from the affordable, lightweight sportscar segment and leveraging a turbocharged 125kW/250Nm 1.4-litre motor from the Fiat line-up is exactly the right ingredient that transforms the 124 Spider from fun roadster to serious track-ready sportscar.

Although peak power comes on very late at 6250rpm, maximum torque is available from early on at 2500rpm. However, boost does come on relatively late, leading to an asthmatic feeling and noticeable turbo lag in the lower revs.

When the turbo kicks in though, the Abarth comes alive with a sudden sense of urgency that we wished was available throughout the rev range.

Zero to 100km/h takes 6.8 seconds, and while we didn’t have the chance to test that claim, accelerating hard at freeway on-ramps feels plenty quick in the hunkered down, squat convertible.

In boost, the 124 Spider is elevated to a near perfect driver’s car – agile, nimble, raucous, playful, responsive, fun and punchy – it’s just a shame that the engine’s characteristics lean more towards track day driving than the inner-city streets of Melbourne.

In our manual test car, gear shifts were quick, precise and direct, although we didn’t like the car’s hill start assist which threw us off the clutch’s biting point on a few occasions.

Through a week of solid driving, we managed 8.3 litres per 100km in our test car, but with a lighter right foot we imagine it wouldn’t be impossible to get close to Abarth’s 6.5L/100km rating.

Ride and handling

Undoubtedly the Abarth’s strongest attribute is its handling characteristics.

Bilstein sport suspension and a mechanical limited-slip differential have given the 1100kg Abarth a much sharper edge compared to its donor car.

Bigger 280mm brakes at the front also give more confidence to the driver, while the stiffer rear end helps keep things flatter in the corners.

Seventeen-inch wheels shod in Bridgestone 205/45 tyres give plenty of grip in most situations, but the Abarth can get pretty tail happy when provoked.

The playfulness of the chassis at lower cornering speeds quickly gives way to a much more serious, and in turn capable, roadster once the turbo kicks in, leading to moments of excitement or excrement – depending on your driving ability and how wide and wet the road is.

A wider rear track might have helped alleviate unwanted oversteer and provide more grip, but it would have also likely dulled the sharp handling characteristics and on-the-edge appeal.

We suspect with more room to stretch its legs and find its limits, the Abarth 124 would become a much more comfortable and capable driver’s car, we only wish we had a racetrack to fully explore the limits of grip and to really wring out the high-strung turbo engine.

Safety and servicing

Standard safety features in the Abarth include a switchable electronic stability control (ESC) and two front and side airbags.

While its MX-5 donor car received a full five-star ANCAP crash rating with an overall score of 35.20 out of 37, at the time of writing, the Abarth 124 Spider has not received a local crash test rating.

Verdict

Abarth’s 124 Spider might just be the best smile per dollar car on the market.

A supremely capable chassis and suspension tune, a torquey turbocharged engine, and charismatic styling and road presence combine to deliver an Italian convertible that would be at home on the race track or a Sunday drive through town.

An affordable pricetag and three-year warranty also help its case, but while there are faster, more practical and more capable cars for less or around the same price, none of its competitors – or even its donor car – can match the 124 Spider for sheer thrills and excitement.

Rivals

Mazda MX-5 2.0-litre GT $39,550 before on-road costs
Sharing the same underpinnings and interior, but powered by a 118kW/200Nm naturally aspirated engine, Mazda’s MX-5 is just as capable (if a little slower) than the Abarth. However, a softer suspension tune and more linear power delivery mean the MX-5 is a little easier to live with and a little more predictable around the twisties.

Subaru BRZ Premium $38,650 driveaway
Subaru’s BRZ sportscar shares more than just the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout with the Abarth. Both cars feature a lightweight design and emphasise handling over outright power. While the Abarth is slightly quicker and has a folding soft-top, the BRZ has two rear seats and a bigger boot.

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