Review: the Abarth 124 Spider Reviews 2023 | Top Gear
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First Drive

Review: the Abarth 124 Spider

Published: 08 Jun 2016

At last, a proper Abarth sports car?

Indeed. Well, it recognises the history of Abarth in that it's not a ground-up effort. Rather, an engagingly souped-up version of a Fiat. But a Fiat sports car.

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C'mon, not really a Fiat underneath either, is it now?

OK, let's not delay in addressing the sumo wrestler in the room. The new Fiat 124 Spider is indeed a modified version of the Mazda MX-5. And I'll be mentioning the MX-5 a fair bit because it's essential for context.

Fiat/Abarth actually did a lot more than just stick Italian badges on a Japanese car. They made it look like the classic 1966 124 Spider, and installed their own engine. More details on the 140bhp Fiat version here.

Got that. And what's different about the Abarth?

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The engine goes up to 170bhp. Which is 124bhp per litre, ho ho. It gets a four-outlet exhaust too, and a sport button that opens a valve and makes it sound eminently fruity. That button also sharpens the throttle, weights-up the steering and loosens the ESP.

The chassis has a get-up similar to the Sport versions of the MX-5, though differently tuned. The list amounts to tauter Bilstein dampers, firmer springs and anti-roll bars, plus Brembo four-pot front brakes, and a proper mechanical limited-slip diff. The tyres are a modest 205/45 17. It doesn't need gumballs because it's so light, at 1060kg dry. Also, it's meant to slip, and feels ridiculously good when it does.

You won't have failed to notice the black bonnet and boot. Those reference the successful Abarth 124 Rally of the early 1970s.

No great surprises when you open the door: it's all about Alcantara, red stitching, a red rev counter and alloy pedals.

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How does an Italian turbo engine work in an MX-5 then?

Surprisingly well. Or maybe not surprisingly. The Italian engineers insist they were working with Mazda right from the very early days of the current-gen MX-5 development, so they could be sure it would meet their needs.

Just easing along at first, you might be unsure. The turbo is indolent at low revs, though the base engine, running 9.8 to one compression, is pretty sharp. Anyhow, as the needle swings beyond 3,000 the turbo has downed an espresso and got its wits about it. From there to 6,500 it's good to go.

Torque is barely higher than the regular Fiat 124 Spider, at 184lb ft versus 177, but the Abarth's extra power makes it keener to pull to the red-line. The 0-62mph time is 6.8sec. That exhaust is pretty ripe-sounding from the off, if you've pressed the sport switch. Its idle is bass-heavy, rocking and rolling, then tensing up with revs.

The gearshift is a reward in itself. You'd swear it's a handshake as precise and quick as almost anything in the kingdom of the automobile. Actually it's an atom less snicky than the Mazda's, because it's reinforced to cope with the turbo torque. But still a joy.

Thing is though, you don't need to be shifting gears if you've something better to do. The wave of torque is an effective substitute. Which makes it a more relaxing car for everyday biffing about. The turbo thrust also comes to bear when you're cornering.

Corners? The MX-5 is famously great. Don't say it's been mucked up here.

The Abarth loves bends. So will you. The steering is sharp and urgent but neatly avoids nervousness. As you peel into a curve the roll builds up, but progressively. This thing really doesn't know how to understeer. But neither does it do that MX-5 thing of rolling early onto the outside rear tyre. It feels more composed.

And then the turbo gets to work, its efforts parcelled out by the LSD, and you can set your angle of travel with hilarious ease. Yes, the turbo does alter the character. But in a good way. Especially if it's a road you don't know so can't guarantee to be in exactly the right gear for the most expeditious corner exit. And, if you choose, the most spectacular. Oversteer is a cinch to balance then gather up.

So it's earned its spitting parping noises and four tailpipes and black bonnet then?

I'm not so sure. It's not that hardcore. And if you leave off the sport button, you can use the turbo to get along with unobtrusive despatch. The ride is hardly harmed compared with the base-model Fiat 124 Spider. Most hot hatches are stiffer.

Right then. Is it the best of the Hiroshima-built roadster family?

Could well be. Not the most pure: it's a bit bigger than an MX-5 as well as being turbocharged and more plush inside. And more expensive, at £29,850. But the best all-rounder? I'd say so. Especially if, like me, you like the looks and fondly remember the original.

I surprised myself with how glad I was to have the blower. In the torque-light Mazda, you absolutely have to be in the right gear for every interesting corner. If you're looking for a chance to overtake, you sit there at 5000rpm until the passing window finally opens. In the Abarth you can be more relaxed before overtakes, and still get past quicker. Plus of course you can skid yourself through a clear bend or roundabout with more insouciance.

But it's not all about the hectic times. The mid-range torque also makes it a more relaxing everyday car. In that role, you enjoy the slightly more softly-finished cabin than the Mazda, and the better standard kit.

OK a sum not unadjacent to £30k isn't to be sneezed at. But despite the mongrel background, it's a blissfully coherent and intense drive. As well as a bundle of all those old sentiments around Italian style and racing. I lust.

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