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£26,645 when new
Some sort of special edition? It is. The modern-day Fiat 124 Spider is based on the underpinnings of the Mazda MX-5, after all, the Japanese roadster being king of the special edition. This is the 124 Spider S-Design, and in the best traditions of MX-5 specials, its list of changes focuses more on style than substance. There’s new 17in alloys, gunmetal covers for the mirrors and rollover hoops and some red stripes down the side. You can only have it in white, too. It costs £26,905, up nearly two grand on the 124 Spider Lusso Plus it’s based upon. No engine or suspension changes, then? Nope. The 1.4-litre turbo engine produces the same 138bhp as standard, while the suspension is unchanged. So it’s a softer, comfier car than both the harder cored Abarth 124 Spider, and the Mazda MX-5 it’s based upon.
It’s light, mind, weighing a mere 1,050kg. So it’s reasonably brisk – 0-62mph in 7.5secs, 134mph top speed – and with a well-balanced rear-wheel-drive chassis, it’s good fun to row along on an interesting stretch of road. That’s especially true if you stick with the standard six-speed manual gearbox. It’s properly satisfying and puts you in the heart of the action. Our drive in the S-Design also gave us the chance to try the optional six-speed automatic, though… Any good? It’s not bad. There are traits that’ll please people who like driving: automatic shifts are usually pretty intelligent, while manual shifts are reasonably snappy. Downshifts come with a little blip of throttle to smooth them out. The gear stick has plus and minus in the correct positions, too (back for upshifts, forward for downshifts, like a sequential racecar) while in manual mode, the transmission never does automatic upshifts, even right at the rev limit. These are all good things that even some of the best performance cars sometimes get wrong. Yet it doesn’t have any paddles on the steering wheel. This seems like a glaring omission in a rear-wheel-drive sports car, and it seems to be a tacit admission by Fiat that this isn’t the gearbox to choose if you like going fast. You can only have an auto on top spec 124s – so a Lusso Plus or this S-Design special – while it adds over £2,000 to the asking price. It also cuts 2mpg from the fuel economy and more than doubles your first road tax payment thanks to higher CO2 emissions. The message is clear, then: unless your driving licence demands otherwise, you need the manual. And the S-Design trim? It’s a nice-looking spec (opinions being subjective, of course) but it strikes us as poor value. Your only paint choice with an S-Design also happens to be the only no-cost paint option on a regular 124. Other hues cost up to £750, and with one of those available, the additional outlay might feel more worthwhile. But you can probably personalise a 124 Spider to your own tastes far better (and cheaper) without this trim. Make no mistake, the Fiat 124 Spider is a fun car. We lived with one and didn’t want to hand it back. It’s simply a case of the S-Design not doing anything to improve it. But like we said, the 124 is based on the MX-5. This special edition may not quite hit the spot, but there are sure to be more to choose from any day now. In fact, there’s already an Abarth special right here… 7/10
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A roadster is a simple car so let’s not overthink this – the Abarth is a front-engined, rear-drive, manual-gearboxed, manual-roofed two-seater that wants to show you a good time