Five minutes with an Abarth 124 Spider

What is it?

An Abarth 124 Spider, which is a performance version of the Fiat 124 Spider – Abarth being the Italian marque’s ‘go-faster’ division – which in turn is basically a re-bodied Mazda MX-5.

Yes, Mazda and Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA) entered into a joint venture to build an affordable, rear-wheel drive roadster between them; a clever way of sharing the monumental development costs of any new car.

Mazda, of course, had been making affordable, rear-wheel drive roadsters since 1989 and the arrival of the seminal MX-5, so it simply called the newcomer the MX-5 MkIV and off it went.

FCA was originally slating its version to fall into the Alfa Romeo household, but that marque’s shift upmarket mean that Fiat ultimately got the nod.

This Italian company, however, hasn’t made a roadster like this since the original 124 Sport Spider, that was launched aeons back in 1966 and went out of (Fiat) production in 1982, Pininfarina continuing its lifespan until 1985.

Why are you driving it?

Because, while a Mazda MX-5 is a common sight on our roads, a Fiat 124 Spider is not – and the Abarth promises to be even rarer.

FCA is going to have a hard time convincing people to opt for its version of the car instead of Mazda’s everyday hero, as the 124’s lineage is a lot less strong than that of the MX-5.

Furthermore, as this range-topping Abarth, it retails at pretty much £30,000.

OK, there are very few options you can fit to it to inflate that price further – our £32,010 car had the lot, with £400 Turini 1975 White paint with the ‘Heritage Look’ black bonnet and boot decals, plus red trim inserts; the £795 nine-speaker Bose sound system; and the £1,250 Visibility Pack, with rain and rear parking sensors, automatic LED headlights and daytime running lights in LEDs.

But when a Mazda MX-5 starts at sub-£20,000 and culminates at £24,500, the best part of at least eight grand is a lot of cash to have to splurge on the Abarth to end up with nothing more than an extra 10hp, 50Nm and some marginal economy/CO2 advantages.

So what are the compelling reasons for you to choose the 124 Spider?

What do you like about it?

The looks, the noise, the handling and the performance ought to be enough to convince anyone.

This is a seriously brilliant car.

Dealing with each of these parameters in order, the exterior appearance is obviously subjective and it would already seem the motoring world is dividing pretty sharply into partisan 124 or MX-5 camps; you can only love one of them, it appears.

We’re not saying the Mazda is ugly but, for us, the Abarth is the nicer-looking machine.

You don’t have to have the black bonnet and boot if you think it’s too OTT, but we absolutely love it; to behold, this roadster is magnificent.

As is the standard-fit Record Monza exhaust, which bestows a phenomenally intimidating soundtrack on what is, at the end of the day, a fairly modest 1.4-litre engine.

The 124 sounds utterly intoxicating from the moment you fire it up and let it settle into a noisy, cold idle, right up to the point you near-flatshift it when it’s fully warmed through, whereupon the exhaust pops and burbles with ludicrous regularity. It’s fabulous.

And, as it is based on the MX-5 and its sublime underpinnings, the Spider is an absolute hoot to drive.

It grips keenly, turns in with real bite and venom, has nicely weighted steering (if a little lacking in outright feel) and possesses a diff-equipped rear axle that fluidly adjusts the attitude of the car, if you use the throttle correctly.

The Brembo brakes are mighty. The body control is excellent, if not absolutely stellar. And, with a slight 1,060kg to move around, 170hp and 250Nm really get the job done; this Abarth is more than fast enough for most daily needs, and – more to the point – it always feels substantially quicker than an MX-5, which has to make do without a turbocharger.

Any issues?

The ride is reasonably firm at all times; never uncomfortable, but certainly not as genteel as the MX-5, nor the softer-still regular Fiat 124 Spider.

And, if you do happen to clamber into Mazda’s roadster before the Abarth, then when you eventually climb on-board the scorpion-badged car you will find it an extremely familiar environment.

The differences to the MX-5 are a red rev counter, the Abarth steering wheel boss, some Alcantara on the dashboard (and, with a scorpion logo, on the armrest), a bespoke gearlever and the rather plush, logoed-up seats.

Everything else is lifted wholesale from the Mazda: that steering wheel, boss aside, and all its buttons; the switchgear and the climate control dials; the instruments in the cluster; the infotainment screen, satnav mapping and its attendant console controls… there’s nothing wrong with any of this stuff, per se, but it does once more bring us back to the Abarth’s price premium over and above an MX-5.

What’s it like as a business vehicle – are there any tax benefits?

Not bad – despite having more power than the Mazda, the use of a turbocharger means a smaller capacity engine than either variant of MX-5 (which uses 1.5- or 2.0-litre four-cylinder motors).

This leads to 44.1mpg and 148g/km, placing it in a middling 28% Benefit-in-Kind tax bracket, although of course its increased purchase cost does mean it has a higher P11D value with which to frame that 28%.

Where does it rank in class right now?

Well, theoretically there are only three cars in this rarefied-yet-inexpensive, rear-wheel drive roadster class: the Mazda MX-5, the Fiat 124 Spider, and the Abarth 124 Spider.

Yes, you can make a case for something like a Toyota GT86 or Subaru BRZ instead, but they don’t come as open-tops, while a decent hot hatch can be yours for £30,000, offering more practicality and pace than the Abarth, if nothing like its sense of style or rear-drive fun.

So, coming back to our original trio, the Abarth sees off its lesser Fiat kin with no bother whatsoever – but defeating the Mazda? Is that really possible?

Yes. It is. We think the Abarth is just a more involving, more intoxicating and more joyous car to drive than the Japanese machine.

A large part of its appeal is the raucous exhaust note, which some will lament as forced or even needlessly overblown, but surely the primary reason you buy these roadsters is to have a little bit of a ‘look at me’ feeling when behind the wheel? And that’s the other area where the 124 Spider aces the Mazda.

Last time we drove an MX-5, no one gave us a second glance.

But this Abarth? We couldn’t park it up for a moment without someone cooing over it, saying it looked ‘very posh’ and then asking the inevitable ‘what is it?’ query.

And, while driving, other road users took plenty of pains to show their appreciation for the Spider.

So yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it won’t suit all driving styles or tastes – we would fully understand why you’d opt for the Mazda instead, for instance.

Yet we know our heart is with the Abarth, one of the Italian giant’s best cars for many, many a year. What a corking little surprise the 124 Spider turned out to be.

TECH SPEC

Model: Abarth 124 Spider
Price: Abarth 124 range starts from £29,565; car as tested £32,010
Drivetrain: 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol, six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Economy: 44.1mpg
CO2 emissions: 148g/km – £145 annually, if registered before April 1, 2017/£200 first 12 months, £140 annually thereafter, if registered post-April 1, 2017; 28% benefit in kind
Top speed: 143mph
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Power: 170hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 2,500rpm