As we write this, it’s the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Perfect time to review a roadster, then. And on such a noteworthy day, the 124 Spider Abarth seems like the ideal car for celebrating.
Translated from Italian, it means vigor, vivacity. And the Fiat serves this up, with a fun to drive personality, stunning looks, and intangibles that just feel so European…which is pretty interesting when you consider, the 124 is mostly Japanese. Underneath the swanky Italian bodywork is a Miata.
But before we delve under the body, let’s linger on the handsome suit draping the mechanicals. We previously tested the 124 Lusso model – the luxury version – and were seduced by the elegant lines and relaxed demeanor – a perfect cruiser.
This time our tester was the Abarth model, and its mission in life is a bit different. Karl (later the Austrian became known as Carlo) Abarth was a legendary racer and tuner of high performance Fiats. Kind of the brand’s version of Mini’s Cooper. Fiat does the legend honor, by offering high-performance versions of the 500 and 124, with aggressive looks, upgraded performance, and those cool Scorpion badges that are the hallmark of Abarth.
On the outside, the most noticeable changes are a more aggressive grille, 17-inch gun-metallic alloys with red scorpion center caps, and butch quad exhaust pipes. It’s definitely more macho than the Lusso, but maybe a touch less cohesive in design.
Interestingly, one option unique to the Abarth was not on our tester, a hand-painted black heritage stripe that covers the entire hood and decklid – an amazing bit of craftsmanship in a world where laid-on stickers – we’re looking at you Nissan 370Z Heritage Edition – are much more the norm. We loved the look of our Chiaro Silver Metallic Abarth without the stripes – it looked special, but not shouty. Italian, classy, like a custom-cut suit.
That goodness is even more noticeable in the Abarth’s interior. The big player here are the optional Recaro seats. These are wonderful seats, hugely supportive, but not so boy-racer that you can’t get in and out of the Fiat without something resembling dignity. With Alcantara inserts and red stitching, they’re handsome too.
And a bit of a bargain… Fiat offers them for a very reasonable $1,195. Mazda finally offers them for the ’18 Miata, but they’re only available as part of a $3,770 Brembo/BBS package. Ouch!
You’ll find a lot of common gear with the Miata, and that’s not bad – location of the important stuff is spot-on for the driver, and interior space is impressive for a small vehicle. Other than that, the Abarth sets itself apart from other 124’s by serving up a sport steering wheel and shift knob, and a couple nice blingy bits like matte grey interior accents and a red-faced tachometer.
The Abarth is also placed as a premium model, so all of the standard and optional goodies on the Lusso are here as well – this is no clapped-out competition model – but a first-class flyer.
Brother from another Mazda?
About the Miata underneath…well, that’s not such a bad thing, is it? After all, the new 4th generation Miata is a superb sports car, and it makes both financial and engineering sense to build the Fiat on the Mazda’s excellent bones.
So, you’d probably expect the Fiat to drive much like the Miata…and you’d be wrong!
While a suave look on the current Miata would probably have been enough, Fiat goes its own way with some interesting choices. Under the hood for example, instead of Mazda’s normally-aspirated 2.0-liter 4-cylinder pushing out 155 hp, there’s a smaller, 1.4-liter turbo 4 that produces 164 hp in the Abarth. (160 hp in other models). More telling, the Miata’s torque maxes out at 148 @ 4600 vs Fiat’s 184 lb-ft at around 2500 rpm.
So, while you’d expect the little engine to require wringing its neck to get performance, the turbo actually helps you glide along in the fat torque curve. Ultimately the Miata will be faster, but the Fiat has a that neat oomph as turbo boost comes in – it’s a personality thing, you have to decide how you like your power served up.
The turbo also puts a lid on the sound. While the quad pipes serve up a sweet tune, it is more subdued than the Miata. A negative when you’re going hard, a plus when you’re enjoying a relaxed cruise.
Handling is another surprise. Fiat has tuned the suspension differently, and it’s noticeable. The Miata feels edgy and autocross ready. It wants to be pushed, and it feels disgruntled when you’re not making the most of every turn.
The Abarth has excellent handling, too but it feels different. It feels softer and less frenetic – take it to the limit and it’s as quick as the Miata, but it seems happier to be zipping around at 8/10th ‘s giving you time to share the joy of top-down driving, letting you use lean into the turbo-torque and warble out. Brio! That’s the word.
Our tester had the optional Brembo brakes and they’re fantastic – great feel, little or no fade even after heavy use. And those red calipers poking out behind the wheels. Worth the price of admission.
And the price of admission?
So, how much to put a little Scorpion in your life? While your most basic 124 Classica starts at $24,995, and the luxurious Lusso $27,595. The Abarth tops the list – barely – at $28,295. Our tester had the Brembo brakes ($1,495), Comfort and Convenience Group which adds heated auto-dimming rear mirrors, Rear Park Assist System, Blind Spot and Rear Cross traffic monitoring ($1,495), and let’s not forget the Recaro seats ($1,195), for a grand total of $33,725.
Other availables not on our tester, include Navigation and Sound ($1,295), Visibility Group –LED lights and headlight washers ($995) and the hand-painted heritage striping ($2,195).
Competitors? Pretty much it’s sibling the Miata. The Club starts at $29,155. Adding the Brembo brakes/BBS wheels and Recaro seats gets us up to $33,820. You can’t get much closer than that! A Mini Cooper S convertible comparable would be $34,900 – also great fun – but it’s not a rear drive sports car, is it?
Which one – Abarth or Miata is a personal call. They’re both great to drive – but different. You’re probably less likely to see an Abarth coming the other way, if that matters to you. We think it’s more of a matter of driving one, sitting in one, pondering one, and finding which resonates with you. Maybe have an espresso…
One note: Mazda has announced that the 2019 Miata will get a significant bump of 26 ponies to a total of 181 hp. This could change the game – or maybe push Fiat to bump the Abarth as well…we’ll see.
So, (just after..) the longest day of the year, we say: live with brio! And there’s no better way than behind the wheel of the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth!
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.