Ok, we’re spoiled here in California. While a great part of the country is dealing with old man Winter and shoveling their way to get cars out of the driveway, we’ve had a nice touch of warmth hitting the low 70’s. A perfect time for a zippy drop top like the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth.
It’s a What?
We forget sometimes that everyone isn’t a car enthusiast. But we had more than a few people asking us what our tester was. Well, it’s a Fiat, obviously, right? Until you notice that it does not say Fiat anywhere on the vehicle. Just Abarth, and Scorpion (Abarth’s was a Scorpio, so he chose that as his signature) badges. Many folks have heard of Fiat by now, but few know the name Abarth.
Karl Abarth was a legendary racer and tuner of high-performance Fiats. Kind of like Cooper is to the Mini, Abarth means added excitement and high performance. Also like Cooper, Abarth vehicles were known as giant killers, slaying much larger, more powerful vehicles with highly tuned, small cars.
Whether you choose the regular Fiat 124 Spider, or the Abarth you get a great looking vehicle. While it is based on the 4th-gen Mazda Miata chassis, it has a distinctly different and Italian look. Fiat stylists made some nods to the original 124 spider of the late 60’s to early 80’s, with bullet-shaped bulges in the hood, and oval-shaped headlight nacelles. It’s an interesting comparison to the Miata which looks like a baby Jaguar F-type to our eyes, while the Fiat looks a bit more flowing, a bit wider. We love the looks.
The Abarth adds some menace to the looks with a unique front and rear fascia, Gun Metal exterior accents, and handsome 17-inch alloys. Our tester didn’t stop there though. We also had the hand painted racing strip that covers the entire hood and trunk lid in a matte black finish, plus we also enjoyed the new Veleno Appearance group, which adds red on the lower fascia lip, mirror caps and tow hook, plus some special interior trim. So even in the rarified air of 124 Abarths, our Brillante was something special.
Like the Miata, the top is a marvel of engineering. Just reach up to the little flip lever, unlatch, and you can fold the top back and latch it locked, all from the comfort of your seat. The reverse is the same, super simple, and easy.
While the outside is ocean’s apart from the Miata ND, the interior is much more Mazda. That’s not a bad idea, as the Japanese automaker spent an incredible amount of time and money to give such a small car a reasonably spacious interior. The pros are excellent legroom for drivers up to six feet tall, and an intimate feeling with most controls you want at the perfect place and within easy reach.
There’s a few fumbles, like no front glove box – you have to use a flip down one that’s mounted behind you in the rear wall, and cupholders that either clip in below that glovebox and bang your elbows, or you can slide one into the passenger’s side of the transmission tunnel – works as long as no one as riding with you.
Gauges are Miata-esque, except for a nice red-faced tachometer, that reverses out when the lights are on for viewability.
Info-tainment is handled by a nice 7-inch, full-color touchscreen, featuring Sirius XM and apps like Pandora, Aha and Stitcher. We wish there was Apple CarPlay or Android Auto on the Abarth, but Fiat says no, Giorgio, to that. There’s an aftermarket fix for that, but it should be standard. We did miss projecting our Waze on the touchscreen, but our tester made up for it with its own GPS Navi that features 2D or 3D maps, and on-screen speed limits.
The system itself is activated by a familiar Mazda large knob, little knob ,center console controller that’s simple to use, and sound is excellent, thanks to a Bose nine-speaker audio system that includes two speakers in each headrest – great for hearing music with the top down, and also works exceptionally well when making a call through the system.
The Abarth stands apart from the Miata, and other Fiat 124 Spiders with some nice trim, including perforated leather on the steering wheel, and optional black and red leather sport seats with the word ABARTH logo’d in. Adding to that the Veleno Appearance Package also brings bright sport pedals and special Abarth carpeted floor mats.
The last Abarth we tested had the optional Recaro seats, which were wonderful, but we were pleasantly surprised how comfortable these were as well. The standard Miata seats always give us a backache. Perhaps we’re built more like Italians….
Outside of that gorgeous exterior, the greatest difference from the Miata is under the hood. Where the Mazda features a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter, four cylinder pushing out 181 horsepower and 151 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm, the Abarth has a smaller 1.4-liter 4-cylinder, but thanks to the magic of turbo power, it cranks out 164 hp, a bit less, but counterpunches with a 184 lb-ft of torque at just 2,500 rpm.
This gives a very different driving experience.
Ah, the sound! Abarth likes to make big sounds. The 500 Abarth we tested a while ago was the Mouse that Roared with a big booming exhaust. The 124 isn’t quite as loud, but still very vocal, and you start it up and heads turn, but it does have a special sound thanks to the optional Record Monza exhaust – another famous name. We also think of the large exhaust as a safety feature – in a small car being heard can help when you might not be seen.
Having a much smaller engine than the Miata changes the way you drive the car. Where the Mazda is linear and pulls to the redline smoothly, the Abarth needs to be in the right gear, and then it revs nicely until the turbo boost kicks in, and bam! A solid push in the back and away you go, accompanied by pure automotive exotica from the spicy exhaust note.
This is not a fast car, but it certainly is quick, and with it’s fun-size dimensions, you can have a great time – even in traffic – without having to go super-legal speeds. It’s also a surprisingly comfortable freeway cruiser – yes, it’s a cloth top and you can hear the engine, but there’s no droning exhaust note – signs of good engineering. And in 6th on the freeway, you’re right at the perfect rpm to roll on the throttle, get a bit of boost and pass with ease.
There is a caveat though, if you’re in the wrong gear, there’s a huge gully where there’s no torque and it can be agonizingly slow to get moving. Luckily the clutch is light and the shifter is super direct, so being in the right gear is easy, and rowing the through the 6-speed manual is a joy. An automatic is available too, but even if you’re convinced that you need an auto, we’d say drive the stick first, it’s light, easy and oh, so rewarding.
A nice surprise is the ride quality. The Abarth features a Bilstein performance suspension stiffer spring rates, a rear stabilizer bar and front strut tower brace. Sounds like a recipe for a tooth-rattling ride, but it is actually quite supple, a big plus in a car with a short wheelbase. The ride is better than the Miata to our minds, and while it may not have the 10/10th’s ultimate precision of its Japanese sibling, it is great fun to toss around, and the handling is inspiring.
If you’re looking for added inspiration, toggling on the Sport Mode will reduce the traction control and let you slide the rear end around for drifting-style fun. No matter what kind of fun you’re having, you also have immense stopping power, thanks to the Abarth’s Brembo four-wheel disc brakes, that have excellent feel through the pedal.
Well, sort of. The Fiat 124 starts at $25,440, while the Abarth Starts at out a reasonable $29,540, loading with options and destination got us to $40,595. Gulp. Loading up several different Miatas, we couldn’t even touch $36,000. So there’s a premium to be paid for the Abarth. A loaded 370Z Roadster can push $50,000 although if you want one, you better hurry as the drop tops are discontinued now.
The truth is, while we enjoyed all the goodies on our tester, we would have loved it just as much without the fancy options. And really, there’s nothing that competes with it. The styling, the tuning, that something special that comes from the name, the sound, the feeling that it was built by people who love the drive.
Wonderful, thrilling, unique. The Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is why we love sports cars.
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.