Abarth 124 Spider convertible (2017-2019)
"The Abarth 124 Spider is fantastic fun to drive, while it looks and sounds great, but you need to accept a small boot and tight cockpit"
- Fun to drive
- Great to look at
- Sounds brilliant
- Poor automatic gearbox
- Not particularly quick
- Expensive to buy
Although it’s very closely related to both the Fiat 124 Spider and the Mazda MX-5, the Abarth 124 Spider represents a separate take on the roadster genre. It offers more power than the Fiat and the 1.5-litre MX-5, along with a sportier body kit and some suspension updates to make it more engaging to drive.
It certainly looks distinctive, particularly with the matte black bonnet and bootlid, which come as part of the no-cost Heritage Look pack. We also think the unique 17-inch alloy wheels look better than the silver items fitted to the Abarth's sister car, the Fiat 124 Spider.
Power from the turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine has been upped to 168bhp, cutting the 0-62mph time to 6.8 seconds. There’s a choice of either a delightful six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox (the latter adds a tenth of a second to the 0-62mph time), both of which send power exclusively to the rear wheels.
One of the key upgrades for the Abarth version is the addition of a limited-slip differential. This is a device that shuffles power between the rear wheels to ensure they have the best traction under hard acceleration – especially out of tight corners.
The Abarth is significantly quicker than both the Fiat (by eight tenths of a second) and the 1.5-litre Mazda (by 1.5 seconds) with which it shares its basic construction, but it’s 0.3 seconds slower than the recently updated 2.0-litre MX-5. The manual Abarth manages a top speed of 144mph, which is a bit quicker than the Fiat or either Mazda, too. As well as the extra power, there’s also more noise, thanks to the standard ‘Record Monza’ sports exhaust that emits a unique, gravelly sound and pops as you change gear in anger.
Thanks to its turbocharger and firmer suspension, the Abarth 124 Spider feels a little faster than its Mazda MX-5 twin along a British B-road, thanks to the additional torque from its engine. Dropping the roof only adds to the experience, with a slick gearbox, agile handling and punchy engine that can be enjoyed at sane speeds without needing to hire a race track.
Even better news is that frequent deals and finance offers can also make the Abarth more affordable than you might expect.
MPG, running costs & CO2
Thanks to the combination of a reasonably small, turbocharged engine and a low weight of just over 1,000kg, the Abarth 124 Spider is pretty fuel-efficient. According to official figures, the Abarth will return around 44mpg with the manual gearbox (43mpg if you go for the automatic), while CO2 emissions stand at 148 and 153g/km for manual and automatic respectively and road tax costs £140 a year. This might not be the most obvious company-car choice, but BiK rates of 28-29% make the Abarth 124 Spider a reasonable sports car for business drivers to run.
The Abarth 124 Spider's warranty lasts for three years, and is broken down into 24 months of manufacturer cover and a further 12 months of dealer cover. There's also three years' of breakdown cover and there's a fixed price servicing plan.
Engines, drive & performance
A small, light, two-seater, rear-wheel-drive sports car should always be fun to drive and the Abarth 124 Spider is no exception. It’s basically the same car underneath as the Fiat 124 Spider and Mazda MX-5, both of which we already know are fantastic to drive, but the Abarth has been given some suspension upgrades to further improve the driving experience. They’ve worked, too, as has the revised steering, which is fantastically accurate, while body lean in corners is very well controlled. The ride quality is firm, but doesn’t feel unruly and takes the edge off all but the worst bumps.
In fact, not only is the Abarth more fun than the Fiat 124 Spider, it's also as entertaining as the Mazda MX-5 - and that's quite an accolade. Some have criticised the MX-5 for leaning a little too much in corners, even in Sport Nav+ trim with its Bilstein dampers, and the Abarth behaves similarly in the corners with a little more lean than you might have been expecting from a sporty roadster.
There’s plenty of grip, with the standard limited-slip differential enabling impressive acceleration out of slow corners, while also encouraging some enthusiastic driving at times. Having said that, the car is never intimidating and is just as happy pootling about town – where its small dimensions and agile handling come in handy – as it is on your favourite country road. The six-speed manual gearbox is superb and a joy to use. It's far better than the automatic option, which not only costs £2,300, but saps performance and is slow to react to inputs.
There’s only one engine available, but it’s a good one. Some people may complain that 168bhp isn’t enough, but it’s spread nicely across the rev range and is enough for a 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds. This makes the Abarth a fair bit quicker than its Fiat sibling and just 0.3 seconds slower than the Mazda MX-5 in 2.0-litre form.
Dropping the roof allows you to enjoy the Abarth's ‘Record Monza’ exhaust; its quad tailpipes pump out a very appealing soundtrack that'll have you blipping the accelerator for the sheer fun of it, which is key to the 124's appeal. It's a sports car that focuses more on entertaining you at sensible speeds than causing you to cling on for dear life.
That said, the Abarth 124's sheer exuberance can grow tiring if all you want to do is complete a long journey; the Mazda MX-5 is rather quieter and more civilised in mile-munching mode.
Interior & comfort
If you’re the right size for this car (under six feet tall), then it’s fantastically snug, but taller people will struggle to fit – especially with the roof up. The view out is excellent, while the steering wheel is a lovely thing to use and the pedals are perfectly spaced.
The dashboard is laid out almost identically and all three cars get exactly the same infotainment system. The Abarth does, however, get different seats, with the Abarth ‘scorpion’ badge on the headrests, as well as some slatted cushions. The optional red panels on the seats are worth considering, as without them the interior looks a little gloomy when the roof is up.
Practicality & boot space
As we mention above, the Abarth 124 Spider isn’t the roomiest car in the world, but then no small two-seat, rear-drive sports car is going to be. The most long-legged of drivers may struggle with a clash between steering wheel, centre console and gearknob, but most will find the driving position close to ideal.
Headroom is in short supply with the roof up, though, and there's precious little interior storage space. There’s no glovebox, for example – just a small storage area between the two seats. Two fixed cup-holders come as a bit of a surprise, but they're difficult to access and can get in the way of your elbow when you’re changing gear.
The Abarth’s boot isn’t especially commodious, either. There’s just 140 litres of space available (10 more than in the Mazda MX-5), while the opening is pretty narrow and there’s a sizeable lip, too. Really, there’s only enough room for a couple of soft weekend bags, rather than a suitcase.
Reliability & safety
In terms of reliability, Abarth and its parent company Fiat have a middling reputation. Fiat came 17th in our 2017 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey, a dramatic improvement from last place the year before. However, along with the Fiat 124 Spider and the Mazda MX-5, the Abarth is built in Mazda’s Yokohama factory, which has a reputation for building reliable cars. Indeed, the MX-5 placed fourth overall in our 2018 reliability survey which bodes well for the Abarth, although the engine is made in Italy and not shared with the Mazda.
In terms of safety, the Abarth 124 Spider should perform well for a soft-top. The Mazda MX-5, which is pretty much the same car, managed a creditable four-star Euro NCAP score. All models get airbags, anti-lock brakes, tyre-pressure monitoring and electronic stability control, as well as electronic brakeforce distribution, which sends the appropriate amount of braking force to the wheels that can deal with it best.
Price, value for money & options
There’s just the one trim level for the Abarth 124 Spider, but it does come reasonably well equipped. Cruise control, Bluetooth, DAB radio, Alcantara upholstery and climate control are all standard, but when prices for the car start at just under £30,000, you’d expect no less. This might seem pricey for such a small car, but good deals and finance offers can bring the Abarth back into competition with the MX-5.
We’d definitely avoid the automatic gearbox, as it costs an extra £2,300 and does little but make the driving experience worse. There aren’t that many other options available on the Abarth. You can add satellite navigation, as well as a nine-speaker Bose stereo.