IF YOU look at the heritage of the Abarth 124 Spider, you could be forgiven for assuming that it is a bit of a dog; a mongrel born from the union of an Italian car maker with one from Japan, then injected with steroids.
Drivers will most likely know (perhaps from our twin test) that Fiat, wanting to introduce its first two-seater sports car since the Barchetta of the ’90s, did a deal with Mazda to use its new MX-5 chassis for the job. It then clothed it in a bespoke bodyshell and dropped a 1.4-litre MultiAir engine under the bonnet. Most pundits agreed that the resulting car was OK but a little lukewarm and disappointing, and not a patch on the pure-bred Mazda.
Abarth, Fiat’s tuning arm, aimed to change all that with the car you see here. It uprated the engine from 138bhp to 168bhp, changed the suspension settings and added a mechanical limited slip differential, which improves traction to the outside wheel through corners, improving lateral acceleration.
It also stripped out the standard exhaust and added its own, which it calls the “Record Monza”. Abarth talks of “dual mode technology” and a rather unpleasant-sounding “variable back-pressure system”, but the effect is most noticeable when it comes to the sound. The noise coming out of the back of the Abarth 124 is sensational. It growls and pops and farts (maybe that’s the variable back-pressure at work), adding an addictive sense of drama to proceedings.
Abarth has also managed not to over egg the pudding when it comes to power. The 30bhp increase transforms the 124 Spider from a car that we described as lacking energy, delivering a dribble of power when you want a dollop, into one which is positively tugging at the lead and packed with vim, without ever feeling too hot to handle. It’s a jack russell rather than a whippet.
The handling modifications have worked wonders, too. It’s less supple and more aggressive than the MX-5 but it’s comfortable enough to be a daily driver, and through tight and twisty turns the car comes into its own, staying level and composed yet pointy and engaging. The electrically-assisted power steering is lithe and the rack is fast, while there’s true joy as you work your way through the six-speed, short-throw manual gearbox (an automatic “Sequenziale Sportivo” ‘box is also available). If there’s one criticism with it, it’s that the squarish gearknob doesn’t fit the hand as comfortably as would a more rounded one.
If anyone tries to tell you the Abarth doesn’t handle as well as the Mazda, tell them they’re talking rubbish
What feels like near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution (most of the 1,060kg is between the front and rear axles) means you’ll be reaching to turn off the traction control and switch on Sport mode for every trip, keeping the back end a little free and loose but, with nice linear power delivery, always under control.
If anyone tries to tell you the Abarth doesn’t handle as well as the Mazda, tell them they’re talking rubbish — this is the car that gets the most from the excellent underpinnings.
Abarth has continued the sense of drama with tweaks to the exterior and interior. The contrast-coloured black bonnet and boot lid signal intent and look better in the metal than in photos. The splashes of red on the seats and door mirrors, and at the top of the steering wheel mark the car out from the pack, too.
It’s not short of creature comforts, with a climate control system, four speaker stereo with MP3 player and USB port, cruise control, 7-inch colour display, DAB digital radio, Bluetooth connectivity and electric door mirrors as standard, but you’ll need to pay extra for the satellite navigation system, Bose stereo upgrade and a rear backup camera.
And that brings us to the issue of price. The manual Abarth 124 Spider will set you back upwards of £29,565 whereas the most expensive 124 Spider costs £24,995. The top Mazda MX-5 is just £23,690. Is the Abarth 124 Spider worth it? Give me the mongrel every time.