Test Drive: 2017 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider

On this, the cusp of robot-driven cars, hybrid-this and active-safety-that, it’s refreshing to fold oneself into a tiny roadster, drop the top and drive off, with dinosaur juice powering only the rear wheels, and gears being manually selected with a stubby shifter.

One of the greatest joys of driving the Abarth roadster is moving the shifter through its six-speed gates.

Although it’s brand new, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is a nostalgia piece. It even looks the part, what with its cheerful headlight “eyes”, swooping character line down its flank and a grille that resembles the last 124s to roll of an Italian assembly line back in the early ’80s.

Of course there are still no Fiat 124 Spiders rolling off any Italian assembly lines. This car here was given birth in the same Hiroshima, Japan factory as its beloved cousin, the Mazda MX-5, which speaks volumes as to why the 124 Spider Abarth is such a hoot to drive.

And indeed it is a hoot. With the essential suspension architecture both front and rear being shared (control-arm up front and multi-link rear), it’s the individual struts, springs, and anti-roll bars that differ between the two roadsters. Having driven Mazda’s new MX-5 RF just a few weeks prior, the differences are subtle enough that I’d need back-to-back seat time to really discern them. Suffice it to say, the Fiat is nimble, quick on its feet, and eager to zip from one hairpin turn to the next, as fast as it can.

The steering feels great, too, with ample road texture being transmitted to the driver’s hands, helping place the car precisely where desired when trying to hit that apex just right. The 124 Spider’s standard four-wheel disc brakes do an adequate job of keeping things safe, but the optional Brembo brakes not fitted to our test car would surely give greater bite.

One of the greatest joys of driving the Abarth roadster is moving the shifter through its six-speed gates. The throws are short and the action is true and precise, encouraging regular shifts both up and down – the latter complemented by rev-blipping from some easy footwork on the perfectly placed pedals.

And it’s a good thing, too, since the biggest differentiator between the Mazda and the Fiat is under the hood, and it’s also the area of most concern.

Internet armchair racers and statisticians will be quick to point out that the Fiat, with its Italian-made engine, dispenses nine more horsepower and a noteworthy 36 lb-ft more torque than the Mazda. That’s a 24 percent bump in twist to 184 lb-ft.

Where the Mazda employs a normally aspirated 2.0L four-cylinder, the Fiat swaps in a variation of the 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder. While the little turbo offers up an impressive torque punch, the engine’s power delivery is anything but linear. Pulling away from a stop, the 124 Spider is virtually asleep until the turbo spools up near 2,500 rpm. Around town, minivan moms will unwittingly get the jump across intersections unless the Fiat driver does a clutch-drop start at significant RPMs, and producing a bit of uncouth wheel spin.

The MX-5’s engine is smoother and more flexible than the 124’s, making the Mazda feel quicker during most driving, but the more time I spent with the Abarth, the more I began to adapt to its power delivery and use the more robust mid-range to the Fiat’s advantage, and the more I liked it.

Once out on the highway, with the Fiat’s turbo whistling away, the Spider responds to a heavy throttle stab with a satisfying shove forward, making it a frisky traffic-carver. With lane discipline being all but completely forgotten on the Greater Toronto Area’s clogged highways, the Abarth is just about the best way short of a motorcycle to slice and dice through doddling, texting and otherwise oblivious left-lane-hogging traffic.

Despite its smaller engine, the Fiat also carries around nearly 50 kg more than the Mazda, due to increased sound deadening and 140 mm greater body length required to give the Spider its familial appearance. The Abarth name isn’t a household one, so the little roadster generated a lot of attention and prompted a few conversations with random strangers during its time with us.

In order to achieve its homage to the old 124 Spider, both the nose and tail have been bulked up and squared off. From the rear, it works, but to my eye, the side profile and front look a little too bulky. Being an Abarth trim car, there’s a bunch of black or gunmetal-coloured skirting, ducting and trim pieces to help make it look sportier than the lesser-modelled 124 Spiders.

Our test car also has its hood and trunk lid hand-painted black as a tribute to the 1972 Fiat Abarth 124 Rally cars that were successfully campaigned in the European Rally Championship. This is an option that costs an eye-watering $3,000, made even harder to swallow given that it looks just like a vinyl wrap.

124 Spider Abarths are also identified by the belt-buckle-sized scorpion badges on nose and tail replacing Fiat badges from other Spider trims. Plus, being the highest-performing trim, they have four tailpipes sticking out the back.

This brings me to my biggest gripe about the Abarth. Those who’ve heard the Fiat 500 Abarth (which uses a variation of the same engine, but in front-wheel-drive format), know that it is one of the most amusingly vulgar-sounding machines on the road today. Its guttural belches and farts let everyone around know that it is no typical sorority-girl 500. The 124 Spider Abarth sounds comparatively uninspiring. The little four-banger is coarse and buzzy and the quad pipes out back do nothing aurally to denote a special performance edition.

Fiat has missed a huge opportunity here to really make the 124 Spider something raw and special. It would be great if the Sport setting button that illuminates a light on the dash and makes for a slightly sportier throttle response, could open some extra exhaust flaps and let the music play. Fiat doesn’t need to go for something quite as bonkers as the 124 Spider Rally with its fire-spitting 300 horsepower noise-maker seen (and heard!) ripping around Monte Carlo earlier this year, but maybe 200 horsepower and a fun, flatulent exhaust note, and some super-sticky tires would do wonders for the Abarth’s street cred.

The cockpit is tight as expected from a car this diminutive, but the seats are snug and comfy and the controls are mostly sensible, having been pillaged from Mazda. I say mostly because the infotainment rotary controller and volume control require the operator to have either very tiny forearms or two elbows on the same side to reach it.

Using one of the most beloved sports cars of all time as the starting point, it’d be pretty difficult for the Fiat 124 Spider to be anything but a giant bucket of fun – and it is – but given the nearly $50,000 cost, this Abarth variant could have (and should have) been so much more wild.

Sidebar

As much fun as Fiat’s 124 Spider Abarth is, the cost of admission is approaching premium sports-car territory. A quick search of autoTRADER.ca produced a number of three-year-old, low-mileage Porsche Boxster and BMW Z4 pre-owned offerings for less than the cost of this Abarth. Since very few people are ever likely to make a tiny roadster their only mode of transportation, most will be relegated to weekend or summer toy duty.

To that end, the Porsche and BMW offer greater performance, sexier styling, and more panache for the same price.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
Engine Displacement: 1.4L
Engine Cylinders: 4
Peak Horsepower: 164 hp
Peak Torque: 184 lb-ft
Fuel Economy: 9.0/6.7/7.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 140 L
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
Base Price $37,995
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $49,380
Optional Equipment $9,490 – Bianca-Perla Tri-Coat paint $995; Luxury Collection $5,500; Hand-painted Heritage Racing Stripe $2,995
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.5
7 Styling
7 Powertrain
8 Quality
6 Comfort
3 Practicality
8 Drivability
6 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
7 Features
6 Value