Past and present combine in FiatChrysler’s Abarth 124 Spider sports car, says Jez Spinks.
The scorpion-badged Abarth brand has been putting the sting into Fiats since 1949 in Europe, though the 124 Spider is the first for decades that’s a tuned-up sports car rather than a hotted-up hatchback.
It arrives locally as a stablemate to the racier version of the retro-infused 500, the 595, and made all the more distinctive by FiatChrysler’s decision to skip importation of the regular Fiat version (at least for now).
If it looks less differentiated from a Mazda MX-5, that’s because the two-seater convertible is the Italian half of a joint venture with the Japanese roadster.
While the 124 Spider rolls off the same Hiroshima assembly line as the MX-5, the borrowed architecture is wrapped in all-new body panels linking deliberately to the 1966 Fiat original. Only the windscreen frame and folding fabric roof system are retained.
Abarth (pronounced with a silent ‘h’) then adds extras including Brembo brakes, Bilstein monotube dampers, exclusive alloy wheels, Sport mode, and a mechanical limited-slip differential for aiding traction.
And under the bonnet, a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder produces more power and torque – 125kW and 250Nm – offered by the biggest of two engines available with the MX-5.
A starting RRP of $41,990 makes the 124 Spider $2,440 more expensive than the highest-spec MX-5, though a $43,500 driveaway deal actually undercuts it marginally once on-road costs are added. Add $2,000 if you prefer a six-speed auto to the fine-shifting six-speed manual.
Comparisons with the Mazda can’t be escaped on the road, either, because there’s a familiar feel to the brilliantly balanced rear-wheel-drive handling. Lightweight agility isn’t compromised by the fact the 124 is slightly heavier, owing to its extra parts and different engine.
A key difference is the engine’s more accessible torque, which gives the driver greater scope to use the throttle for overtaking as well as altering the angle of the car through corners. A Sport mode needs to be activated for the best throttle response, though, and strong Brembo brakes remain consistent for multiple laps of confident fun on a track.
Scorpion badges, a red rev counter and sports seats don’t quite give the Spider’s interior its own character, but overall this is a great-value package that marks a welcome return of the affordable Italian sports car.
This review originally appeared in our Summer 2016/17 issue: