by Karl Furlong
Combining more exuberant Italian style with the proven underpinnings of a Mazda MX-5 Miata, the Fiat 124 is an attractive sports car that is genuinely great to drive. In the case of the Abarth, there's also a small bump in grunt to 164 horsepower, although the MX-5 remains more powerful. The Abarth's biggest upgrades over lesser 124 Spiders are to be found in the suspension department, where it receives a limited-slip differential, along with a front/rear Bilstein sport suspension. Together with a fruitier exhaust note, the 124 Spider Abarth is proof that crazy power outputs aren't necessary for an engaging driving experience. The MX-5 may be the default drop-top sports car for many, but if you admire the Fiat's unique style and can look past its poor refinement and lack of space, it's a strong contender.
Fiat hasn't made any significant changes to the 124 Spider Abarth for 2020. The only extra is the addition of a newly available "Scorpion Sting" package. Exclusive to the Abarth, it adds hood decals and side stripes for a sportier appearance.
A stretched hood and short overhangs are typical sports car styling cues. Combined with the Abarth's unique touches like Gun Metal mirror caps, 17-inch wheels in Gun Metal, and sportier front and rear fascias, it definitely stands out. Projector-type headlamps are fitted, along with LED taillamps and quad exhaust outlets with bright tips. LED headlamps are available, as is a hand-painted hood stripe.
Despite sharing much with the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the 124 Abarth is a full 5.5 inches longer. The Fiat measures 159.6 inches in length with a 90.9-inch wheelbase. It is 48.5 inches in height and 68.5 inches wide. Curb weight is 2,477 pounds in manual guise and 2,516 lbs when equipped with the automatic transmission. By comparison, the automatic, top-spec MX-5 is 128 lbs lighter than the comparable Abarth.
The 124 Spider Abarth's color palettes comprise metallic shades like Forte Black, Chiaro Silver, and Mare Blue. Hypnotique Red is another no-cost option, as is Brilliante White. The only color that costs extra is Puro White Tri-Coat Pearl, which goes for $595. A hand-painted heritage racing stripe is the kind of option that could appear tacky on many cars, but it somehow works on the sporty Abarth by adorning the hood in black, contrasting especially well with the red paint. At $2,195 it is rather pricey though. You might instead consider the $395 Scorpion Stripe Group, this adds special Abarth-specific stripes along the sides of the car and a Scorpion logo on the hood.
There is just one powertrain to choose from on the 124 Spider Abarth. Power is derived from a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 164 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque - this is up only marginally over non-Abarth models, which make do with 160 hp. With power going to the rear wheels exclusively, the Abarth will hit 60 mph in just over six seconds when equipped with the manual gearbox, on its way to a top speed of 144 mph. As you'd expect, the automatic model is a bit slower. With an extra 17 hp and a bit less weight to lug around, the MX-5 Miata is faster and can clear 0-60 in just under six seconds. So, while the Abarth isn't the fastest or most powerful contender in this segment - the Toyota 86 produces over 200 hp, for instance - the little Fiat provides just enough poke to justify that badge.
Unlike the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the 124 Spider Abarth uses turbocharging to boost a smaller-capacity 1.4-liter four-pot. Peak outputs are 164 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque and the engine is paired with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission.
When operating in its sweet spot, the Abarth delivers strong mid-range acceleration, but it requires too much commitment from the driver to keep the engine in this zone. Lower down in the rev range, one has to contend with noticeable turbo lag, while throttle response is blunted relative to the crisper MX-5. Keep the revs up, and you'll be able to keep the Fiat moving at a reasonably rapid pace, but it's too easy to get caught out in the wrong gear until the turbo spools up and delivers the required turn of pace.
We'd definitely avoid the automatic transmission, as it saps power from an engine that doesn't have much to play with in the first place. The manual gearbox is easy to operate with short throws that get close to the Mazda's 'box.
A performance-tuned suspension is unique to the Abarth, bringing its overall handling capabilities closer to the MX-5. Along with a standard limited-slip differential, a front strut tower brace, and a special sport mode selector, it all adds up to excellent agility and a drive that fully engages you. The 124 Spider is compact in size, and this only encourages the driver to push on and explore the car's limits.
The steering system is a success - it's light enough for comfortable town driving but also provides sufficient feel when pressing on. Sport mode adds some weight to the system and sharpens responses, setting apart the Abarth from the less powerful 124 Spiders. With the traction/stability control systems disabled, it's possible to induce just enough oversteer to add to the pure, unfiltered driving experience, yet there isn't so much power that you'll get yourself into trouble.
The ride quality is typical of a harder-edged sports car. While it can soak up less severe bumps, poorer surfaces do expose a rather harsh ride that can become tiring quite quickly. It's not helped by the Fiat's lack of adequate sound deadening - vibrations and engine noise are both heard and felt within the cabin. There is a time when that's a good thing, though, and with the addition of the Record Monza exhaust option, the Abarth sings like a rally car of the 80s, raucous and unhinged, and slightly mad.
Despite the increase in power and weight, the Abarth matches its standard 124 Spider siblings when it comes to consumption. The manual model's EPA-rated estimates work out to 26/35/30 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles, and the automatic isn't too far behind, returning 25/36/29 mpg. Even though there's a fairly small 11.9-gallon gas tank, you'll still be able to achieve a reasonable combined cruising range of about 357 miles when filled up with premium unleaded gasoline. Consumption is virtually identical to the Mazda MX-5 Miata, which returns 26/34/29 mpg in manual guise.
There are more similarities to the MX-5 Miata inside the Fiat, which is both a positive and a negative. On the plus side, there's a sporty driving position and a pleasing design with nice materials. Abarth touches like the leather/microfiber seats and a sporty instrument cluster further set apart this variant. A sport steering wheel also feels great to hold, while the standard infotainment system with its seven-inch display is simple to operate. Unfortunately, the cabin isn't especially spacious and taller drivers will feel cramped. There's also very little space to store anything. As long as you can fit, the cabin is a pleasing place to be.
The intimate Fiat's cabin provides comfortable seating for the driver and passenger. The seats feature manual adjustments and are trimmed in leather with microfiber inserts. They offer an excellent combination of support and comfort. Suitably low-slung, the driving position is perfectly set up to encourage aggressive driving. Again, space is the major constraint here, no matter how much you fiddle with the seating adjustments. Drivers taller than six foot two will find the space too much of a compromise, not so much in terms of headroom but with only so much adjustment in terms of the seating position. Visibility to the sides is an issue with the roof up, so it's just as well that dropping the manual soft-top is an easy exercise.
The Abarth's standard sport seats are a pleasing combination of leather and microfiber in black. For $595 extra, full leather seats in either black or black/red are available. The final seating option is black Recaro leather/Alcantara sport seats for $1,195. A sport steering wheel and a leather-wrapped shift knob are complemented by Matte Gray interior accents and a sport instrument cluster with a red tachometer. An available Veleno Appearance Group further dresses up the cabin with a bright dead pedal and Abarth carpeted floor mats.
If you thought the Spider's cabin was snug, the trunk is even more so, with a mere 4.94 cubic feet available. The space isn't big enough for a large suitcase, but a carry-on should be able to fit. If two people pack lightly enough, there should be just enough space for a weekend getaway. In this segment, the Toyota 86 is a better option for carrying cargo, even if its 6.9 cubes of space is hardly commodious.
The cabin has little room for stashing small items. The door pockets are tiny and there's a small compartment in the center console. A traditional glove box on the passenger side is replaced by one in between the front seats, but like everything else, it's not that large. Two cupholders are fitted.
A surfeit of equipment would fly in the face of the Spider's lightweight sports car philosophy, so there are manually-adjustable seats instead of power-operated pews, while the roof itself also lacks power-adjustability. Still, you do get air-conditioning with automatic temperature control, illuminated entry, heated seats, a rearview camera, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Delving into one of several available packages avails features like an auto-dimming rearview mirror, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-path detection, and a ParkSense rear park assist system.
The infotainment system is largely borrowed from the Mazda MX-5 Miata, but this is no bad thing since the system is easy enough to operate. The Uconnect system comprises a seven-inch color display with HD Radio, Bluetooth compatibility, and SiriusXM. Unfortunately, both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are unavailable - in 2020, this is a problem when these features have become commonplace and are standard from the mid-spec trim of the MX-5 Miata. The sound system is on the basic side with just four speakers, although with not much cabin space to fill with sound, it's not a great disappointment. Navigation and a nine-speaker Bose sound system are available as part of the Navigation and Sound Group package upgrade.
Benefitting from its Mazda MX-5 Miata ties, the Fiat 124 hasn't had many reported issues, with just a single recall affecting 2017-2019 variants for an issue where the automatic transmission would downshift unexpectedly.
Fiat's warranty covers the 124 Spider Abarth for four years or 50,000 miles (including the powertrain), while roadside assistance is also included for four years regardless of miles covered.
Like the majority of sports cars, the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth hasn't been evaluated for crashworthiness by the NHTSA and the IIHS. The same is true for the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Although the 124 Spider gets the safety essentials you'd expect, it lacks some of the modern driver aids that you can get on the MX-5. As standard, the Fiat gets four airbags, ABS braking, electronic stability control, a rearview camera, and tire pressure monitoring. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-path detection is an option, as is a ParkSense rear park assist system. However, the likes of lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control aren't available at all.
It's hard not to develop a soft spot for cars like the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. It's a sports car that harks back to the days when a slimmer weight, a reasonable (but not unmanageable) power output, and a standard manual gearbox with rear-wheel-drive were all you really needed for a fun driving experience. At under $30k, the Abarth also adds worthwhile suspension upgrades and sportier trim to the mix to get close to the benchmark Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Fiat isn't perfect, however - its turbocharged engine isn't as enjoyable to use as the Mazda's naturally aspirated 2.0-liter, the cabin is small, trunk space is only minimal, and both the ride and noise levels could do with a bit more polish. Still, as long as you steer clear of the automatic version, the Abarth will provide many miles of enjoyable motoring without breaking the bank, while its unique styling is a neat contrast to the attractive but more familiar MX-5.
Starting at an MSRP of $29,390, the 124 Spider Abarth is actually $150 less expensive than last year's model. This price is exclusive of tax, licensing, registration, and Fiat's destination charge of $1,495. If you really do want the automatic model, it'll cost you an extra $1,450 over the base six-speed manual.
The 124 Spider Abarth is available in just a single trim. As the sportiest version of the 124 Spider, it gets a retuned 1.4-liter turbocharged engine with 164 hp and a Bilstein sport suspension. Further upgrades over lesser 124's are a standard mechanical limited-slip differential and a Sport mode driving selector. Rear-wheel-drive is standard, while you can choose between a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic gearbox.
Outside, the little sports car is fitted with 17-inch alloy wheels and quad exhaust outlets with bright-finish tips. An available heritage racing stripe can be added on as an optional extra. Fog lamps and LED taillamps are standard, while LED headlamps are available as an option.
The interior features heated leather/microfiber seats with manual adjustment, along with automatic climate control, a rearview camera, a seven-inch screen for the infotainment system, a four-speaker audio system, a 12-volt auxiliary power outlet, and illuminated entry. The Abarth model has exclusive touches like Matte Gray interior accents, a sport instrument cluster with a red tachometer, bright pedals, and a shift knob with leather wrapping. The safety specification can be upgraded with available blind-spot monitoring, a rear park assist system, and rear cross-path detection.
1.4-liter Turbo Inline-4 Gas
One of the cheaper packages is the Veleno Appearance Group at $495. This bundles together Abarth-branded floor carpets, red mirror caps, a red fascia lower lip, and a bright footrest. Next is the Visibility Group at $995, with extras like adaptive LED headlamps, a headlamp washer system, and daytime LED running lamps. The $1,295 Navigation and Sound Group adds GPS navigation and nine Bose speakers - five more speakers than the standard audio setup. Finally, there's the Convenience Group at $1,495, combining features like an auto-dimming rearview mirror, blind-spot and cross-path detection, heated exterior mirrors, and a rear park assist system. The Record Monza stainless steel exhaust system upgrade costs $995 - it includes Abarth fender badges but, most of all, an enhanced engine note that better suits the car's demeanor. Other standalone options include a Brembo braking system for $1,495 and the Recaro seats for $1,195.
The 124 Spider Abarth is around $2,000 cheaper than the top-spec Mazda MX-5 Miata, so we wouldn't spend much more than this on options as the MX-5 is the better buy at the same price. We'd tick the box for the Record Monza exhaust system which really does endow the Fiat with a sporty exhaust note that makes it feel faster than it actually is. Although the feature upgrades in the Convenience Group are appealing, this is ultimately a sports car, so we'd rather go for the Recaro seats or the Veleno Appearance Group upgrades, adding even more flair to the Spider.
A comparison between these two is inevitable. Both are fun-to-drive, top-down two-seaters that offer an appealing contrast to the excess of so many modern cars. Although the Fiat's turbocharged engine has more torque, the MX-5 Miata's 2.0-liter recently received a power increase to 181 horsepower. Together with its lighter weight and sharper throttle response, it's the Mazda's powerplant that seems more in tune with a sports car driving experience. Each competitor has manual gearboxes providing sweet shifts, and the Abarth's suspension upgrades see it nearly matching the MX-5's handling prowess. But it's the Mazda that has a better balance between ride and handling, retaining its composure better than the Fiat over rougher surfaces. Together with more standard features on its top two trims, the Mazda is still the one we'd choose.
The main difference between these two is the Toyota 86's hard-top roof and its ability to seat four, even if the rear seats aren't that spacious. Together with a bigger trunk and more space inside the cabin, the Japanese car is the one that's more pleasant to live with on a daily basis. Like the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the 86 ditches turbocharging for a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine with 205 hp. Performance is similar to the 124 Spider's on paper, but the Toyota thrives on higher revs and doesn't have the Fiat's annoying turbo lag to contend with. Both are sharp handlers, but the Toyota is even better in this respect. The Fiat has nicer interior materials, though, and a much more pleasing layout - the Toyota feels a bit cheap by comparison. Both cars are rather noisy, but one has to consider the driving enjoyment on offer at this price. If you can fit into the Fiat, it's hard to replace its top-down driving thrills, whereas the Toyota doesn't feel as classy but has a superior powertrain.