It took me 5 minutes to understand what all the talk was about. I pulled out of my office, made two turns and then quickly said “ohhh”. A smile pinned itself to my face for the remainder of the drive home. Fiat graciously provided this car for a few days before I left the country and until the second I got on the plane, I was trying to figure out how to pack it in my suitcase and take it to paradise with me.
What is it?
In 2015 Fiat debuted the 124 Spider, a continuation of the 124 model name not seen since the 124 Sport Spider in 1983. The new 124 Spider was designed in cooperation with Mazda and shares the chassis and may of interior parts with the MX-5 Miata but has a different power plant. Instead of the 2.0L naturally aspirated engine powering the Mazda, Fiat ships it’s 1.4L MultiAir Turbocharged engine from Italy to be installed. This is evident in the parts content showing 75% Japan sourced, 24% Italian, and 1% other on the window sticker with the vehicle being built in Mazda’s Hiroshima, Japan plant.
A year after the 124 Spider was released, Fiat announced that the 124 Abarth was to arrive on showroom floors later in the future 2017 model years. With the Abarth came a quad-outlet exhaust, sport tuned suspension, 17” wheels, and most importantly, a limited slip differential in the back. Other additions are cosmetic but the sum of it all leads to a very rowdy car.
Before I even finished signing the paperwork to take possession of the 124 for the week, I had people asking me about it. The 124 Abarth garners more attention than almost any other vehicle near this price range, including its sister car, the ND Miata MX-5. The lines on the 124 are great, giving off an aesthetic of athletic and a bit exotic. The headlights, high up on the front end, and rather large, are reminiscent of the original 124.
With the top up, it looks good. With a real glass window the top looks more professionally done than some. When the top is down though, it looks like the small Italian sports car Fiat has been missing for a over a decade.
In daily driving and commuting the Fiat is actually quite nice. Surprisingly, bumps are not back breaking like you could expect. The seats are extremely comfortable and would be fine over long distances with seat heaters that can go from mild to fire. Perfect for a chilly night with the top down. The 9 speaker Bose system sounds pleasant and the bluetooth voice commands worked well even at 40+ mph with the top down.
With the top up, the cockpit is noticeably small, but the high quality materials making up the roof lining make it feel like less of a punishment to not have the top down. There are hints of cheap plastic, but for the most part it looks and feels way above its level. The car in general doesn’t feel cheap, and that’s important at this price point. The sense of luxury is very underrated and the 124 Spider feels like the $30,000+ car it is. The automatic transmission provided in this car was perfectly content in dealing with everyday traffic. It rarely ever jerked or made anything short of quick work of traffic jams and let me enjoy the scenery as I passed through. It made a sports care completely livable as a daily driver and even though many will shun it for being the “wrong” choice, there were many of times I respected it for allowing me to really enjoy the car always.
No surprise the 124 Abarth performed *very* well, but just how much fun it was completely shocked me. I have never driven anything so much fun to play around in. The steering is direct and very quick. So much so, I have found myself turning too tight into corners and having to quickly go the other way to avoid hitting curbs.
164 horsepower is not a lot. Especially considering this is only four more horses than the non-Abarth version. But 164 horsepower in a vehicle weighing under 2500 pounds is fantastic. 0-60 is achieved in 6.7 seconds but it feels much faster as the sport exhaust sings with the occasional pop thrown in. At 3000 RPM, the engine really wakes up as the turbo is fully spooled and acceleration from 20 mph in second gear happen much faster than you expect.
The Limited Slip Differential is a piece of engineer art and the back end will easily get loose, at even low speeds with a bit of throttle. The traction control is quick to grab it back, but in Sport mode it seems to let you have a bit more fun. The fact that the car can get loose, but also take a corner with ease, is quite amazing. Mazda did a very good job designing a very balanced chassis.
Are there any weaknesses?
Well, yes… there are. First of all the transmission. It wasn’t the automatic that was the issue. In fact the automatic is spectacular in this car with lightning quick shifts. Hit the paddles and the car shifts without a second thought giving you a nice rev-matching throttle blip. The gearing is perfect, allowing the car to be thrown around in corners and out accelerate any other car with 168hp. Wait, this is supposed to be the weaknesses. Well, the automatic transmission is one of the best, but the fact of the matter was what it wasn’t a manual. This car is probably way faster with the auto and that’s what many engineers want you to have these days. But the purists who just want to cruise down a back road will obviously still need the manual.
The Mazda sourced media and navigation system is very… meh. The sound is good but the entire system is managed through a rotary dial behind the shifter that can also pushed down and used like a d-pad. The whole system is set s far back, that the cup holders, which are also in a poor spot, get in the way of your arm. The screen is also faced straight towards the middle of the car, leading to some glare as well as awkward sight lines.
Value and verdict
As tested, the 124 Spider Abarth comes out at $34,000, but by simply not checking the boxes for the automatic transmission($1600) and frustrating navigation unit ($1200), you can get the vehicle down to near $31,000. On top of that, many dealers are offering $5000 or more off of sticker in trying to move these. At $25,000, I cannot think of any better vehicle. This is one of the best vehicles I have ever driven and would most certainly own one myself.