Test Drive: FIAT’s 124 Spider Abarth

This car boasts Japanese precision and Italian soul

by Justin Kaehler

FIAT’s 124 Spider traces its history back to 1968, when the original Pininfarina-designed roadster of the same name first hit the world stage. This ’68 Spider was everything an Italian automobile should be: a stripped-down, purpose-built machine wrapped in a gorgeous shell. It was never the fastest thing on the road, but it was a joy to drive. To this day, the little FIAT two-seater still commands attention wherever it goes.

FIAT’s latest 124 Spider, on the other hand, traces its lineage back to Hiroshima, Japan, to the factory where Mazda builds its MX-5 Miata. The 124 Spider is essentially a re-skinned Miata, but in no way is that a bad thing. Since its introduction in 1989, the Miata has been deemed one of the best roadsters in existence, with each new iteration somehow finding a way to improve upon driving perfection. The new 124 brings some Italian flavor to this Japanese recipe, making for a truly engaging vehicle. We had the good fortune of sampling the Abarth version of the FIAT 124 Spider, which brings an extra dose of performance to the party with features like a Bilstein suspension, Brembo brakes and standard limited-slip differential. And it’s every bit as good as we imagined it would be.

More more than just a simple re-badging, all the sheetmetal you see is exclusive to the FIAT 124 Spider. Its bug-eyed front-end and twin hood bulges pay homage to the original without looking too retro, while the muscular rear haunches and taillight treatment feel as if they were influenced by the Maserati Quattroporte sedan. Finishing off the rear is a lower diffuser and quad-tipped exhaust.

To those of us who sleep with car magazines tucked under our pillows, it still feels as if the 124 Spider is just another Miata. But to many individuals who stumbled upon our shoot in downtown Los Angeles, this car may very well have been a Maserati MC12. Countless people stopped by asking, “What is that?” before snapping selfies next to the vehicle.

Despite the shared platform, the 124 Spider Abarth offers a driving experience that’s uniquely its own. It feels softer than the Mazda, likely due to revised suspension bits and a retune of the electrically assisted power-steering. Also slightly dulling the edge is the FIAT’s smaller 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo engine, rated here at 164 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. That turbo needs to work hard to compensate for the engine’s small size, resulting in noticeable turbo lag under acceleration. Even when in sport mode, there’s a hesitation between pressing the gas and the power coming on. It’s not terrible, but it lacks the immediacy of the larger-engined, naturally aspirated Miata.

But in the corners, when the turbo is on boost, the 124 Spider Abarth feels alive. This engine is designed to deliver mid-range power, so a squirt of the throttle is all that’s needed to rocket the FIAT through the bends. This little FIAT finds a way to stay planted, responding just enough to let one feel truly connected to the car, but not so much that things feel twitchy at even the slightest input. It makes for an easy yet intoxicating drive, where its superb cornering capabilities more than make up for the bumpy ride.

Inside it’s a Mazda. Thankfully, the Japanese company has been producing some of the best interiors in the business, with everything feeling well-crafted and tailored to the driver. The FIAT’s cabin manages the rare trick of feeling both tight and spacious; place your hand at the 12 o’clock position and extend your index finger, and you’ll find yourself touching the windscreen. But top up, or down, there’s still plenty of head and shoulder room for two adults to ride in relative comfort. We’re not sure we’d take the FIAT 124 Spider down a long stretch of interstate, but it would be amazing for blasting up California’s winding coastline.

While this new vehicle is essentially a Miata in an Italian suit, it offers Japanese precision with Italian soul, and offered at an affordable price—around $35K. A pleasure to drive, this is the kind of car we’re glad exists.

Images by Justin Kaehler