Before the VW Golf GTI ushered in a new era of practical cars that were fun to drive, the only way to get any thrills behind the wheel was either very expensive supercars or cheap and cheerful roadsters from Britain, Italy, or maybe even Japan.
The practicality of small roadsters is much less than a hot hatch, but they offer far better driving dynamics when you put the hammer down, and such is the case with the Fiat 124 Spider. Does the Fiat possess enough panache to evoke the spirit of sports cars past? To find out, we took a 500-mile (800-km) journey from Toronto to Ottawa and back on a rainy autumn weekend.
As you walk up to the Fiat, you feel like you should be wearing lambskin driving gloves.
The Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is well styled, harkening back to the days of the original Abarth rally car of the ’70s. the hand-painted black stripe down the hood of the car may not match with the real hood lines, but it does a good job of mimicking the original, even if it is a $1,995 ($2,995 CAD) option. With the Abarth package, you also get larger gunmetal grey wheels, although I prefer the wheels that the standard version comes with.
Throughout our time with the Fiat, it was well received by onlookers — men, women, and children all took a good, long look at it, with most offering a comment such as, “I used to have one” or “I like your Spider!” So many people surprisingly knew what this car was and immediately had a connection to it. Character is an impossible quality to engineer into a car, but the reputation of the 124 precedes it.
The Jump Seat, and on Deck
Once you sit inside, those lambskin driving gloves aren’t really appropriate anymore.
The seats are comfortable and nicely bolstered, holding both occupants in place for spirited driving, but not so bolstered that it’s difficult to get in and out of. This is already a semi-difficult car to enter and exit, being so low to the ground, especially with the top up, so having incognito seats is a plus.
For a fairly tightly sprung car, we were comfortable for the whole trip. The leather-faced seats don’t offer much of an improvement over the standard package, but the heated seats definitely helped when the mercury dropped.
In sixth gear at highway speeds, the interior noise was not egregious, especially with the top up. With a droptop, drivers typically sacrifice comfort for the airy feel of an open top, but even with the top down, the buffeting wasn’t that bad and the radio only had to be turned up a few notches to be audible.
Unfortunately, most of the time we spent in the car was spent with the top up, as the heavens opened up on us for just about the whole weekend, dampening the allure of the convertible, but luckily, the top is easy to raise and lower from the cabin manually. The roof didn’t leak and we stayed dry, which is a huge improvement over classic Fiats and most old convertibles.
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Because you sit low and have a large transmission tunnel, I found myself smacking my elbows on the inconveniently placed cupholders, or if my girlfriend wanted to change the radio station, the infotainment controls were right underneath my forearm, so we were stuck listening to Hotel California for the 14th time. There are also not enough cubbies or spots to put stuff like phones, keys, and wallets.
Although 164 horsepower doesn’t seem like a lot, there were not many times where I felt I needed more. Drop down a gear and the rear-drive car pulled nicely, able to dice it up in traffic and pass slow SUVs on two-lane blacktops. At low rpm, the engine is slow to react when blipping the throttle and coupled with the tame exhaust system, it can be hard not to let the rpm dip too low.
Once sport mode is activated, throttle blips were much easier to meter, so I left it on most of the time. Changing gears is a long process: once the effortless clutch was pushed, the revs hang on for dear life from the 1.4-liter Multi-air turbo engine and I found myself becoming impatient and letting the clutch out anyway despite being too high in the rev range, but that would bring the engine back down to earth while keeping the ride smooth thanks to a predictable bite point.
Shifts are tight and notchy, just what you want in a sports car gearbox, which makes sense because the 124 shares boxes with the Mazda Miata. Hustling through the gears in spirited driving is a breeze, as the gates are easy to find and the close ratios demand a lot of shifting. Keeping the car in higher rev ranges made for some theater, but not too much because the exhaust note was disappointingly quiet. I was expecting more growl and aggression but was let down.
The wet ground made for a few fun moments because it wasn’t hard to get the back end out, and it was fairly easy to control once you had some opposite lock on. This is where the car really shines: when you have the top down and don’t have a care in the world, you can throw it around and be rewarded handsomely. The Fiat’s lightness and rear-drive dynamics help it shine over hot hatches, especially in the corners.
Pricing is where this Fiat starts to lose its allure compared to the hot hatch competition or even a flirtation with the idea of a vintage sports car — the Fiat 124 Abarth came to an acceptable $35,775 in the U.S. (but an eye-watering $49,380 in Canada). You really don’t get much more with the Abarth package over the base model in terms of driving dynamics; it’s basically just an appearance package with optional extras such as navigation and satellite radio. The base model offers the same experience without the added cash.
The Verdict: 2018 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Abarth Review
The Abarth tries its best to evoke the spirit of old-school sports cars with its throwback styling and fun performance, low weight, and low horsepower. But does it capture the character of the sports cars of yore? I would say it’s 50/50. On one hand, the car doesn’t have the same tactile feedback, the throttle response can be lazy, and the exhaust note is too quiet, but on the other, people notice this car, and it has a presence that is somehow unpretentious and cheeky even with its giant black hood and tacky Abarth badges.
The car itself might not be old school, but you feel old school in the driver’s seat. The base model would be my choice, as the Abarth version just doesn’t offer enough to justify the cost.
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