Abarth 124 Spider Review: Why The Best MX-5 Isn’t A Mazda

The Abarth version of the Mazda MX-5-derived Fiat 124 Spider isn’t cheap, but it might just be worth it

Before taking delivery of this Abarth 124 Spider for a one-week loan, I was fixated on one detail. Not the spectacular black, white and black livery, nor the fact that the weather is still too rubbish to properly enjoy a convertible sports car. No, it was the price.

You see, this small and not particularly luxurious drop-top, which is built on the same production line as the ND Mazda MX-5 upon which it’s based (but finished at Officine Abarth in Turin), will cost you a fiver under £30,000. And if you were thinking that increase in price over the Fiat 124 gets you a load of extra power, it doesn’t.

Abarth - Abarth 124 Spider Review: Why The Best MX-5 Isn’t A Mazda - Features

170bhp is the not-so magic figure, an increase of 36bhp, while torque has increased by 7lb ft to 184lb ft. Not terribly impressive given that the 197bhp Toyota GT86 - itself a car criticised for not having enough poke - can be had for about £6000 less in its most basic trim. It certainly doesn’t feel like a £30,000 car inside. The Alcantara on the dash is a nice touch, but the cabin is awash with cheap and nasty-feeling plastics. And that’s great for keeping the mass down, but not for making you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.

But here’s the thing: the ladies and gents at Abarth HQ have done quite a bit more than tickle the 1.4-litre turbocharged inline-four and sling in some new interior fabrics. We have Abarth-specific dampers at each corner, complete with lower Bilstein springs. There’s also a limited-slip differential at the back and Brembo brakes give extra stopping power. But the icing on the cake is something Abarth calls a ‘Record Monza’ exhaust system.

Abarth - Abarth 124 Spider Review: Why The Best MX-5 Isn’t A Mazda - Features

Yes, four exhaust tips for 177bhp does seem a touch excessive, but the new pipework makes a tremendous racket. You get a surprisingly loud and angry blare the moment the engine coughs to life after prodding the starter button.

On the move, it’s even more hilarious. I’m not sure I’d call it a nice or particularly tuneful exhaust noise, just an ever-present, shouty rasp. I’ve never, ever heard a car with such a small engine make such a big deal of its internal combustion. It’s like one of those small, yappy dogs that compensates for its diminutive size by making a crap tonne of noise. Could it become tiresome after a while? Potentially, but in a week of driving, I loved it every time I got behind the wheel.

Abarth - Abarth 124 Spider Review: Why The Best MX-5 Isn’t A Mazda - Features

The noise isn’t accompanied by scorching performance, however. The modest 170bhp has just 1060kg to haul around, making for a decent 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds. But at no point does it feel that quick, despite what the obnoxious exhaust is trying to tell you.

Catch it below 2000rpm before the turbocharger has woken up, and progress is almost non-existent. I actually found myself changing down gears to get up hills from time to time - not something I remember having to do in a performance car recently.

Abarth - Abarth 124 Spider Review: Why The Best MX-5 Isn’t A Mazda - Features

Above 2000rpm, it pulls quite nicely in the mid range, but never dramatically so, finishing off at the top end with a 6500rpm redline. But I don’t think that matters: performance cars are getting so ludicrously quick now, it’s nice to drive something you can actually put your foot down in for extended periods of time. And it’s a plus that you actually need to chop through a few gears to get up to decent speeds, as the short-shifting and surprisingly hefty six-speed manual gearbox is an utter joy to use.

Besides, straight-line performance isn’t really this car’s trump card - handling is where the Abarth’d 124 shines. It’s not some sort of ultra-stiff track weapon - it’s been kept reasonably soft, so it can blast across the crappiest roads without bouncing around and getting out of shape. Chuck it in particularly quickly and you will get roll, but it’s never enough to be an issue - this is simple, well-judged damping at its best, with no need for complex adaptive shenanigans.

Abarth - Abarth 124 Spider Review: Why The Best MX-5 Isn’t A Mazda - Features

The steering is super quick and gives a decent amount of feedback from the road surface, and when you provoke the limited-slip differential-equipped rear end into oversteer territory (easy enough to do on 205 section tyres), it’s stupidly easy to manage even if you’re an oaf like me. This is all possible - of course - with the benefit of infinite headroom, accessed by the disarmingly simple manual roof that makes electric ones seem pointlessly complex.

When your day of amusingly loud hoonery is over, you’re treated to what’s arguably the best bit of Abarth life: looking back at the magnificence of your retro throwback sports car. I’m not a huge fan of the looks of the Fiat 124, but with the angrier Abarth body parts added, not to mention the matte black bonnet/boot and red accents, it’s much more my cup of tea. The livery is - by the way - a nod to the original Abarth 124 Spider, and while there are other exterior options, this is the only right choice.

It - along with the chassis changes and other Abarth touches - makes it just about feel worth the cost. Sure, the same cash could buy you some kind of hot hatch that’s way more practical and has the performance to blow this little roadster into the weeds, but as far as something that offers a pure, rear-driven and lightweight sports car experience, you won’t find much else for the money. Well, apart from a Mazda MX-5, but none are as good to drive as this, nor quite so cool or special-feeling. It’s official: the best MX-5 isn’t a Mazda…it’s this.