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In-depth reviews

Abarth 124 Spider (2016-2019) review – a Mazda MX-5 with Italian flair

Flawed but boisterous; fun and with plenty of character, its problem is a lack of finesse and its dreary engine

Evo rating
  • Lots of fun, accessible performance, engaging character
  • Quite expensive, steering lacks feedback

Abarth is keen on making its rich Italian heritage known, and for good reason, but its modern-day 124 Spider began life in Hiroshima, Japan. Launched in 2016 as an homage to the marque’s iconic ’70s Group 4 rally car, it was in fact based on the same platform as Mazda’s talented ND MX-5, with Abarth adding its touch during final assembly in Turin.

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Though its rowdy ‘Record Monza’ exhaust system might suggest otherwise, its turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder produces a modest 168bhp and 184lb ft of torque. Sent to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission (an automated manual was also offered) and a standard limited-slip differential, the 0-62mph sprint happens in a quoted 6.8sec with top speed at 143mph – respectable, but hardly earth-shattering.

> The new Abarth 600e is a 237bhp hot electric crossover

Over its relatively short production run the model received mixed reviews, with its high price-point difficult to justify for some. The steering is also a sticking point for many, with a lack of feel making it difficult to place the car when the surface gets tricky. Nevertheless, the 124’s chassis is noticeably stiffer than the MX‑5’s, with spring rates also increased to reduce roll. Combine this with the responsive engine and the amusing sound it produces and you have yourself a surprisingly satisfying drop-top machine.

Buying guide

Despite its trusty Mazda underpinnings, the 124 isn’t without issues. Overall reliability is perhaps stronger than its Abarth 500 relatives, and the Multiair engine they share is relatively trouble free, but electrical gremlins have been known to make an appearance. While we would always opt for the manual, some automatic cars have been known to shift down erroneously at speed, while fuel pump failures are also not uncommon. Both of these problems were rectified with a recall though, meaning you shouldn’t experience them if the car has been updated. 

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With the same wonderfully simplistic manual roof as the MX-5, there aren’t the potential issues of a complex powered mechanism, and once you’ve mastered the action you can lower the roof far quicker than electric motors could. While soft-tops will always require some level of care and attention if left outdoors for extended periods, the simple nature of the roof adds appeal as a used buy. For just shy of £5000 you can purchase the carbonfibre hard-top of the 124 GT, but that rather defeats the purpose…

What to pay

The United Kingdom has proven to be Abarth’s biggest market worldwide, but it seems the 124 did little to contribute to this. In 2019, just three years after its launch, FCA axed the Fiat and Abarth 124 Spider for the UK market, citing poor profitability. Towards the end of that run you’d pay just shy of £30,000 for a factory-fresh Abarth 124, before options, but almost four years later you can find examples in the classifieds for close to half that sum. It might be wise to spend a little more, mind, and £18,000 is enough for a manual car with 25,000 miles, while automatic examples command a slight premium. The only issue with searching for an Abarth 124 Spider is the lack of choice – perhaps an indicator of the low sales volume. There were just 30 examples on the market as we went to press, with only half of those manual, so if you’re looking for a particular spec you might need to be patient.

Abarth 124 Spider: in detail 

  • Engine, gearbox and technical specs – Fiat’s Multiair turbocharged four-pot is paired with a standard six-speed manual. Autos are available, but not recommended
  • Performance and 0-60 time – Driven by its high torque-to-weight ratio rather than power, speed builds more quickly than its 184bhp would suggest
  • Ride and handling – More composed than its MX-5 and Fiat 124 relatives, but lacks the breadth of ability found in a GT86
  • MPG and running costs – Fuel economy is impressive thanks to its clever engine tech and low kerb weight 
  • Interior and tech – Near-identical to the MX-5, Abarth’s red stitching and decor suit the racy Italian vibe
  • Design – Abarth’s retro-look styling is not to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly impressionable on the road; especially with the black graphic pack

evo Verdict

Italian and Japanese automotive partnerships haven’t always been the most successful. Giugiaro’s original Lexus GS300 was disappointingly bland, Nissan Autech’s Zagato Stelvio completely bizarre, and the Nissan Cherry-based Alfa Romeo Arna catastrophically awful.

But Mazda and Fiat’s collaboration on the 124 Spider (based on the MX-5, built in Hiroshima and graced with an Italian heart and clothing) is much more like it, and the Abarth 124 Spider is the best of the bunch.

Basically, it’s a lot of fun, and while it has many of the MX-5’s foibles, it also has plenty of character to make up for it. It isn’t the fastest sports car, nor the most sophisticated, but the combination of a roaring turbocharged engine, tactile gearshift and easily-accessible limits make almost any journey enjoyable. 

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