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Abarth 124 Spider 2019 review

The Abarth is a modern take on a storied classic, but with mixed Japanese/Italian heritage.
EXPERT RATING
7
Sure, it's just a tiny bit Japanese underneath, thanks to its clear family tree connections with the Mazda MX-5, but there's no doubt there's plenty of Italian passion in the fabulously brio-filled Fiat 124 Abarth.

When you take on a classic you’d better get it right.

Which is why, back in 2016, when Fiat released a new 124, many an eyebrow was arched.

The original was an icon from the late 1960s, the golden age of roadsters. Styled by Pininfarina, it also oozed Italian swagger and, to top it off, its double overhead cam engine (modern at the time) helped introduce a swathe of innovations to the Italian automotive scene.

Even 50 years later, those old boots were looking awfully hard to fill, and the complexity and demands of today’s economy had Fiat working with Mazda to use its MX-5 chassis and Hiroshima manufacturing facilities to get it right.

A travesty? To some, maybe. But the MX-5 once aimed to emulate cars from the original 124’s golden era, and was a runaway success since, arguably making few missteps.

Thus, the apprentice has become the master. So, does today’s 124, which we only get in angry Abarth spec in Australia, bring something different to the ultra-refined roadster formula in 2019? Is it more than just a badge-engineered MX-5?

I took an Abarth 124 – the latest Monza limited edition – for a week to find out.

Abarth 124 2019: SPIDER
Safety rating
Engine Type1.4L turbo
Fuel TypePremium Unleaded Petrol
Fuel Efficiency6.7L/100km
Seating2 seats
Price from$43,990

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?   7/10

I should make this clear at the beginning, this Monza edition is an ultra-limited trim, with just 30 cars available in Australia. Ours was number 26, a manual, wearing a drive-away price of $46,950.

That’s expensive, but not outrageously so. An equivalent high-spec manual MX-5, for example (GT 2.0 Roadster), comes in at a before-on-roads cost of $42,820. Looking outside Hiroshima, you can also be hopping into either a Toyota 86 GTS Performance manual ($39,590), or a Subaru BRZ tS manual ($40,434) for less.

So, the Abarth is the most expensive of a limited pool of choices. Thankfully it does offer a little more than just Italian spunk and some oversized scorpion badges.

Standard on every car are 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Mazda’s rather good MZD software (but no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto support), a Bose premium sound system, heated front seats, and keyless entry with push-button start.

The 124's 17-inch alloys come in just one design, but they look fantastic. (image credit: Tom White) The 124's 17-inch alloys come in just one design, but they look fantastic. (image credit: Tom White)

Performance-wise, every car gets four-piston Brembo front brakes, Bilstein suspension and a mechanical limited-slip differential.

The Monza edition adds the normally optional ($1490) contrast-stitched ‘Abarth’ red and black full leather seats, and the ‘Visibility Pack’ ($2590) consisting of full LED steering-responsive front lighting, rear parking sensors and camera, as well as washers for the headlamps. The pack also adds items to this car’s rather limited safety suite, which we’ll talk about later.

These particular seats normally live on the options list. (image credit: Tom White) These particular seats normally live on the options list. (image credit: Tom White)

Most notably, this edition finally grants the 124 the exhaust system it deserves, the neatly named “Record Monza” system, which uses a mechanically actuated valve to have the 1.4-litre turbo barking and spitting away in a stupidly smile-inducing way.

Every 124 should have this system, it adds much needed drama to the engine note, but isn’t as obnoxiously loud as something like the outgoing AMG A45.

Mazda's slick and simple multimedia system makes an appearance, but misses out on phone connectivity. (image credit: Tom White) Mazda's slick and simple multimedia system makes an appearance, but misses out on phone connectivity. (image credit: Tom White)

The Abarth isn’t as crazily specified as some of today’s run-of-the-mill SUVs, sure. But that’s not what this car is about, and for what it’s worth, it has just about everything you’ll really need and certainly more than the 86 or BRZ, helping to justify its extra cash ask.

Is there anything interesting about its design?   8/10

I love the way the 124 looks. The more you pore over its small frame, the more you discover how different it is to its MX-5 counterpart.

It’s angrier. It’s more beautiful, and it’s definitely more Italian.

From the outside, at least, the 124 is more than just a re-badged MX-5. (image credit: Tom White) From the outside, at least, the 124 is more than just a re-badged MX-5. (image credit: Tom White)

References to the original have been tastefully applied without transforming it into bloated caricature. These include the dual indents on the hood, the rounded-out light clusters, and the squared-off rear.

From there it goes beyond the original 124 and seems to take influence from contemporary Italian designs. I would argue there’s more than a little modern Maserati in this car’s tough wheelarches, scoopy mouth, rear light fittings and alloy wheel design.

The quad-exhaust pipes (actually just two tailpipes with four apertures) is arguably overkill, but adds a bit of extra aggression to this car’s rear. I’m not a fan of the oversized Abarth badgework on this car’s nose and rear. It removes a bit of subtelty from the equation, and the one on the bootlid is entirely unnecessary.

It goes a little too far in a few places, but overall looks great. (image credit: Tom White) It goes a little too far in a few places, but overall looks great. (image credit: Tom White)

I’d also argue our test Monza Edition car looks best with its white paint and red highlights throughout. It’s also available in red and black.

The inside breaks the illusion a little. I’d argue not enough has been done to differentiate the 124 from its MX-5 roots here. It’s all Mazda switchgear.

There’s nothing wrong with that switchgear, of course. It’s well built and ergonomic, but I’d love to have something different to mix it up here. A Fiat 500 steering wheel… some switches that look cool but barely function properly… Just a little more of the Italian personality that’s so well expressed on the outside…

Inside there's a little too much Mazda. It works really well but hardly has its own personality. (image credit: Tom White) Inside there's a little too much Mazda. It works really well but hardly has its own personality. (image credit: Tom White)

The seats are unique to the Abarth and are lovely, and the red highlights carry through them onto the dash and wheel stitching. The Monza edition has the official logo of the famed Italian circuit between the seats, with the build-number etched on it.

How practical is the space inside?   6/10

When it comes down to a practicality score, it’s only fair to compare a car like this to its direct competitors. A sports car like this is never going to take on a hatch or SUV in the practicality stakes.

Even so, and just like the MX-5, the Abarth 124 is tight on the inside. I fit inside it perfectly, but there are problems.

Legroom is super tight for me at 182cm tall. I had to adjust to having my clutch foot at an angle, otherwise I’d smack my knee on the bottom of the steering wheel, a problem that also makes this car tough to clamber into. The handbrake takes up a massive amount of room in the limited centre-console space, and as to storage in the cabin? You may as well forget it.

The low-set steering wheel is great, but hampers the driver's legroom. (image credit: Tom White) The low-set steering wheel is great, but hampers the driver's legroom. (image credit: Tom White)

There’s a tiny flip-up binnacle in the centre, shallow enough maybe for a phone and nothing else, a slot under the air-conditioning controls seemingly designed expressly for phones, and two floating cupholders between the seats.

There’s no storage in the doors, nor is there a glovebox. You do get a rather large storage area behind the cupholders, accessible through a hatch opening, but it’s a little awkward to use.

Once you’re in, though, this car fits like a glove in terms of ergonomics. The wheel is nice and low, the seats are surprisingly supportive and your elbow rests nicely on the centre, leading your hand to the excellent short-action shifter. Headroom is tight no matter which way you cut it, but it’s such a small car you hardly expect more.

How about the boot? It’s better than you might hope, but with just 130 litres on offer it’s still no more than a weekender. It’s also less than the Toyota 86/BRZ (223L) which also have back seats, always handy no matter how small they are.

The boot is limited, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had even this much space. (image credit: Tom White) The boot is limited, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had even this much space. (image credit: Tom White)

There’s no spare to be found. The 124 has a repair kit only.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?   7/10

Unlike the MX-5 and 86/BRZ combo, which offer a choice of naturally aspirated engines, the 124 carves its own path by dropping Fiat’s 1.4-litre ‘MultiAir’ turbo four-cylinder under the hood.

Italian flair and flaws come with the turbocharged 1.4-litre Fiat engine. (image credit: Tom White) Italian flair and flaws come with the turbocharged 1.4-litre Fiat engine. (image credit: Tom White)

The word ‘turbo’ should rightly prick your ears in a car this size, but this this is hardly a high-performance unit when compared to its non-turbo counterparts.

Outputs are set at 125kW/250Nm. That power figure might seem a little low when compared to the new 2.0-litre MX-5 (135kW/205Nm) and 86 (152kW/212Nm), but the extra torque is welcome. It comes at a cost,  which we’ll explore in the driving section of this review.

How much fuel does it consume?   7/10

The 124 has a bold-souning official combined fuel consumption figure of 6.4L/100km, which I overshot by quite a margin. At the end of my week, (involving truly mixed freeway/city driving) I landed on 8.5L/100km, which was exactly on this car’s ‘urban’ estimate, so take that as a realistic figure.

It’s also less than I’d expect to consume in an 86 and perhaps also the MX-5, so all-in-all it's not too bad.

I overshot the official fuel consumption numbers, but it's within what you'd expect for a car like this. (image credit: Tom White) I overshot the official fuel consumption numbers, but it's within what you'd expect for a car like this. (image credit: Tom White)

The turbo Fiat engine requires a minimum of mid-grade 95 RON unleaded to fill a 45-litre tank.

What's it like to drive?   9/10

I drove the 124 up NSW’s Old Pacific Highway from Hornsby to Gosford at dusk on a Saturday. Talk about the right car in the right place at the  right time.

It was absolutely in its element, darting around tight hairpins, then blasting up straights, giving the short shifter a thorough workout. That new exhaust added 150 per cent to the theatre of it as each aggressive down-shift was accompanied by crackling, spitting and barking.

It’s an absolute joy, a proper nod to how cars used to be in the good old days of a ‘Sunday drive’, and thus a proper nod to the 124’s history.

There's not much that can beat a short-shifter, a small rear-drive car and the roof down on a nice day. (image credit: Tom White) There's not much that can beat a short-shifter, a small rear-drive car and the roof down on a nice day. (image credit: Tom White)

And, of course, it has flaws. Many of them fall into the subjective category on a car like this, however.

Take the engine, for example. I’ve heard endless criticisms of it as laggy and annoying. And it is. Catch the wrong gear and get the revs too low and no matter how hard you stomp that go pedal, you will be stuck fighting a mountain of lag. Seriously. Several seconds of it.

Even trying to ascend my steep driveway had me concerned it was simply going to stall out in first gear.

It’s a bit strange, but then when you’re on the open road it’s worth relishing the challenge that it offers. Grab the wrong gear and this car will let you know how foolish you are. And yet, when you get it right it offers a surge of excitement in the straights that’s arguably far more dramatic than either the MX-5 or 86 can muster.

Another annoyance is the speedometer. It’s tiny and counts 30km/h increments all the way up to 270km/h. How fast was I going, officer? No idea. I have about two inches to tell whether I’m going between 30 and 90, so it’s anyone’s guess.

An obvious benefit of the MX-5 chassis is its go-kart handling, and it seems as though the excellent, fast and direct steering hasn’t been messed with, either. Sure, the suspension is a little crashy, and the convertible chassis a tad rattly, but it’s all part of being that much closer to the road. It would be tough to ask to find a better transmission with its fast, short action and sensible ratios.

Ultimately, the 124 is just plain (literally) old-fashioned weekend fun, offering a challenging but rewarding drive.

Warranty & Safety Rating

Basic Warranty

3 years / 150,000 km warranty

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?   6/10

No Abarth model carries a current ANCAP safety rating, although the MX-5 this car shares most of its underpinnings with carries a maximum five-star rating, as of 2016.

Feature-wise, you get dual front and side airbags, “active head restraints”, seatbelt pre-tensioners and something called “active pedestrian protection”. The regular suite of stability controls are also present, alongside a reversing camera and sensors.

There’s no auto emergency braking (AEB - which has now become an ANCAP requirement), active cruise or any lane-assist technologies, but the ‘Visibility Pack’ standard on the Monza edition adds Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) and Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM).

Four airbags and rudimentary active safety is a let-down, but probably not one that this car’s target audience will particularly care about.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?   6/10

It’s a shame that the 124 is only offered from Abarth with a three-year 150,000km warranty. Its counterpart MX-5 is now offered with a five-year unlimited promise, and Fiat could really do with a bit of positive warranty coverage right now.

Sadly, the 124 has a limited warranty, even compared to its MX-5 counterpart, and has a questionmark over servicing costs. (image credit: Tom White) Sadly, the 124 has a limited warranty, even compared to its MX-5 counterpart, and has a questionmark over servicing costs. (image credit: Tom White)

You’ll need to service the 124 once a year or every 15,000km. Capped price servicing? Ha. No such thing over at Abarth, apparently. You’re on your own.

Verdict

The Abarth 124 Spider is a flawed but dramatic little car that should put a smile and a big, fat Italian moustache on any weekend warrior’s face.

As long as you don’t expect it to do much more than that in terms of its daily driving ability, it hits the nail on the head as a spicy alternative to the well-rounded MX-5 formula.

Whether it hails from Hiroshima or not is irrelevant. Its ancestors would be proud.

Now, if only all of them had this Monza Edition’s glorious exhaust…

Would you ever pick the Abarth 124 over an MX-5, 86, or BRZ? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.

Pricing Guides

$42,990
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)
Lowest Price
$41,990
Highest Price
$43,990

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
SPIDER 1.4L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $41,990 2019 Abarth 124 2019 SPIDER Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
7
Price and features7
Design8
Practicality6
Engine & trans7
Fuel consumption7
Driving9
Safety6
Ownership6
Tom White
Journalist

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Pricing Guide

$43,990

Lowest price, based on new car retail price

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