Expert Reviews

2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth: Big Guy, Small Car Review

7.6
10
AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
  • STYLING
    8/10
  • Safety
    6/10
  • PRACTICALITY
    6/10
  • USABILITY/ERGONOMICS
    7/10
  • FEATURES
    7/10
  • POWERTRAIN
    9/10
  • COMFORT
    8/10
  • DRIVABILITY
    9/10
  • FUEL ECONOMY
    8/10
  • VALUE
    8/10

If you know your small modern roadsters, you’re likely aware that the 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth includes set pieces from various corners of the automotive world: a platform shared with the current -generation Mazda MX-5, a transmission shared with the previous-generation MX-5, and a model name associated with racing and the iconic 1966–1985 124 Sport Spider ( take a look at our gallery to see that classic beauty for yourself ) .

So, it’s a bit of a mashup, and you might think that makes the roadster feel disjointed, but it actually turned out to be one of my more thrilling rides in recent memory.

Styling: 7.5/10

Fiat did well to ensure that, as closely related as the 124 is to the MX-5, it looks nothing like it on the exterior. The headlights and taillights are a modern take on the original car, but the overall look is a bit plain until you add Abarth touches like those great 17-inch gunmetal wheels hiding red brake calipers, dual-tip chrome exhaust, and unique front and rear fascias. The real highlight are the wheels – they make no bones about the Abarth’s more sporting intentions.

Inside, the available Recaro seats look the part with their leather/Alcantara finish and they’re supportive, too. The interior additions over the standard 124 don’t extend far beyond that, however; there’s a red tachometer and big “Abarth” badge on the wheel and some other red interior accents and that’s about it. I guess a little more flair here and there wouldn’t go unnoticed; it’s a little dark inside, for example, so maybe some cool stuff like metallic red bezels around the infotainment controls instead of your standard chrome would be a nice touch. Or how about some red stitching on the shift lever boot? It looks good elsewhere in the cabin, and I think adding it here would be a nice complement.

Features: 7/10

The Abarth is the top - of - the - range 124 , meaning standard fitment of heated seats, automatic climate control, Sirius satellite radio, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 7-inch infotainment display. That’s all good, but I guess as a buyer I’d be a little perturbed that I had to spend extra money – after the 35-grand-plus I’d already dropped – for blind spot monitoring, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, or LED headlights. I wouldn’t mind spending the $1,600 it takes to get nine-speaker Bose audio, though; it’s darn good, sounding crisp, clear, and direct even with the top down.

User-friendliness: 7/10

While you do get a 7-inch display, you don’t, unfortunately, get the superior Uconnect interface found throughout most of FCA’s North American lineup. Instead, you get Mazda’s interface, which isn’t quite as intuitive or powerful. There isn’t Apple CarPlay or Android Auto capability, either , which makes matters worse . The native system can be controlled by either a centralized scroll wheel or via touch, but I found the wheel to be the better choice , as the touchscreen wasn’t responsive enough. Indeed, I own a Mazda that employs the system and I never use the touchscreen.

Otherwise, the rest of the interior controls are nicely laid out, though the USB ports and phone-sized storage bin ahead of the shift lever can be tough to reach.

Comfort: 7.5/10

This is where we start talking about the “Big Guy” stuff and you know what? I have very little issue with the space provided – as long as I kept the top down. Then, it’s just a matter of adjusting the seat for legroom, and other than having to move the seatback to a slightly more upright position (so I could move the seat further back as it sits right against the rear bulkhead), I had no problem with legroom, either.

It should come as little surprise that issues begin to pop up when the top is closed ; visibility is reduced, and keeping my hair of f the headliner proved to be a challenge. I don’t think I’d ever recommend the 124 as any Big Guy’s sole car – especially in Canada, where that top is going to come into play pretty regularly. Better you keep it down and save your time in the Abarth 124 for when you can really get the most of it – on dry, sunny days.

Practicality: 6.5/10

Put simply, the 124 is not that practical. Nor should it be; it’s a little rear-wheel-drive sports car-slash-roadster where style and driving fun are paramount. There’s a trunk deep enough for two soft weekend duffels that loses no space when you drop the top, but you can forget the golf clubs if you’re travelling with two, as the only way you’re going to be able to carry them is in the passenger seat. There’s also no pass-through door.

There’s also a tiny centre console bin big enough for a cell phone and/or a wallet (depending on the size of each item) but the 124 wins back some practicality points by including a lockable bin between the two seatbacks, which is surprisingly deep – I had no problem fitting a DSLR camera with a 55–250 mm telephoto lens in there.

Trouble is, if you move the passenger cupholder from its space-infringing spot in the footwell to the area between the two seats, it becomes tougher to access that bin.

Power: 9/10

T he one big thing the 124 gets that the MX-5 doesn’t is a turbocharged four- cylinder engine ; it’s good for 164 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, which will get you from stop to 100 km/h in just over seven seconds.

It f eels a whole lot faster, though, for three main reasons: its 1,124 kg weight makes it quite light, you sit low to the ground , and the sound is engrossing. It may not have quite the growl of its 500 Abarth sibling, but the pop-pop-popping it makes on overrun is absolutely addictive. It’s one of those sounds you think of when you think of classic motoring, and I got a thrill every time it happened.

Indeed, when the top’s down and you’re rowing through the gears on Carmel Valley Road in California during Monterey Car Week, 164 hp seems like more than enough. With the trees bearing down on you on one side and a rock face on the other, the tunnel vision you gain has a knack of boosting that sensation of speed and it becomes hard to fathom ever needing that much more power. I was content to just work on hitting every gear change just right, matching my wheel speed as I came to yet another perfectly cambered corner and powering out, that glorious exhaust note signing behind me and bouncing off the canyon walls. In a fun, lightweight roadster, power doesn’t have to be everything and the 124 is a good example of why not.

Driving feel: 9/10

In case you hadn’t already guessed, the 124 is a real hoot to drive in the twisties. The steering ratio is tight and the rack provides instant response – which is great because since you sit so low and the view out is good, it’s relatively easy to place on the road, to nail each apex as you wind your way through turn after turn.

There are good reasons for this: along with all the styling bits, the Abarth gets Bilstein dampers at the back, a mechanical limited-slip differential and front strut tower bar, a pretty comprehensive overhaul of the handling package. The Bilstein setup is excellent, with a rear end that is predictable and not overly bouncy. I was actually surprised by how well the 124 swallowed up most bumps I threw at it – no brittleness, no chassis squeak; you will see some integrity issues manifest in the shaky rear-view mirrors, but in a weird way , you don’t feel that so much as you see it.

The only other thing I would have liked is a slightly-heavier-feeling steering rack, as the off-centre dead zone is a little more pronounced than I expected. That’s more of a first impression thing, though; as I started to push more and more, I forgot all about it because , overall, the steering is so precise.

While it may have a transmission shared with an older car, my goodness if it isn’t a great fit for the powertrain. The responsive clutch takes a little getting used to at first, but once done, it pairs with a precise shift action that had me hitting the right gear every time, even though the gates are tight.

Fuel Economy: 8/10

Since I spent so much of my drive zipping through canyons, the 12.3 L/100 km I saw is somewhat expected. When driven spiritedly like this, you’re not going to be miserly with fuel. EnviroCan did see 7.9L/100 km in its combined-cycle testing (and 6.7 on the highway), though, so if you’re careful, you can get some pretty low numbers. Unlikely considering the nature of the car, but it’s worth considering.

Safety: 6.5/10

While the Abarth may be a top-trim 124 , it’s the top trim of a pretty basic car with driving enjoyment at the forefront; at least, that’s what I garnered when considering the safety features my tester had – and didn’t have: no lane-keep assist, no adaptive cruise control, and no forward-collision warning. You do get blind spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection and park-assist, but you have to spec a $1,500 package to get them, even at the Abarth level.

Value: 7.5/10

Value depends, of course, on what you want from a car like the Abarth 124. If all those electronic aids are important to you, then you’re going to see a hit to the Abarth’s value proposition. A side from the brakes and optional sound system, I’d probably steer clear of the rest of the numerous options that quickly added up to take the price over 40 grand (special seats, some electronic doodads).

If you’re looking for driving glee and fun, you could do a lot worse for 35 grand.

Conclusion

While the Fiat 124 Spider takes a hit on the practicality front , that’s inconsequential as far as I’m concerned, because few single-car households are going to be relying on one of these as their daily driver . Like other similar cars with such a singular purpose , the 124 Abarth works better on sunny summer days , and that ’ s perfectly fine . I’d lament the lack of adaptive cruise on the occasional boring highway jaunt. I would imagine those would become fewer and farther between as I’d much rather find an alternate route, perhaps one with fewer lanes and more curves. It may be slower, but in the Abarth, even for Big Guys like me, it will be more rewarding. I can guarantee that.

Competitors
Specifications
Engine Displacement 1.4L
Engine Cylinders I4
Peak Horsepower 164 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Peak Torque 184 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Fuel Economy 9.0/6.7/7.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 139 L
Model Tested 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
Base Price $35,295
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,895
Price as Tested $44,080
Optional Equipment
$6,790 – Convenience Group (auto-dimming exterior mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-path detection, heated exterior mirrors, Park Sense rear park assist system, security alarm, universal garage door opener), $1,500; Navigation and Sound Group (9-speaker including subwoofer Bose audio, GPS navigation), $1,600; Brembo brakes, $1,995; Recaro seats with Alcantara inserts, $1,695