Back in the 70s and 80s, small two-seater roadsters were abundant, popular toys to bring out on nice summer days. As road safety requirements and emissions standards increased, many manufacturers left the segment, seeing an uphill battle that wasn’t worth the investment. Throughout the 90s, other automakers entered, having overcome the hurdles and already having powerful enough engines at their disposal, deterring those who left from trying again. Suddenly back in the game since 2017, the 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is a rebirth of a model that went out of production in 1985.
Not developed on its own, or a sudden decision by the Fiat group to re-enter the space, the 124 is a vehicle that was co-developed with Mazda for the fourth generation of the MX-5 (reviewed here). The two vehicles share the majority of the platform, including the production facility, but they each get their own unique powertrains and styling.
The Fiat 124 comes in three trim levels, with the Classica and Lusso trims running the base engine, and sharing the same exterior styling, save for a few minor visual differences. The Abarth is the sportier trim, with a sport-tuned engine, performance suspension, and a much more aggressive exterior. Abarth models also get heated seats, matte interior accents, and the Abarth logo emblazoned on everything in sight.
If looks were the only thing you judge a car on, the Fiat 124 would win every competition. It is a strikingly handsome car with fantastic lines and eye-catching designs at both ends that garnered all sorts or comments and thumbs-ups from passersby. The hand-painted black heritage stripes down the hood and trunk ($2,995 option) make the Fiat 124 even more beautiful. Along with those stripes, our test vehicle came equipped with Brembo brakes ($2,995), black leather seats ($1,295) and the Visibility, Navigation & Sound, and Convenience groups ($1,500/$1,600/$1500 respectively) for an as-tested price of $49,180, up from the base price of $38,295.
Inside the 124, looking past the logos and the unique seats, the interior is very much Mazda, with very few differences from the MX-5. This goes all the way down to the infotainment system, a re-skinned version of the standard Mazda system, not the Uconnect system found in other Fiat-Chrysler vehicles. The system is acceptable, with an easy to use knob for controls and useful buttons placed around the knob, it is easy to navigate around the screens.
Unlike its Mazda sibling, there is no official update from Fiat to add Android Auto or Apple CarPlay to the 124, however since they are the same system, there are several owners online that have been able to apply the Mazda update to their Fiat successfully. One feature Fiat decided was necessary, but did not add an option to disable is the absolutely ear-piercing and irritatingly loud beep that sounds every time you put the gear shifter into reverse.
Being a small roadster, interior volume is at a premium, with a tiny storage compartment behind the shifter and a small storage cubby between the seatbacks making up the entirety of storage options. There is no glove compartment and no door pockets in sight to hold anything. Cupholders are inconveniently placed at the rear of the center console, the ability to relocate one to the side of the console. Trunk space is equally limited, with only enough room to fit a carry on bag and a few other loose items.
Enough about cargo space – this is a roadster, and roadsters are not supposed to be practical, everyday cars. Roadsters are small, nimble machines able to navigate the swooping back roads with ease, and then eliminate the competition at the local Autocross event on the way home. This is where the Fiat 124 Abarth is supposed to shine, and it is also where it falls short at times.
On the highway, or on those long country roads, the Fiat 124 is entertaining if you keep the engine RPMs higher up. It works great, with the car’s short stature and performance suspension keeping the twists and turns under control and the steering wheel connecting your body to the road. If you shift too soon or are driving at low speeds, disappointment kicks in. Fiat wanted to use their own engine, and thus their own soul into this tiny car, and it feels like they grabbed something off the shelf and prayed it would work out.
That engine is none other than the Fiat 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder MultiAir engine, the same engine found in lower trims, but with a different engine tune in the Abarth. Output is 164 horsepower at 2,500RPM and 184 lb-ft. of torque at 2,500RPM. The unique Abarth engine tune provides an earth-shattering increase of four horsepower over the standard tune, and gets even more raunchy with the addition of a Sport Mode button below the shifter that you have to use to wake the engine up.
The gearing in the six-speed manual transmission is set up to keep the Fiat 124 Abarth peppy off the line in first gear, getting the engine spun right up very quickly, but makes too great of a leap in gear ratios into second, also constantly forcing you to downshift if the flow of traffic slows down temporarily. We found ourselves leaving the car in a lower gear in anticipation more often, keeping the loud Abarth exhaust singing its tune when driving through urban centers.
Keeping the car in a lower gear than necessary hurts fuel economy, and if that is a major concern, perhaps the optional automatic transmission is worth a test drive, as the torque converter should help alleviate a lot of the low speed complaints. If sticking with the manual and shifting for efficiency, buyers should have no issues hitting the official fuel economy ratings of 9.0L/100km city, 6.7L/100km highway, and 7.9L/100km combined. Putting the roof down might affect these numbers a bit, but thankfully the manual roof is fantastically simple to operate. Drivers can do this in a few seconds while stopped without having to get out of the car.
The 2019 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is an absolute head turner, and is so rare in most circles and environments that jaws will legitimately drop as it drives by. Compared to the rest of the similarly priced competition in the small roadster segment, which to be honest is only its Mazda sibling, buyers will have to decide whether your car buying preference is towards brawn or beauty.
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2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
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