What stands out?
The Abarth 124 Spider is a front-engine, rear-drive sports car built for wind-in-the-hair enthusiasts from the lightweight Mazda MX-5. A sprightly turbocharged engine makes the drop-top Italian two-seater both more eager and more economical with fuel than its Japanese sibling, and slightly firmer suspension adds poise in fast cornering. The name is a nostalgic nod to a 1970s rally roadster from Abarth, which is the Fiat motorsport brand.
What might bug me?
Accommodating friends and luggage. The Abarth 124 Spider is a very small vehicle with a tiny boot.
Dealing with a flat tyre. If you puncture a tyre on an Abarth 124 Spider, you must get to grips with the tyre-repair kit – or walk. There’s no spare.
What body styles are there?
Two-door, two-seat convertible only. The Abarth 124 Spider drives the rear wheels, and it is classed as sports car, lower priced.
What features do all versions have?
Smart-key entry and start, which lets you open the doors and start the car with the key kept safety in a pocket or bag. Cruise control, and a reversing camera.
A leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear lever handle, and a mix of leather and microfibre fabric on the seats. Climate control air conditioning – which maintains a set temperature – and heaters in the seats.
An infotainment system with a 7.0-inch touchscreen interface, a digital radio, satellite navigation, USB and auxiliary input sockets, and Bluetooth connectivity for phone calls and audio streaming. A Bose-branded sound system, with a sub-woofer for better bass presentation.
Headlights that turn on automatically when it’s getting dark. Front and rear foglights, and bright, long-lived LEDs in the taillights. Windscreen wipers that operate automatically when it rains.
Seventeen-inch aluminium alloy wheels, and a tyre repair kit. A tyre pressure monitor, which warns you if a tyre has lost air (this can give you extra time to get a slow puncture seen to).
A sport mode switch, which lets you adjust how readily the car responds to your pressure on the accelerator pedal.
A limited-slip differential, which helps control rear-wheel slip through turns. Suspension dampers and brakes from specialists Bilstein and Brembo, respectively.
Four airbags: two directly in front of the driver and passenger; and one on the outer side of each occupant to protect the upper body and head.
Electronic stability control, which can help you control a skidding car. All new cars must have this feature.
Every Abarth 124 Spider carries a three-year, 100,000 kilometre warranty.
Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?
There is only one engine in the Abarth 124 Spider, a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder which uses 6.5 litres/100km on the official test (city and country combined) with the standard six-speed manual gearbox.
Many people think it is more fun to change gears yourself in a car like this, and the gearshift is very pleasant to use. The manual version also uses slightly less fuel than the optional auto.
However, if you are planning to do a lot of suburban driving in your 124 Spider, or just don’t like manuals, you might find the auto gearbox easier to get along with. It’s a six-speeder too, and the conventional torque-converter design means it’s smooth in stop-start traffic or when parking.
What key features do I get if I spend more?
The Abarth 124 Spider comes in only one trim level, and with a manual gearbox as standard.
You can have an automatic gearbox for an extra $2000 or so.
An optional Visibility pack gets you better headlights and some active safety features. The headlights use long-lived and very bright LEDs, and they swivel left and right with the steering to light the way around corners. There are also LED daytime running lights, which help other drivers see you. Rear parking sensors help you judge how close you are to obstacles. Blind-spot detection warns you, when you indicate to change lanes, if a vehicle is alongside out of view. And a rear cross-traffic alert warns, when you’re reversing, if a jogger, cyclist or other vehicle is crossing behind you.
If you plan to make the most of your 124 Spider through turns, you might consider the optional Recaro brand sports seats. These have more deeply bolstered backrests (to hold you in place more securely) and are trimmed in leather and Alcantara.
Does any upgrade have a down side?
It is likely you will find the optional Recaro seats harder to climb out of than the standard seats, and some people may also find them less comfortable on long drives.
Of six colours available on an Abarth 124, only two – red and white – are non-metallic and come without extra cost. Other colours cost about $490 extra.
How comfortable is it?
The Abarth 124 Spider cocoons you with a mixture of neat design – much of this shared with the Mazda MX-5 – and Latin flair, all rendered in good quality materials. It feels at least the money’s worth inside.
The seats, bolstered to provide lateral support for swift cornering, are designed to allow easy entry and egress – the outer bolsters on the seat cushion are a bit less pronounced than the inner ones, to let you slide in and out easily. There’s also a broad inner door sill to lean on.
The cushion comfort of the seats is excellent for extended periods, and our testers report a driving position that’s just right – even though the steering column adjusts for height but not reach. The seats hold you in when you’re cornering quickly.
Navigation of infotainment is via the Mazda MZD-connect system, which is intuitive to use.
The Abarth 124 Spider rides bad roads with controlled absorbency – it’s a well judged sports ride, and not a bone-shaker.
In the inescapable comparison with the MX-5, the Abarth feels a bit bumpier at low speeds. But in corners it leans less and responds a little more directly. The differences are small in both respects, however.
The Abarth 124 Spider does a good job of shutting out wind noise with the roof up, even if it is noticeably noisier inside than a car with a fixed roof.
What about safety?
Four airbags might not sound much compared with the typical passenger car’s six-plus count, but it’s a full suite in a drop-top two-seater. There are two frontal airbags, and side airbags that protect the upper body and head.
Elsewhere, electronic stability control, a reversing camera and a tyre pressure monitor are solid safety fundamentals in all Abarth 124s. Auto-on headlamps and auto wipers improve visibility and cut driver fatigue.
Optional active safety aids extend to a blind-spot monitor, which helps you avoid changing lanes into the path of a car closing fast from behind. Another optional monitor works when you are reversing – for example, out of a parking space – alerting you to vehicles approaching from the side. Both come with the Visibility pack.
Autonomous emergency braking is not available on the Abarth 124 Spider.
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) has not rated the Abarth 124 Spider. However, it awarded the very similar Mazda MX-5 its maximum five stars for safety, in June 2016. The Mazda achieved perfect scores in the pole and side impact tests on its way to an overall score of 35.20 out of 37.00.
I like driving - will I enjoy this car?
The Abarth 124 Spider is derived from the Mazda MX-5, which was Wheels Magazine’s 2016 Car of the Year. You don’t get a better donor-car than that.
The Abarth, like its Japanese sibling, is a dream for an enthusiastic driver. The open-top Italian allies progressive, intimately connected steering with faithfully responsive handling and arresting brakes. You get great feedback, which builds confidence and rewards your driving. Even the six-speed manual gearbox is a delight to slot from one gear to the next.
The 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder perhaps makes the 124 Spider a superior urban drive to the MX-5. The extra oomph it provides, even from low speeds, also aids overtaking and enhances sporty driving. However this focus on businesslike grunt does mean you lose some of the playful exuberance that is especially apparent in the high-revving 1.5-litre MX-5.
The turbo engine has a pleasant note, but it isn’t especially vocal. You can better appreciate the subtle deceleration grumble of the exhaust when you have the roof down.
Being able to drop the top and be part of the surroundings brings a dimension to the enjoyment of driving the 124 Spider that you don’t get from the hot hatches available at a similar price. It is easy to lower and raise the Spider’s light fabric roof – you can do so in seconds, without even undoing your seatbelt.
The optional automatic gearbox is smoothly responsive, and brings paddle shifters to allow some of the fun of manual gear selection.
How is life in the rear seats?
It is excellent if there are people you don’t want to take with you. The Abarth 124 Spider does not have rear seats.
How is it for carrying stuff?
Not surprisingly given it is a small two-seater, the Abarth 124 Spider is compromised when it comes to carrying stuff. There is no glovebox in the traditional position in front of the passenger, and the storage places in front of the gear lever and beneath the centre console are small – too tight even for some phones and wallets. The most accommodating place to put items in the cabin is in the rear bin between the seatbacks, but access is a bit awkward because you have to reach over your shoulder.
With the roof down, items left in the cabin are an easy snitch. Even with the canvas roof up, thieves can enter with the help of a knife.
The boot is small at 140 litres, which might mean you have to pack light for a weekend away. It is big enough for grocery shopping and other day-to-day duties.
Where is it made?
The Abarth 124 Spider is built in in the Mazda plant in Japan.
What might I miss that similar cars have?
Not much. There’s only one other car on sale that’s a direct parallel for the Abarth 124 Spider, and that’s the Mazda MX-5 it is derived from.
The Mazda is slightly slower and softer, and arguably is more lighthearted for that. And its 25-year reputation and cult following means it is likely to hold its value better.
The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ are low-priced rear-drive coupes which, like the 124 Spider, offer great steering and relatively low power. They have two small rear seats but they are not convertibles: there is a fixed metal roof.
The Hyundai Veloster is a sporty-looking front-drive coupe with rear seats and more boot space – but again, it has a fixed roof.
I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?
There is only one version of the Abarth 124 Spider. None of the optional extras is a must.
Are there plans to update this model soon?
The Abarth 124 Spider went on sale in October 2016, and is based on the fourth-generation ND Mazda MX-5 that arrived in mid-2015. The long life-cycle of previous-generation MX-5s suggests the 124 Spider will be around in its current form for a long time – we may not see a new model for a decade, perhaps with a facelift about 2020.