Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

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This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
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In these days of tribalism and closing borders, it’s lovely to see such attractive offspring as the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, the convertible product of a Japanese-Italian union. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this Fiat for or even associating it with the Mazda MX-5 because it’s built (in Japan) on the same platform and shares many parts. The engine, however, is built in Italy by Fiat. In the spirit of Canadian openness, we welcome the 124 Spider here because it goes like hockey puck.

In the spirit of Canadian openness, we welcome the 124 Spider here because it goes like hockey puck.

But there’s so much more to celebrate. Just consider this gearhead’s smorgasbord: rear-wheel drive – stop and smile awhile; chunky manual transmission; impish turning circle; drop-top roof; seats (just two of them!) of leather so supple they must’ve come from Kobe beef cows. How would a nerd describe all that?

It’s like Gandalf married Jon Snow and bought the X-Men with the dowry

First let’s talk about the ride. This car works marvellously as a harmonious whole but chances are you’ll be distracted by some of its parts.

The engine is a light and responsive 1.4L four-cylinder turbo that maxes out at 164 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, shrouded in a light spidery body that weighs in at 1,124 kg. Less weight means more get-up-and-go. The Brembo performance brakes rein it in. They cost an extra $1,900 but you’re encouraged to live a little.

It was a couple of days before I even noticed the sport transmission, which recalibrates an already tight ride of meshing gears integrated with a firmed Biltstein performance suspension system on Bridgestone performance tires into something that’s hard to describe. But let’s try.

In Sport mode? Imagine a bear hug from Usain Bolt

Use that sport switch well and bon courage. It’s located a convenient and dangerously tempting two inches from second gear. Yes, you heard right.

The Spider does offer automatic transmission for the arachnophobic and weak in spirit, but this tester was a red meat-lovers special in six responsive gears. To reverse, you need to thrust down first – a satisfying crunch. Otherwise you’ll shift to first and briefly scare the shit out of your passenger and anyone or thing ahead of you.

The dials are just that, dials – an analogue sport cluster – not some soulless electronic spreadsheet. Needles indicate speed and cycles, respectfully disdaining any of that loathsome MyFirstStickShift® technology whose bright graphics and chirps prompt you to gear up or down. You’re a grownup now. The Spider lets you shift when you damn well please!

And steering? How it would feel to ride a laser-guided missile?

Finally, let’s talk about the dual pinion electric power steering. It’s heart quickening. Feedback from the deliciously fat sport steering wheel borders on holy communion, like the unspoken understanding in a May–December romance between a cheerleader and a Bay Street broker: “Brittany just gets me.”

Yes, it does holler midlife crisis in a gruff outdoor voice. It’s a fast flower. From its gun-metal aluminum wheels to the fire-engine-red paint – they call it russo, the Italian for red – interrupted by loud Abarth badges, the 124 Spider likes to be looked at and listened to. The roof was down when I was driving our 22-year-old daughter to the airport. The questioning look from the new neighbours made the two of us laugh out loud.

According to this publication’s editor, rear-wheel drive is “God’s way of telling us he loves cars and wants you to go sideways.” I don’t know about God but certainly do believe in challenging the laws of physics. One can’t presume to speak for God, but the Spider’s engineers sure want us to be happy. Consider. The off switch for the anti-skid technology is located temptingly close to the steering wheel.

Those intelligent designers also have a sense of humour because this sideways enabler button is itself directly above the off-switch for blind-spot alerts. That graphic displays one car icon invading the space of another – sideways! Next, let’s talk about the design.

If there is a God, a big shout-out (whatever that is) for the weather

Last week was divinely warm and sunny for this time of year in the GTA. There were several opportunities to put the roof down without looking too obvious and desperate. Friday it was 19 degrees and humid sticky. Two days later we were plunged into a deep freeze; the needle broke at minus five and it looks like we’re stuck here till May.

Speaking of, a second shout-out to the engineers for applying the KISS principle to the Spider’s roof: no silly buttons with complicated machinery that you know will break just halfway closed before a rainstorm. Instead, a humble latch! No, it doesn’t patronizingly insist you put the car in park before lowering or raising what Shakespeare would call “this most excellent canopy”. You simply unlatch it and yank it across. No fuss. According to the window sticker: “top can be opened or closed in three seconds” – unless you suffer rotator cuff issues. Either way, it’s blessedly easy.

Now go sideways in the sunshine. Isn’t this fun? Sure, you say, an easy-to-lower canvas roof is charming but WHAT ABOUT THAT CONCOMITANT WIND NOISE ISSUE? Without adding unnecessary weight, the engineers inserted sound baffling insulation in strategic places to allow civilized conversation and good listening for satellite radio and unwelcome incoming calls.

But does it really look like a spider?

According to the Internet (remember this is the device which delivered you a Donald Trump presidency) the term “spider” was re-applied to cars after a specific horse-drawn carriage design, which sported a collapsible roof over a double-seated and airy interior. Supposedly the visual effect was similar to spiders. I don’t see it. Maybe it was all that coal they were breathing in the 19th century.

Anyway, low to the ground – watch the neighbourhood speed bumps – and four inches longer than the Mazda MX-5, the 124 Spider is hard to miss anywhere but, funnily, out on the road. Soccer moms in oversized SUVs don’t see you down here despite the LED daytime running lights. Or maybe they do see you and, as they do with motorcyclists, are intentionally edging you off the road. It could be some atavistic urge to step on spiders from on high. Keep the aforementioned blind-spot warning on.

Pack light

Next time some “friend” asks you to help him move, bring the 124 Spider, which offers a miserly 140 L of cargo capacity. It’s taking decades for some metric to work its way into the Canadian vernacular, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t a clue how much that is. Instead consider this: The fuel tank is 45L, well over a third of the cartage space.

The trunk is deep but narrow, good for a backpack, sleeping bag and a case of beer but not much more. I picked up a very tall friend for a band practice last week and I had to make two trips: one for him and the other for our two guitars, which occupied the passenger’s space with the roof down.

The goodies are well arranged for maximum pleasure

A part of $5,500 Luxury Collection, the nine-speaker Bose sound system, which cleverly installs speakers inside each headrest, automatically adjusts how it plays depending on whether the roof is down or up. Incoming calls, via Bluetooth, come through those headrest speakers. Clever! It includes GPS navigation and satellite radio with its icon-based control knob.

The Luxury Collection also comes with several safety features including rear cross-path detection and, of course, that very helpful blind-spot monitoring. How helpful, you ask? After all, it doesn’t stop others crushing you – but it does help keep you healthily paranoid.

Driving in GTA traffic this low to the ground, you come to understand fast why a squirrel’s eyes flank its head. It’s a dangerous world.

With a name like Recaro “leather-faces” seats, they’d better be really comfortable and they are. It’s like a womb with zoom – absolutely worth the extra $400.

Meanwhile the back-up camera and security alarm come standard with this trim (you’ll want to keep your Abarth as pristine as the day you brought it home). So do keyless and proximity entry, push-button start and the easy-to-suss-for-oldsters touchscreen radio display.

For the smiles it provides, the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is a bargain. Now celebrate your uniqueness. Get out there and get sideways for God’s sake!

Engine Displacement 1.4L
Engine Cylinders I4
Peak Horsepower 164 hp
Peak Torque 184 lb-ft
Fuel Economy 9.0/6.7/7.9 (L/100 km, cty/hwy/cmb)
Cargo Space 140 L
Model Tested 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
Base Price $37,995
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $47,690
Optional Equipment
$7,800 – Luxury Collection $5,500; Recaro “Leather-Faces” Seats $400; Brembo Performance Brakes $1,900