Last week, I spent a day driving the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider around the San Diego area and while I was impressed with the drive qualities of all three trimlines – the high performance Abarth package was (not surprisingly) my favorite. The Abarth doesn’t pack much more power than the Classica and Lusso models, but with a unique exterior design, Bilstein suspension, Brembo brakes, lightweight wheels wrapped in Bridgestone rubber, a throaty exhaust system and a sport mode throttle calibration – the 124 Abarth packs more fun to drive factor than the other two models.
To take that a step further, I think that the 2017 Fiat 124 Abarth provides more fun to drive factor than any small, affordable roadster sold in America, making this new Fiat my favorite option in the segment.
My Favorite Affordable Roadster
Before I get into why I like the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth so much, I want to address my classification of this car as my new favorite affordable roadster. I understand that “affordable” is relative and to some people, the Chevrolet Corvette Convertible is well within their budget, but when I think about an “affordable” vehicle from a high volume automaker, I consider vehicles under $40k. Really, at this point in the auto industry, there aren’t a great many sporty cars in general (coupes or convertibles) that come nicely appointed for less than $40k, but the new Abarth 124 is a blast to drive and it has an MSRP starting under $30k. The range of “affordable” can certainly be debated, but with the 124 Abarth being the least expensive turbocharged sporty car in America, it is easy to call it affordable.
Of course, I understand that the list of affordable, sporty roadsters in America is a short one, but even if I expand my list of considerations to some fixed roof models with rear wheel drive, comparable prices and performance levels – the new Abarth 124 is my favorite of the bunch
How the Abarth Differs
The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is offered in three trimlines – the base Classica model, the luxurious Lusso model and the performance minded Abarth model. All three models are powered by the same 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with 184lb-ft of torque, but in the Abarth, this engine packs 164 horsepower rather than the 160hp in the Classica and Lusso models. That power is sent to the rear wheels in all three models via a standard 6-speed manual transmission or an optional 6-speed automatic, but in the Abarth models, the automatic transmission is accompanied by steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. Also, unlike the Classica and Lusso models, the 124 Abarth has a Sport Mode button that sharpens up the throttle response and in automatic transmission models, Sport Mode adjusts the shift characteristics for improved performance driving dynamics.
The 2017 Abarth 124 has a few more ponies, paddle shifters and a Sport Mode that you don’t get from the other trimlines, but the Abarth package has a much bigger impact in terms of appearance and handling.
In terms of performance, the Abarth package for the Fiat 124 Spider adds a mechanical limited slip differential, Bilstein dampers, a front strut tower brace, Brembo front brakes, lightweight rims wrapped in Bridgestone performance tires and a performance exhaust system. The exhaust system adds a few extra horsepower and a lovely exhaust note that I absolutely love, but the real story here is the list of handling goodies. The addition of the new dampers, brakes, tires and differential make the Abarth 124 a great deal more nimble, making short work of the intricate autocross course on which I had the pleasure of pushing the 124 to its limits.
Finally, the 2017 Fiat 124 Abarth gets a unique front and rear fascia design that are both far more aggressive than the exterior of the Classica and Lusso models, with a unique gauge cluster inside and dark accents inside and out.
How the Abarth Shines
I want to point out that to get the fun to drive factor from the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, you don’t have to buy the Abarth model. Unlike the smaller Fiat 500, which has a totally different drivetrain in the Abarth and non-Abarth models, the new 124 Spider has the same basic drivetrain across the entire range. The Abarth model has a sportier look and improved handling capabilities, but if you want to save yourself some cash – the Classica and Lusso models are both great, fun cars to drive. I drove a Classica model all over the San Diego area and I was impressed with both the drive characteristics and the ride quality, but I quickly fell in love with the look, the sound and the feel of the 124 Abarth.
The new Fiat 124 Spider is based on the new Mazda Miata, but the similarities don’t extend far beyond the chassis platform. The Fiat has its own drivetrain with a little more horsepower and way more torque than the Mazda. The Fiat has unique suspension tuning, unique chassis tuning and it is slightly bigger, so while the 124 Spider is based on the Miata, it is a very different vehicle. In my opinion, it is also a much better vehicle and when you consider the fact that the Miata has been the leader in the affordable roadster segment for years now, the Fiat enters as a better version of the segment’s best.
The biggest advantage that the 124 Abarth has over the Miata is under the hood, as the turbocharged 1.4L mill packs 9 more horsepower and 36lb-ft more torque. This gives the Fiat more grunt through the low end and mid-range, pulling harder and accelerating significantly quicker than the Mazda. Also, the tuning of the 1.4L turbo engine in the Abarth 124 provides more spirited acceleration throughout the powerband than other Chrysler Group vehicles with the same engine. Whether you are pulling away from a stop, accelerating hard out of a tight corner or blasting down the highway, the Fiat 124 Spider engine feels more capable in every situation. Those handling capabilities are accentuated when you tack on the extra Mopar goodies, including a different strut tower brace, a chassis brace, a louder exhaust system and a Mopar blow off valve. The video below offers a chance to hear the Mopar exhaust roar on the 124 Abarth and I love the grumble of this setup.
It is nice that the Fiat 124 Abarth packs more power than the similar Miata, but the new Spider was made to dominate the corners more than the straights. This is achieved by starting with a perfect 50/50 weight distribution and adding Bilstein sport suspension, a strut tower brace, Brembo brakes and Bridgestone tires. These Abarth-specific features make the 124 Spider more stable in the turns and more confident coming out of the turns than the other 124 models or the Mazda.
When you add those superior handling characteristics to the powerful turbocharged engine, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth really does offer a tremendous amount of bang for your buck. Even if you compare the Abarth 124 to the slightly more powerful (and slightly larger) Scion FRS or Subaru BRZ, the performance oriented 124 Spider costs less and offers better driving dynamics.
The 2017 Fiat 124 Abarth has a starting price of $28,195 and when shopping sporty cars in that price range, it is hard to find another that will offer the same impressive level of performance and it is nearly impossible to find a competitor that will compete with the top down.
The 124 Abarth wont hit dealerships until later this year (Late Q2/early Q3), but when it does arrive, I expect that those prospective buyers who are looking for a great driver’s car will find the new droptop Italian roadster to be one of the best options in the segment for the money – if not the best.
At long last, the Chrysler Group has a small convertible that can compete with the best in the segment, with the chassis of the Miata and a long list of unique features that make the Fiat 124 Spider more fun to drive than the Mazda.
I specified that this was my new favorite affordable roadster, but I will go a step further to say that the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is my favorite sporty, small car on the market today. Inside, outside and on the road, this new car wonderfully designed and engineered to be comfortable enough to drive every day but capable enough to make short work of your local autocross events.