By the time you read this review, spring may very well have sprung for most of the Northern Hemisphere. There may be no better cure for cabin fever than the 2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth.

Based upon and built in the same factory with the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the so-called “Fiata” is at its best in Abarth form, with a tiny bump in horsepower accompanying a sharpened chassis and better-sounding exhaust. Like most Fiats I have driven, the 124 Spider Abarth brings to mind two other F-words: frugal and fun

Design Notes

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth - Driven Exterior
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Its face is dominated by a large grille opening and big headlights that have just a little bit of angry emotion, but not too much.

As I noted when I reviewed the 124 Spider Lusso, I think Fiat does a better job of designing a roadster than Mazda does. Those who live by the mantra, “The answer is always Miata,” start penning that hate-mail.

Fiat’s 124 Spider reboot shares a lot of design cues with the original 124 Spider that stopped importation to America in the 1980s. Its face is dominated by a large grille opening and big headlights that have just a little bit of angry emotion, but not too much. The hood has two U-shaped creases that give it a little added muscle.

From the side, the 124 Spider is low and lean, with a short, raked windshield and a low hip line. Standing next to the car, 6-foot, 3-inch me dwarfed its stature. The 124 Spider’s classic long hood/short trunk design comes into clear view here.

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth - Driven Exterior
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From the side, the 124 Spider is low and lean, with a short, raked windshield and a low hip line.

At the rear, the 124 Spider has a design that once again calls to mind its predecessor. Squarish tail lights are nicer to look at than the Miata’s weird, rounded design. The squared-off rear end is nicer than the Miata’s swoopy, rounded hindquarters, too.

The Abarth version of the 124 Spider has a few exterior hallmarks. Front and rear fascias are slightly tweaked compared to other 124 models. There are Abarth scorpion badges on the car instead of red Fiat badges. There are Abarth-specific wheels with red scorpion center caps, and if you choose the brake upgrade option that was present on my test car ($1,495), they ride on top of Brembo brakes with red painted calipers. Many 124 Spider Abarth models have the flat-black “racing stripe,” which is actually a flat-black painted hood and trunk lid. My tester did not have this stripe package, and I was kind of glad for it.

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth - Driven
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That said, most of the interior is straight from the Mazda Miata, and that’s no bad thing.

That said, most of the interior is straight from the Mazda Miata, and that’s no bad thing. The seats, door panels, and dash were well-trimmed in attractive materials. Controls fell readily at-hand, including the traditional handbrake in the center console. Cup holders were an afterthought, which was sort of aggravating when I used the car to haul home some take-out one night. But for the business of driving, this is a well-designed — if very compact — interior.

Drive Notes

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth - Driven Exterior
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Most Fiats are a joy to drive, in my experience, and the 124 Spider Abarth is no exception

Most Fiats are a joy to drive, in my experience, and the 124 Spider Abarth is no exception. It fosters a direct connection with the driver in a way few modern, affordable cars do.

Steering in the 124 Spider Abarth was as direct and gokart-like as I remembered from the last time I drove a 124 Spider. Electronically assisted power steering is done right in the 124 Spider. Why can’t everybody do it this well?

Fiat ups the handling ante with the Abarth version of the 124 Spider by installing Bilstein sport suspension, a front strut tower brace, and in the case of my test car, Bridgestone Potenza performance tires. There’s also a limited-slip rear differential on the 124 Spider Abarth that stops the car from getting too tail-happy when pushed through turns.

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth - Driven Drivetrain
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The suspension made the 124, which already rode a bit stiff in the name of sporty handling, ride even stiffer.

The suspension made the 124, which already rode a bit stiff in the name of sporty handling, ride even stiffer. But in a car this fun, I didn’t mind. Significantly softening the suspension would have changed the lovable, flickable character of the car.

The Fiat 124 Spider Abarth has four more horsepower than the standard 160-horsepower 124 Spider. Under the hood is the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine you’ll find in other 124 Spiders, as well as in the tiny Fiat 500 Abarth hatchback and in some trims of the Fiat 500X SUV. There was a little more of that Abarth rumble in the 124 Spider Abarth’s exhaust sound, but I would be OK if it were even louder. The last Fiat 500 Abarth hatchback I drove seemed much louder than this 124 Spider Abarth, and it added a lot to the little car’s lovable, bulldog personality.

My test car was equipped with the available six-speed automatic transmission. It’s not a bad transmission, banging off shifts with surprising authority when driven hard yet maintaining respectable smoothness when driven reservedly. In Abarth trim, the 124 Spider comes with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles to give the driver more control over gear selection without removing a hand from the wheel. I still think I’d prefer a manual transmission in this car, even though I’m not sure I could drive it safely. Why’s that?

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth - Driven Exterior
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It’s not a bad transmission, banging off shifts with surprising authority when driven hard yet maintaining respectable smoothness when driven reservedly

Because my interior notes start and end with the word “small.” For someone of my height, the 124 Spider is too small to be comfortable for long distances. My knees were brushing the dash, and when I had to drive with the car’s convertible top closed, my head was cocked sideways against the headliner. This being the second time I have spent a week in a 124, I’m not sure I could safely modulate a clutch pedal. I’d love to try it, though.

Laying the top down improved the claustrophobic cabin, allowing me to sit more upright. But then my eyeballs were nearly in-line with the upper windshield trim, so I had to look either above or below it, depending on terrain. I’m just a little too tall for this car, that’s all.

Competitors

Mazda MX-5 Miata

2016 Mazda MX-5 High Resolution Exterior
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You can’t talk about the Fiata without talking about the Miata. The little Mazda roadster was arguably saved from extinction when Fiat came knocking on the Japanese automaker’s door to ask about the cooperative manufacturing agreement that resulted in the 124 Spider we know today.

The Miata’s look is more polarizing than the Fiat 124 Spider, but its interior is pretty much the same. Where the cars differ is in powertrain. The Mazda still makes use of a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, while the Fiat 124 Spider has that turbocharged mill under its hood.

This is the source of some debate among fans of these little roadsters. Some like the linear, smooth power delivery of the Mazda, while others prefer the harder, turbocharged kick of the Fiat. The transmissions are slightly different.

Pricing is very similar between the two. Mazda has one advantage in the limited release of its MX-5 RF, a retractable hardtop convertible that should offer a little bit more isolation from wind, rain, and road noise when the top is closed. But at the end of the day, those shopping for a small sports car with a retractable top will have to compare the Fiata and the Miata to decide which they like best.

Read our full review on the 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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It’s really unfortunate that there’s not a convertible version of the Toyota 86 or Subaru BRZ.

But the size and driving demeanor of the small 2+2 sports car is on-par with the Fiat 124 Spider, and both versions have performance tuning options that make their performance a little sharper than the base version of the car — sort of like the Abarth version of the 124 Spider.

Instead of having a place to stash a convertible top when it’s open, the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ have a tiny rear seat. It’s not all that practical in size, but it’s capable of hauling a couple of kids or extra bags. That’s probably not something you want to do every day, but it’s nice capability to have. Buyers will have to decide whether they value a convertible top more than additional interior space.

The Subaru flat-four engine lacks turbocharging. The Fiat 124 Spider Abarth has a punchy midrange, while the 86/BRZ hits a dead spot in the middle revs. Fiat’s Bridgestone Potenzas were much grippier than the tires that came on the last BRZ I reviewed, too.

I would have a hard time deciding between the 124 Spider and a Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ — mostly because I fit in the 86/BRZ better. Shorter drivers may have a harder time with the decision, and rightly so. Both are phenomenal choices.

Read our full review on the 2018 Toyota 86 and 2017 Subaru BRZ.

Ford Mustang EcoBoost Convertible

2018 Ford Mustang High Resolution Exterior
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There aren’t a lot of cars in this size category with a retractable roof — but there are other cars with a retractable roof and similar pricing, even though they’re not the same size. That’s the case with the Ford Mustang EcoBoost Convertible.

The ‘Stang has a distinctly larger footprint than any of the other competitors mentioned here. It’s 28.7 inches longer than the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. It also makes nearly twice as much power as the Abarth drop-top, with its 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine putting down 310 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers pretty much obliterate the Fiata’s 164/184, respectively. Acceleration is likely better in the Mustang, of course, owing both to the much greater engine power and its available 10-speed automatic transmission — that’s a whole four extra ratios over the Fiat’s six-speed auto.

The Ford Mustang EcoBoost Convertible is a lot heavier than the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, though. Its curb weight comes in at 3,642 lbs with an automatic transmission, compared to the Fiat’s 2,516 lbs in Abarth/automatic transmission trim, like my tester. Combine that with a longer wheelbase and a much larger turning circle, and the Mustang is gonna feel porky compared to the lithe little Fiat 124 Spider Abarth.

But the ‘Stang convertible really isn’t all that much more expensive, it rides more comfortably for larger passengers like me, and it gets comparable fuel economy ratings to the Fiat. If quick, gokart handling isn’t the most important factor for you, the additional interior space and softer ride of the Mustang might offer a compelling option — particularly if your dealer isn’t afraid of discounts, as many Ford dealers are not.

Read our full review on the 2018 Ford Mustang.

Conclusion

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth - Driven Exterior
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At an as-tested price of $34,525, the 2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth was a lot of fun in a tiny, topless package. If you don’t opt for some of the more expensive options such as my tester’s automatic transmission ($1,350) and Comfort and Convenience Group ($1,495 for blind spot monitors, rear park assistance, heated auto-dimming mirrors, and so forth), you can get into one of these Abarth roadsters for a real-world $30,000. That’s awesome.

As I said the first time I reviewed a 124 Spider — admittedly a non-Abarth version — this car is a great reminder that it’s possible to have immense amounts of fun in cars that don’t break the bank. I’d spend $30,000 on one of these if I was looking for a fun car. But I’d like to shrink my height by about three or four inches.

The world needs more 124 Spiders to remind us that driving used to be fun. Once upon a time, our roads were peppered by little European roadsters like this one — smiling faces behind their steering wheels just enjoying the art of a well-sorted chassis, engine, and transmission. In a time when we seem hell-bent on forcing cars to do all the driving for us while we keep our noses in our phones, enthusiasts like me are crying out for affordable, fun-to-drive cars like these. Bravo to Fiat — and Mazda — for producing them.

Disclosure: Fiat provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of fuel for this review.

References

2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
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Read our full review on the 2018 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth.

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