Just 12 years ago, Fiat launched the Stilo Abarth. It’s not a car that the brand’s marketeers would like us to bring up in the first paragraph of this review. It was stodgy, slow, and nowhere near a Golf GTI challenger.
But the Stilo wasn’t a true Abarth. Abarth is Fiat’s performance offshoot. Initially an aftermarket tuner, it was bought out by Fiat in the 70s. A 30-year decline culminated in the Stilo Abarth, essentially a lukewarm family hatch with the Abarth badge stuck on in a vague attempt to make it appeal to enthusiasts.
In 2007, Fiat decided a rejuvenation of the Abarth brand was in order. It went from being little more than a trim level to an independent company, still controlled by Fiat but given the freedom to do wonderful stuff with some otherwise bland superminis.
It started with the Punto, but in recent years its engineers have concentrated their efforts on turning up the power of the little Fiat 500 city car. The results have been hilarious (and hilariously expensive) hot hatches, sold as niche models to enthusiastic punters.
Then along came the Fiat 124 Spider. You could say the 124 is essentially a Mazda MX-5 (built on the same platform and in the same factory), but it boasts the engine from a Fiat Punto and doesn’t share a single body panel with the Mazda.
It’s got all the makings of a true sports car. The engine’s located in the front, but power is sent to the rear wheels. It weighs next to nothing and only has two seats.
Although the Abarth 124 Spider hasn’t got huge power gains over the regular model (170hp versus 140hp), there are a number of tweaks to put any hairdresser comments to bed.
Its Record Monza exhaust is fruitier, and the suspension has been revised with Bilstein dampers to make the standard car’s already impressive handling even more precise.
The recipe is a good one, then. And to prove that the Abarth 124 really is a true sports car, I was given the keys and sent off to enjoy myself on the UK’s most iconic racetrack, Silverstone.
Before even driving out of the pits, first impressions were around how tiny the cabin is. Sure, I’ve driven the regular model (and the MX-5), but nothing quite shrinks a car’s interior around you like wearing a helmet.
Abarth has jazzed up the inside with splashes of red, ‘racing’ Alcantara seats and a numbered plaque between the seats – but it’s still unmistakably an MX-5 interior. And while that interior might be acceptable in the £18,495 entry-level Mazda, this Abarth is nearly £30,000.
As well as feeling claustrophobic and a little bit cheap, the Abarth 124’s interior is also incredibly impractical. You’ll struggle for somewhere to put your phone, for example, and there’s no glove box. The boot, meanwhile, can fit a couple of weekend bags at most.
Anyway, Abarth will insist its buyers aren’t bothered about practicality and a slightly cheap-feeling cabin. They care about how it drives. So how was it on track?
Excellent. The steering is ultra-sharp, responding to every little movement from the chunky steering wheel. The exhaust is an aural delight, encouraging you to hold onto gears for as long as possible before using the slick six-speed gearbox to work through the ratios.
For spirited driving, there aren’t many new cars you can buy for £30,000 that are as much fun as the Abarth 124 Spider. However, in real life, a BMW Z4 or Audi TT provide greater feelgood factor, while their badges have more cachet in the City.
Ultimately, the Abarth 124 Spider is just a little too compromised for anyone but the most hardcore of driving enthusiasts.