Abarth 124 Spider Buying Guide

The short-lived Fiat and Abarth 124 was a brief but characterful alternative to the ubiquitous Mazda MX5, of which it shared its platform. Due its rarity, its often overlooked, but do so at your peril – this affordable sports car is everything you need. Here’s what to consider if you’re on the hunt…

The Fiat and Abarth 124 Spider existed for a few short years here in the UK. Built alongside the MX5 by Mazda in Japan, the cars shared the same platform, mechanicals and interior. The difference was at the heart of the car (it’s front-mid-engined), with the Abarth receiving Fiat’s rorty Multiair 168bhp 1.4 litre turbocharged engine, which was similar but not quite the same as you would find in the Abarth 595 supermini, with an exhaust so boisterous on startup it’s hard to believe it slipped past drive-by regulations.

Unfortunately, because that engine was not really used elsewhere, FCA deemed it unprofitable to revise the 124 Spider to meet tightened emissions standards. A shame, but for used buyers, the bonus is you get the opportunity to drive a relatively rare Italian roadster for comfortably under £20,000 – sounds good to us.

But is it any good to drive?

Yes! And we’re speaking from experience, as Rob had an Abarth 124 for a couple of years. 

We’re going to steer away from the Fiat version from here on, as for us it’s a no brainer not to go for the Abarth version given you got more power, larger brakes, stiffer roll bars, sportier Bilsteins shared with the larger engine MX5 and – in our eyes – mini exotica looks thanks to the Abarth badging, Brembo brake calipers and red 12 o’clock marker on the steering wheel.

The aforementioned exhaust also gives the Abarth character which escapes the base Fiat version. There’s also no downside, as whilst those quad-pipes gurgle with a backdrop of turbo noises on idle and when on throttle, there’s not the drone on the motorway that you would expect (not that this is a car built for long drives, but we’ll get onto that).

Effectively an MX5 guarantees a great driver’s car, and the Abarth doesn’t disappoint. Whilst it may not be a point-to-point weapon, its ride and roll levels are perfectly suited to create an involving drive. 

 The gearbox– actually taken from the previous gen MX5 to cope with the torque – has a short throw, and heel-and-toe is a delight, especially with the rowdy exhaust making noises of approval. Meanwhile, on upshift you may experience the odd satisfying pop or bang.

In summary, the Abarth 124 amuses you like an older car. Perhaps no surprise, as the MX5 it’s based on is inspired by the wonderful Lotus Elan, and it remains the closest thing to a spiritual successor. So whilst well equipped with the likes of heated seats, a Bose stereo and all the usual infotainment, the car can’t escape the fact you’re cosseted in the way a modern car does. Because it doesn’t have that thick veneer of refinement you would receive from, say, a Porsche Boxster or BMW Z4, it gives back in being fun at slower speeds, and characterful on every drive.

Surely it’s not perfect though?

Well, we did say “perhaps” all the time. However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Abarth isn’t necessarily built for the motorway slog. Lightweight with aluminium panels to bring it close to the magic 1,000kg, compromises are made when it comes to NVH. Also, due to its small footprint, it’s also not a great match for taller drivers.

If you’re coming from a hot hatch, then you will have to get used to the fact there’s no cavernous boot. Besides the useful storage cubby between the seats, there’s also no glovebox, and no door pockets. However, this is also no Elise – a 124 Spider is still a perfectly adequate daily; you might just need another option for Ikea trips.

For some, perhaps the Abarth’s exhaust note may be a little embarrassing if your neighbours are of the curtain twitching variety. In the modern times of OPF filters and soft rev limits, we love its naughty nature, but can understand if it’s a little too much for some.

The engine is also clearly not a performance great. Its laggy, and has a diesel like delivery, with no real desire or point to revving it out. Indeed, this is perhaps why the engineers at Abarth decided to focus on the exhaust so much. The upside is that the engine will also return 45 mpg with ease – this is a seriously cheap car to run.

As we’ve said, the gearbox is great to use and given the car isn’t a rocket ship, there’s an excuse to row through the gears frequently. This is why we strongly implore, beg even, to steer clear from the awful automatic gearbox option. Incredulously, about half of all Abarth 124 Spiders were specified with the auto (a £1,500 option) in the UK, and despite the seductive Sequenziale Sportivo titling, it is a crude gearbox which hunts, causes driveline shunt and – to top off it off – required a recall. We’re used to modern DSG and DCT gearboxes creating traffic-light rocket ships, so it says something that the automatic Abarth is actually slower than the manual to 60. Avoid. 

What options should I be looking out for?

Whilst the Fiat 124 Spider came in a few trim levels, the Abarth 124 Spider comes with most of that equipment as standard. There was a Visibilty Pack, which included adaptive headlights and rear parking sensors (so pretty important) and then the Bose Sound System, which included speakers in the head rests. Otherwise, there was Navigation (actually just an SD card) and visual elements such as the Heritage Pack which meant the popular matt black bonnet and boot lid, as a nod to the original 124 rally cars from the ‘70s, which took the European Rally Championship in 1972 and 1975.

It's Italian – surely it’s going to let me down?

As we’ve already discussed, underneath there’s a lot of Mazda MX5 in this car. As a result, forget the old Fiat reputation and rejoice that the underpinnings of the 124 Spider are solid. 

The engine is fundamentally reliable too. However, the Multiair must use the specified oil from Abarth, which makes it expensive, and the car does like a drink – you need to be checking oil levels monthly if the car does a decent number of miles. It seems to be a “feature” of the Multiair engine, but can signify the PCV valve needs replacing, whilst the aftermarket community offers catch cans, to prevent oil leaking to where it shouldn’t go.

Otherwise, there is talk of the occasional leaking water pump, issues with the thermostat, and we have had to replace a coilpack on a 124 Spider with less than 15,000 miles on it. We’ve noticed some owners upgrade to coilpacks from the Alfa 4C Spider.

However, the biggest issue for this car – and anything built by the FCA Group – is getting parts. It can take weeks, if not months to get parts for these cars. Don’t crash one!

The Abarth 124 Spider sold well in North America, which means there is a busy owners forum if that’s your thing. Certainly, you can find more granular detail on common issues, preventative maintenance and modifications. It’s certainly worth signing up if you’re convinced that the 124 Spider in either Fiat or Abarth form is the car for you.

We hope you enjoyed our guide. Ready to take the plunge?

Then consider letting Cult Automotive source the perfect Abarth 124 Spider for you. As previous owners, we can advise on the right examples, aid with inspections, transportation, and protection (especially if you’re drawn to the Heritage Pack!).

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