First UK drive: Abarth 124 Spider

We take a first UK drive of the Abarth 124-Spider and see how it stacks up against its rivals, and if it's a usable, everyday convertible.

What is it?

The Abarth 124 Spider shares the same chassis as the Mazda MX-5, and in turn its own sibling the Fiat 124 Spider. It also has the same silky-smooth six-speed manual gearbox from the Mazda, one which is definitely the best manual option available at the moment. However, any notions you may have that the Abarth is a redesigned MX-5 are wrong. What Abarth have done is actually very clever. Take all the good bits of the Mazda such as the gearbox, built quality and place their own fantastically styled body on the top. Then for extra spice slot in the engine from the Abarth 595, and together with a Monza exhaust system and Brembo brakes you've got a smashing little drop-top.

What's under the bonnet?

There is only one engine choice, but it's a rather brilliant. It's the turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol unit lifted out of the Abarth 595 – the raciest version of Fiat's 500.

With 168bhp on tap and 0-60mph in 6.6 seconds, the Abarth is a very competent car and feels very nippy behind the wheel. The economy isn't too bad either with a claimed average of 44mpg - although when we tested it we saw mid 30s. This is due to how revy the engine is and it also depends on where you drive. Sit in stop-start traffic and you can expect that figure to fall.

What's the spec like?

Here we have a bit of an issue with the Abarth 124 Spider. Our car, with the optional Portogallo grey paint, Bose sound system and Visibility Pack - rain & rear parking sensor, automatic LED headlights, daytime running LEDs, comes to more than £32,265. That's a lot of money for such a car and puts it directly in the firing line of the new Mercedes SLC and even BMW Z4.

Something else which is a tad annoying is the optional tech doesn't all transfer over to the Abarth. Down by the right side of the drivers' column in the Mazda you find a control panel for the blind spot system and several other buttons, but in the Abarth you can't even have these as optional extras – instead you have the panel with blank buttons which is something I haven't seen since the early naughties. The excellent automatic dimming rear-view mirror from the Mazda isn't available either, having a very naff and cheap looking mirror in its place.

First UK Drive: Abarth 124 Spider
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First UK Drive: Abarth 124 Spider

Any rivals?

The obvious rival is the Mazda MX-5 and although obvious it is a real contender – especially in 2.0-litre Sport-Nav guise where it is a staggering £5,500 cheaper than the Abarth. Even the more expensive MX-5 RF costs from £7,000 less than the Abarth. However neither of these cars cut the mustard in terms of performance – the Spider having 20bhp more than the 2.0-litre MX-5 - or the way the Abarth actually makes you feel. The Toyota GT86 is another fantastically competent car but lacks the soul the Abarth has in spades. The roof is not convertible either and it just doesn't feel as special when you get inside either.

What's it like to drive?

This car is all about driving though and that starts by pushing a button and hearing the four-pot engine roar into life. The Monza quad-exhausts behind you bark and vibrate like no other car – it's fantastic and attracts a lot of attention wherever you go, meaning this car isn't for shrinking violets. Occasionally it pops and bangs too, and you can't help but laugh.

The six-speed gearbox is simply sublime. Each gear change is flawless and glides into position with ease, and with such a revy engine you get to use it a lot more.

Throw the car into a bend and the quick, precise steering keep it accurately pinned to the road. Put your foot down and although there is turbo lag, luckily it is brief, and doesn't ruin the fun whatsoever – something this car has bucket loads of along with character and personality.

If I was to be picky I'd say the clutch has an odd biting point that seems too high making the car easy to stall. Get over that though and this car is just joyous to drive. And it has pedigree too, especially finished in the heritage look which consists of a matt black bonnet and boot lid along with your choice of paint-scheme, our car being grey - harking back to the original Fiat 124 of the 1970s.

AOL Cars Verdict

Despite its flaws, the Abarth 124 Spider is a great car, one that has the balance just right – take the best parts of the MX-5 and add some a Italian flair and you have a drop-top with style and reliability on its side. What's more it's extremely exciting to drive and offers excellent handling with a fantastic soundtrack from its four exhausts. But the price is still a kick in the side when you consider how much more it is compared with its closest rivals.

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