2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Review – A Tale of Two Drivers

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth gray front quarter

I suppose it’s a bit like buying a car, but at once more limiting and liberating. Anytime I take the keys of a press vehicle, I must sign a long legal form agreeing, basically, not to be too stupid while driving someone else’s car. Invariably, near the top of the form is a serious restriction – that no one other than the person who signs the form is to drive the car.

I find this somewhat limiting. I understand the reasons, but occasionally some input from others can help evaluate the car. Thankfully, I found a loophole while driving the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth – I asked my 23-year-old self to drive the turbocharged roadster, alongside the current 38-year-old edition.

At twenty-three, I didn’t have kids. I had a mortgage on a starter condo with my eventual wife, but the full weight of life’s burdens were not yet bearing down upon me. So Young Chris decided not to wait until middle age, and he bought a sports car.

That’s why this discussion between Young Chris and Old Chris is an enlightening look at the modern Italian sports car, by way of Hiroshima.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth rear quarter

Young Chris: Those patches of gray in your beard seem to perfectly match the Grigio Argento paint on the 124 Spider Abarth, old man. It’s an interesting choice for a mid-life crisis. Most guys go for bright red on their last grasp at their youth.

Old Chris: Kid, a mid-life crisis sports-car purchase is limited to those who are trying to capture a youth that they never had – the guy who immediately bought something sensible to drive right out of college. You bought an old Miata at 23.

YC: Fair enough.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth front quarter

OC: Indeed, I got plenty of seemingly-knowing looks from other, ahem, mature gentlemen during the week behind the wheel of the Fiat. An older neighbor walked across the street and chatted about the Spider he restored decades ago. A young neighbor similarly wandered by and drooled over the droptop.

YC: All guys, you say. How about the ladies?

OC: The wife (she was your fiancée, you should know her) enjoyed a brief ride. The daughters each rode with me for a long early morning cruise on the twisty backroads of eastern Ohio. Otherwise, no attention from the fairer sex was paid to either myself or the Fiat.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth rear

YC: You talk about the drive as if it was torture. I loved rowing through the gears when carving corners in the Hocking Hills. I found that the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth was well balanced at the limit, only transitioning to mild oversteer on corner exit.

OC: “..at the limit?� You didn’t take it on the track, you imbecile. I know you’re trying to sound like some hack journalist, but you have no idea what the limit is. Except for one corner, you kept the traction control on – mercifully. Your old Miata has but 116 horsepower – 164 in the Fiat, combined with 184 lb-ft of torque and a bit of turbo lag can get your inexperienced ass in serious trouble if you were truly “at the limit.�

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth front

And, no, driving the Spider wasn’t an ordeal. However, on the longish freeway drive to and from the excellent forest roads, the car does show its true nature as a sports car in the wrong way. A short wheelbase makes the typical awful Ohio freeway less than pleasant.

I did note that the air conditioning struggled to keep the interior cool with the top up on very hot days. Once over 90° Farenheit, the black soft top soaked up the heat, and the HVAC couldn’t keep up. It’s an easy fix, however – drop top, and drive quickly.

The seats are quite comfortable, but have just a bit too much padding, putting my head right into the soft top when it’s raised.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth seats

YC: Just do what I did on our old Miata – carve foam out of the seat bottom to lower your butt.

OC: Can’t do that on a press car, kid. Not something you should do on a new car that’s still under warranty, especially when the car is fitted with heated seats. Speaking of which, you should add heating coils to those old chairs in your old Miata.

YC: Never! I’m a hardcore, old-school roadster enthusiast. I’ve driven it top down in rainstorms. I even researched putting carburetors on the Miata for a better sounding engine.

OC: I stand by my earlier imbecile comment.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth infotainment

YC: I do enjoy the modern stereo, though the click/tilt/turn knob for control wasn’t the most intuitive. The interior is small enough that a touchscreen on the dash would never be out of reach. As it sits, it looks like Mazda stuck an older iPad above the HVAC controls.

Oh, and those cupholders are a joke. Either in the passenger’s knee, or in the driver’s elbow. Neither locations are acceptable.

OC: Strangely, that infotainment system had a funky glitch during my drive. Once, while cruising on the interstate, the entire stereo shut down – the screen went blank, and everything turned off. The car was running fine. After a few minutes of confusion, the system restarted as if the ignition had restarted. It only happened once, but it was disconcerting.

YC: Yeah, that’s odd. When the stereo was silent, did you notice a buzzing noise in the car? I know I did.

OC: Yeah, anytime I was driving with the top down over 65 mph, there was a flapping noise stemming from the area immediately behind the passenger headrest. I couldn’t tell if it was a seatbelt – though it happened whether the seat was occupied or empty – or if something was loose.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth dashboard

YC: What about the styling? It’s basically a Miata with a new nose and tail, right?

OC: Certainly, that’s true – but Fiat has done a masterful job of distinguishing the 124 Spider with traditional Fiat styling cues, including the double hump on the hood, and the headlamps that resemble the old sugar scoop with a touch of modernity. While the Miata looks cheerful, the 124’s face is a bit more menacing.

YC: Mercifully, one thing not carried over from the original Fiat Spider is the propensity to rust.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth gauges

OC: Another major difference – this turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes this Italo-Japanese hybrid feel much more like an old British roadster.

YC: Hand me the keys, old man. I’m not sure it’s safe for you to drive any longer.

OC: Bear with me. The original Fiat Spider, as well as the modern Miata both have engines that perform best at higher RPMs. The turbo engine in the new 124 Spider, much like the low-revving, long-stroke engines in those MGs and Triumphs, have plenty of low-end torque, but run out of breath at the top end. While the new Fiat has a redline of 6,500 rpm, I found that shifting around 5,500 was plenty.

YC: So, how did the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth perform? You got 0-60 times, right?

OC: Eventually, I did. Getting power to the Racelogic Driftbox was a mystery at first, until I queried the internet. While a pair of USB outlets were fitted below the HVAC panel, the traditional 12v power outlet was nowhere to be found. Turns out it’s located in the passenger footwell. I had to feel around, poking fingers in dark places (quiet, kid) until I found the power port. I suppose that Fiat doesn’t want anyone lighting cigarettes (or using a radar detector) in their roadster.

After all that, the best time I was able to record was 7.2 seconds to sixty.

YC: Wow, that’s not at all quick.

OC: To be fair, I’m no professional driver. Getting clean launches is difficult (and not advised) on public roads. I hate to break it to you, kid, but you won’t earn enough to buy your own private test track by the time you’re my age.

So, I must ask, Young Chris – would you buy a new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth?

YC: If I had the money, hell yeah. Too bad I’m like most internet enthusiasts – I’m the guy who swears he will buy a car, but only 10 years later when it’s depreciated. Mostly because I have college loans to pay.

What about you, Old Chris?

OC: Honestly, I’m not sure I could live with all of the compromises required by the Spider. The serious lack of interior storage for person and stuff alike is a major turnoff. If my commute were all third-gear backroads in a sunny Southern climate, I’d be all over this – but here in the snowy North, I can’t justify it.

It’s a brilliant drivers’ car, but it’s hard to picture this as a daily driver. As a second car, absolutely. Especially as one approaches middle age, this is a superb weekend car.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth profile

[Images: © Chris Tonn/The Truth About Cars]