The Abarth 124 announces its presence in slightly curious and flatulent tones through those quad pipes.

It brings to mind the kind of exhaust note that has become common in large, empty retail development car parks late at night and normally emanates from an overly ambitious back box on an insufficiently ambitious modified hatchback.

Matt Saunders Autocar

Matt Saunders

Road test editor
I love this car’s inherent balance. Among small cars, only a Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ is better

Put simply, the 124 is a little too keen to sound menacing around idle and at low speeds. But at least that sonic keenness prepares you for the stiffer, simpler and more direct driving experience that this car provides than its immediate relations.

There’s no denying the difference a turbocharger makes to a relatively light sports car. It’s not massive when measured on benchmark 0-60mph acceleration: the Abarth manages the sprint in 6.8sec and Mazda’s claim for a 158bhp atmospheric MX-5 is 7.3sec (to 62mph).

But look instead at in-gear acceleration, which is so much more indicative of real-world pace: the 124 Spider needs just 8.3sec to get from 30mph to 70mph in fourth gear, and that’s quite punchy; an Audi TT 2.0 TFSI Coupé needs 8.0sec; and a normally aspirated Toyota GT86 requires almost 12sec.

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So the Abarth 124 Spider can certainly pick up pace just when you want it to.

Where an MX-5 needs revs – and spins memorably between 5000rpm and 7000rpm – the 124 will knuckle down from just 2500rpm and also do it pretty responsively.

Abarth’s engine does seem that highly strung, apparently breathing quite easily under the bonnet, and doesn’t feel as soft under the accelerator pedal as the more rorty examples of the Abarth 500 can.

It also races on with much more gusto at high revs than the Fiat 124’s engine does – and that makes all the difference to how much more you can enjoy this car quickly than you might the Fiat.

The Abarth doesn’t start hinting that it needs another gear until you’re up at 5500rpm, whereas the Fiat starts its asthmatic routine about 1000rpm earlier.

It’s clear that the advantages the Abarth 124 offers over its Mazda sibling come with some compromises. The Abarth feels notably quicker and more meaningfully responsive than the Mazda in give-and-take driving, and its gearshift quality (excellent) and brakes (strong) are identical to its sister car’s.

However, the Abarth doesn’t reward really spirited driving like the Mazda.

It doesn’t sound as sweet and the presence of that turbo just takes the edge off the considerable pleasure to be taken in rowing precisely through the Mazda’s gearbox and being able to perfectly match the rotational speeds of the car’s engine and propshaft without really thinking about it. 

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