Firmer, flatter, noisier, more straightforward and perhaps a touch more accessible and instantly compelling – although also a bit less likely to hold your attention over the long term.

That’s how you’d characterise the driving experience of the Abarth 124 Spider to an MX-5 owner who was intrigued enough to wonder what an Italian factory tuner might make of his or her favourite two-seater.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior

Road test editor
Lowered sports suspension makes for some unsympathetic bangs over the transmission bumps and can begin to disrupt grip levels

It’s the suspension’s firmness, the added jostle and fidget to the car’s ride, that you notice first.

Over gentler bumps at higher speeds, the Abarth feels pretty supple, but the difference in the compression settings of its dampers between low and high-frequency inputs is stark.

Over broken surfaces and sharp edges, the Abarth’s suspension feels quite coarse and wooden. The forces the suspension can transmit into a body structure that seldom shows the slightest sign of stress in other applications are enough to set up noticeable shudder and shake from the scuttle at times here.

So what’s the payback? Well, the Abarth has excellent hunkered-down body control and very smart handling response, as well as stronger outright grip levels than any factory-produced MX-5, which would make it usefully quicker than the Mazda around a lap of a circuit.

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It also offers more accessible rear-wheel-drive handling adjustability than either its Mazda or Fiat sibling thanks to all that torque at medium revs, and the addition of the limited-slip differential.

Despite the higher grip level we’ve already mentioned, the Abarth’s torque is enough to overwhelm its rear tyres even at middling revs, provided that you time your inputs just so.

And that makes the Abarth 124 Spider a more amusing thing to drive in places and situations that wouldn’t unlock the real brilliance of an MX-5.

On the flip side, there’s a relative shortage of delicacy and progressiveness about the Abarth 124 compared with the Mazda, the MX-5 simply communicating and encouraging that bit more vividly.

But plenty of people might be willing to trade a bit of delicacy for directness here, particularly because you don’t have to be willing to trade all of it.

The 124 Spider and MX-5 possess similar standing-start acceleration abilities, but the Abarth has grip and pace on a circuit that would give it an advantage over an equivalent Mazda that could probably be measured in whole seconds.

The Abarth is held much more level than the Mazda thanks to its firmer, shorter suspension springing. It means the 124 Spider maintains a more secure and robust grip level, works its contact patches more evenly and simply carries greater speed.

The car’s electronic stability control makes it very easy to drive on the limit and prevents the rear from stepping out of line quite subtly if you leave it on. Turn it off and you’ll find the car takes attitude more quickly than the Mazda does, although this is still a car that indulges and forgives very sweetly.

The Abarth’s traction is quite easily flustered at the rear axle by bumps.

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