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Test Drive: An Interesting Week With the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

The less-interesting, more-interesting Mazda Miata.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

I don't think a test of the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth needs much in the way of introduction. We all know it as a restyled Miata with a turbocharged Fiat engine—Japanese fun with an Italian flavor profile.

The 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Experience: Good, but not As I Expected

It's been ages since I've test driven a 124 Spyder, so naturally the first thing I did when my top-of-the-line 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth subject arrived was take it out to my favorite twisty road in Malibu, California. I was soon surprised to find I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected—it was eager to understeer and not quite as balanced as I'd hoped. I remembered an earlier notion that the 124 wasn't quite as good to drive as Mazda's hardcore MX-5 Club, though the Club can be a little harder to live with as a daily driver.

But you know where I enjoyed testing the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth? Every-friggin'-where else. Like a lot of us, I've been working from home, primarily writing historical stories, staying close to my desk and bookshelves. With the 124 Spider Abarth outside, I felt like I was 17 again, wielding my freshly minted driver's license and looking for any excuse to take a drive. When my wife sent me to the store, I seriously considered buying the wrong stuff so I could go back out to return it.

I'll tell you what I love most about the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth: The exhaust. Top-of-the-line Abarth models get louder pipes, and every time I fired up the engine it sounded like I was driving a '70s-era Fiat 124 with the muffler already starting to rust away (with the rest of the exhaust and the rest of the car soon to follow). I thought the farty trumpeting would get old after a few days, but it never did. I could listen to that sound all day, every day.

What I love second-best is, well, pretty much everything else. I've always thought the 124's styling was a bit more awkward than the Miata's, but I've grown to like it, if for no other reason than it's something a little different. Inside, the 124 is pure Mazda, but other than moving the volume knob to the dashboard where it belongs, and maybe adding a tiny digital speedo (the analog one is tricky to read), I wouldn't change a thing.

2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth: Geeking-Out With Fiat's MultiAir Engine

The engine is the main difference between the Mazda and the Fiat. While the Miata uses a 181-horsepower, 2.0 liter naturally aspirated four, the 124 Spider gets a home-grown turbocharged 1.4 with 160 hp. That figure rises to 164 in the Abarth; torque is 184 lb-ft, but the Abarth peaks at 3,200 rpm instead of 2,500 rpm like lesser 124s.

Take a test drive of the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, and you will know darn well this is a small-displacement turbo engine the second you let the revs drop below 2,000, as it loafs until the turbo is good and ready. Forget crawling away from a light in second gear. Power is moderate even when the engine is on the boost, and the 6,250-rpm rev limiter is low and not marked well on the Abarth's red-faced tach.

And you know what? It's precisely those traits that make the engine interesting. You have to think when you drive the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, be consciously aware of what gear you're in and how fast your engine is turning, and make good use of the rev range. This is driving, my friends!

Part of my enjoyment has geeky roots: This engine uses Fiat's MultiAir electrohydraulic variable valve-timing system, which exercises such precise control that the engine has no throttle plate—instead, when you step on the accelerator, it's the intake valves themselves that control how much air gets into the engine. That is amazing. That is freaky. That is cool.

Ride and handling? I mentioned that the curvy-road driving wasn't up there with what I want from a Miata (moderate grip, so I don't have to go too fast to slide around, and a nice neutral balance with gentle oversteer when you want it). But for all the rest of the driving I did, it was perfect—firm enough to keep me connected and soft enough that I didn't regret driving it. The steering is light and precise and delicious; thank you Mazda.

Fiat 124 Spider: Tall Drivers Need not Apply

At 5-feet, 6-inches tall, I'm in the minority that can appreciate the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth's tight dimensions; it's not often I drive a car that feels as if it were built to my size. Taller people might find it too constricting, and with the middle-age pounds I've packed on, getting in and out was, I must admit, not as graceful an affair as it would have been 20 years ago when I was young and strapping and beautiful. Once inside, though, I was super-comfy.

And could this convertible top be any better? Tug on the latch, give the roof a good shove upward, and it'll fold itself. Then, push down at the center to latch it. When you get to where you're going, yank the release between the seats, pull the top closed over your shoulder, then snap the latch home. Easier even than a power top—so easy that there is no reason, short of a monsoon, to drive the 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth with the roof closed. I did it for exactly three minutes in the interest of journalistic test-drive integrity, then decided that since the sun was out, journalistic integrity could go jump in a lake. Anyone who wants to know what the 124 Spider is like with the top up can do their own damn test drive.

What kept echoing in my head as I drove (competing with that wonderful exhaust note) was a simple phrase: "This is a car I would buy." Would I buy a 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth instead of a Miata? You know, I think I would. Perhaps the Fiat is flawed in some ways, but flaws are what make a car interesting. A Mazda MX-5 Miata Club would be a bit more fun in the curves, but I think the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth would be a lot more fun everywhere else. And that's what really matters.

Fiat 124 Spider: What's New for 2020:

  • Abarth models now offer a "Scorpion Sting" decal package
  • Powertrain, suspension, body are carryovers from 2019
  • Model lineup includes Classica, Lusso, Abarth
  • Small turbo engine differentiates it from Mazda Miata
2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $35,910 (base)
ENGINE 1.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/164 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE 26/35 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 159.6 x 68.5 x 48.5 in
WHEELBASE 90.9 in
WEIGHT 2,477 lb
0-60 MPH 6.3 sec
TOP SPEED 136 mph