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AUTOLUST | 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

Born from a classic roadster lineage, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth adds a grand touring feel to the two-seater class.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

Since its return to the North American market, Fiat looked to its past to ignite some interest in the present. By sticking closely to the classic, 1960s look of its original Fiat 500, the automaker made a successful reintroduction to buyers looking for something small, affordable and more visually identifiable than a majority of their little hatchbacks on the market.

With the new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, the London-based car maker with an Italian soul looked back to its long-surviving classic, the 124 Sport Spider. Built from 1966 to 1980, the Sport Spider rivaled other European roadsters like the MG Midget, Alfa Romeo Spider or Austin-Healey 3000 as that era’s prototypical Euro driver’s ride. It’s hard to pull away in an old Spider and not don sunglasses and ascot before bidding everyone, “Ciao!”

The 124 Spider is back for 2017, and the Abarth is its top, mass market trim level. Abarth is Fiat’s dedicated tuning house, taking in cars like the Fiat 500, adding quickness, tightening suspension, making more noise and generally upping the adrenaline level. Mercedes-Benz has AMG. Dodge and Chrysler have Mopar. Ford Mustang works with Shelby. Fiat uses Abarth.

Also: AUTOLUST | 1967 Ford Mustang Custom Supercharged Fastback ‘Obsidian’

In its standard trims, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider starts around $24,995. For that, you’d get a 1.4 liter, four cylinder engine producing between 160 and 164 horsepower, depending on model. That doesn’t sound like much compared to some of the cars featured here, but — with a curb weight of only 2,436 pounds — more horses need not apply.

Once Abarth gets done with this Spider, it has more than its original eight legs. The car gets a standard 1.4 liter MultiAir Turbo engine. Fiat tells us that’s the most powerful four cylinder engine in its class. Abarth adds twin intercoolers, 16 sport tuned valves and a fresh air induction system.

The biggest improvements come in the suspension department as Abarth tightens the car up for track day enjoyment. Bilstein Performance Suspension adds a front strut tower brace for improved tight turn feel. Upgraded shock absorbers keep the car balanced over stiff front and rear springs, while a rear stabilizer bar adds downforce and increases cornering grip. Finally, Fiat worked out “nearly 50/50” weight distribution to improve the driver’s sense of feel through the steering wheel.

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With all that added, the price for the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth settles around $29,195 for the manual transmission — only about four grand more than the baseline, entry level Spider. And, why anyone would want to spend another $1,000+ for the automatic transmission escapes me. Why spend the money on a fun track day sport ride and ask for a soulless automatic gearbox? The authorities should take the car away from such a buyer.

On the streets and highways, the Spider Abarth catches the eyes of other drivers as it nimbly zips in and out of traffic. But, it’s on the track and rally courses where the car comes alive. In keeping with the Abarth philosophy, the Spider joins the Fiat 500 as nice little cars that became blatantly fun at speed post-tuning. Abarth also fiddles with the exhaust note, giving the car an angry, sharp rip when you put a toe down. Gearhead ears will also pick out the suck and whine of an eager turbo under the hood.

1968 Fiat 124 Spider and 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

It’s unavoidable that the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider – in its Abarth form or otherwise — will be compared directly to the Mazda MX-5. First of all, it’s built on the latest MX-5 platform and shares internal cues like its Mazda-based infotainment system. That’s not a bad idea as the MX-5 is the longest-surviving and best-selling roadster in history, celebrating its 25th anniversary just a couple years ago. So, it’s a smart enough business decision by Fiat to save time, start with the MX-5’s basics and built up a different car from there.

More importantly, as a little two-seater, it joins a long list of roadsters that hit the market since the MX-5 debuted in 1989. There’s the Honda S2000, Toyota MR-2 Spyder, Honda Del Sol, BMW Z3 and Nissan 300ZX. What do they have in common? I wish you luck finding a 2016 model in any showroom. Try the automotive memorial park.

This new Fiat 124 Spider looks to avoid that fate by blending the pure driving pleasure of a roadster with more of a grand touring philosophy. Though built on that same MX-5 frame, the 124 Spider’s ergonomics make it seem bigger. The MX-5 feels smaller and more constrained — and that’s part of its ongoing appeal. It’s a tight, little driver’s car — built for winding roads and slick, urban maneuvering. The 124 Spider offers a more comfortable ride over long distances than you’d expect from such a small car.

You can get a better look in the gallery below. Ciao.