Power and fun don’t always correlate. This is a truth that is applicable in all sorts of situations, but it is absolutely the case with cars.
Witness modern supercars. Your average supercar will do 62mph in under 3.0sec without spilling your takeaway Grande Latte, these days. My nan could do 62mph in 2.9sec in a Porsche 911 Turbo S, without instruction and in standing water. It’s that easy.
So here’s the thing that we all know but few of us want to admit to. These cars are utterly spectacular, but you just can’t enjoy them enough on the public road. If you can, it’s only in short, sharp bursts before fear for your life or your licence calls a halt to it. Fun. Briefly.
It’s like drinking shots. It’s such a great laugh at the time, but the reality is that you will end up broke, looking like a proper twonk and feeling even worse than you look. Which is why most people stop doing shots when they stop going on holiday to Ibiza ‘with the lads’, and start having to get up in the morning. About the same time that they start appreciating the deep joy of a couple of good beers or glasses of wine, in a place that doesn’t give you tinnitus and sticky shoes.
Well, here is my point: If you ever wanted a car to prove that power isn’t the life and soul of the driving fun ethos, it’s this: theAbarth 124 GT. Here is a car that is thrilling, even bolshie and raucous with its standard Record Monza exhaust, snappy gearshift and bottom-to-the-Tarmac driving position. But you can use all of its performance, all of the time.
You don’t actually need the likes of the B4560, which winds up and over Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons, taking in hairpins, fast, sweeping valleys and distractingly beautiful scenes across Cymcrawnon, the Talybont reservoir and the bleakly beautiful Brecon wilderness beyond.
But having this road, with its tight twists and open straights to razz about on does show the bombastic little Abarth in the best possible light. Here is a road that is eminently worthy of the aforementioned stupidly powerful supercars, yet the 170ps (168bhp)Abarth feels absolutely fast enough. In its element, even.
The 1.4-litre turbocharged engine delivers a slightly boosty punch as the turbo kicks in, and feels at its best if you keep it fizzing over, up in the higher rev ranges. But doing just that is such an entertaining game in itself, and the car such an eager, willing steer that you don’t even think about it. Everything about the 124 feels intuitive.
Snick it into Sport mode via the rocker switch in front of the stubby gearshift, which sharpens up an otherwise soggy throttle response, and then you respond naturally to the car’s every twitch and burble. You know the precise moment to upshift, and the sweet six-speed manual gearbox seems to suck the gearstick into the next ratio with a satisfying snick and an even more satisfying pop and crackle from the pipes. The steering is just weighty enough, just responsive enough, and just does what you want it to do. The chassis has loads of grip to keep you pointing precisely where you want to be pointing, and yet it’s feelsome and well-balanced enough that the brave can prod it into a cheeky bit of oversteer without fear of imminent insurance claims.
It is an absolute riot. And, of course, what sets the GT apart from the rest of the 124 range is that roof. Everything else about it is standard Abarth 124 Spider, including the way it goes and the way it handles, but that roof does give it an added something, doesn’t it? It really does look a bit like the pretty, original Fiat 124 Abarth that punched above its weight in the WRC in the early ‘70s. The naked carbonfibre looks really special, and while the no-cost ‘Heritage Pack’ that brings a matt black bonnet and boot-lid is likely to divide opinion (I rather like it), having such a pretty, removable hardtop as well as the manual folding fabric roof is surely the best of all worlds. Especially when the roof only adds some 20kg to the car.
What we would say is that the Abarth 124 GT – as with any 124, be it Fiat or Abarth – is not for tall people. It just isn’t. If you’re over 6ft and can fit into it without feeling uncomfortably hemmed in and folded up, then you’re in the minority. It’s a small car, and it’s best suited to small people. Frankly, even if you’re short, you’re probably going to be a bit weary of the wind flutter and background thrum, as well as the uncomfortably upright footrest, if you do a long journey.
Oh, and there’s the price. At the time of writing, Abarth hasn’t actually confirmed pricing for the 124 GT but you can expect it to be over the £30k milestone, which does seem a bit pricey. After all, the 124 is a spirited and ebullient little car, but so is the Mazda MX-5 with which it shares a platform and even a factory – and the naturally-aspirated Mazda is many thousands cheaper. Also a noticeably different character – quieter, less of an instant nutter than the savage-sounding Abarth, but just as fun if in a disparate, Sunday afternoon stroll kind of way.
But that’s what’s so wonderful about the Abarth. Because, while we all grew up and started talking about grape varieties, mortgage rates and holidays in Cornwall, we all still feel young regardless of our actual vintage. And the Abarth 124 GT is perfectly suited to that huge swathe of the enthusiast community.
You can wring the life out of it, have as much fun and make as much noise as you would in stuff that costs three times as much or more, without having to reach for a fresh pair of trousers every five minutes. Honestly, I enjoyed driving it around roundabouts and alarming pedestrians in my local town centre as much as I did getting it pointed perfectly down some of Wales’ finest driving territory.
It’s the devil on your shoulder, the young person trapped in your (probably) middle-aged-or-older body, the car that you wanted when you were sticky-shoed and hungover, and didn’t care. Only it doesn’t make you look a fool or cost a stupid amount (well, not too stupid anyway). It’s youthful without being frightening or uncomfortable. It’s like discovering that the comfy cardigan you really like is, unexpectedly, also very fashionable and flattering.
Okay, the Abarth is far from perfect, but when has perfection every actually been very appealing? Quite. As long as you fit in it, I defy you to drive this car and not get out the other end grinning. It’s vehicular Carpe Diem without the usual risks attached. So go on. Now you can seize the day and get a good interest rate, and all.
Price: TBC (£31k est)
Engine 4 cyls, 1368cc, turbo petrol
Power 170ps (168bhp) at 5500rpm
Torque 184lb ft at 2500rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1060kg
Top speed 143mph
Fuel economy 44.1mpg