2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth : Italy Comes to California

Pictured in front of The Barcelona Estate

It’s the perfect week to have a drop-top Italian sports car. You set off on a dream drive, to take in the open air and get away from reality. The weather hovers around 24°C and you have the sun at your back as you make your way out of Italy and through the South of France. Passengers in a nearby car study the bright red Fiat as you downshift into 4th gear, riding a wave of boost over a crest in the road. You set a course for Barcelona and should be there before darkness sets in. Up ahead in the landscape, something appears to give pause to your journey.

A large group of windmills and the “10 East” sign kick everything back into focus. You aren’t driving through coastal towns in Europe – you’re in the middle of the California desert. The remote Spanish villas to which you are headed, actually exist 20 miles east of Palm Springs, CA – a group of homes called the Laguna Seca Estates. Also, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth that you are driving was built in Hiroshima, Japan. Only a small portion of the car has ever been touched by Italian hands before arriving in the States. Can a Japanese-built car still feel Italian? Can a group of California estates feel like a European vacation? We fire up the 124, kick up some gravel, and continue east to find some answers.

Professional photography by Manuel Carrillo III

Italy, Courtesy of Japan

The original Fiat 124, introduced to the US in 1968, was a simple and beautiful design penned by Pininfarina. This newest Spider shows a slight resemblance to the original but it doesn’t quite translate to the same beauty. Thankfully, while it may be a Mazda MX-5 underneath, this convertible “Italian” sports car is much more dramatic and aggressive. Our Abarth version of the 124 Spider adds black plastic cladding around the front bumper, larger 17-inch wheels, gunmetal accents colors on the side mirrors and window surround, and the iconic Abarth badging. While the newest ND Miata may have more classic styling that will age better with time, this 124 Spider Abarth can certainly draw a crowd. We received more “thumbs up” and striking glances in the Fiat than we ever did with the MX-5 in its deep red color.

Climbing down into the black leather and microfiber seats you find a near-identical layout to the Mazda MX-5. The Sport seats in this Abarth model are slightly more comfortable than it’s Japanese counterpart and more suited to long drives – be it the South of France or the California desert. While the chassis and bones of the 124 Spider may be Japanese, the heart that lies under the hood is completely Italian. The 1.4L MultiAir® Turbo motor produces 164 HP and 184 LB-FT of torque to give this Fiat a unique driving dynamic compared to its platform sibling. The naturally aspirated engine from the MX-5 only produces 155HP and 148 LB-ft of torque, but the power delivery is smooth and constant. Comparatively, the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is very temperamental and very Italian in its power delivery. As you pull away from a tight corner, you lay on the throttle and wait for a brief moment as the turbo spools up and delivers a punch of torque to the back wheels. Power-induced oversteer and a faint cackle from the Abarth exhaust will have you grinning as if you were driving in the hills outside of Saint-Tropez. The Mazda MX-5 may be more calculated and efficient, but the 124 Spider Abarth is pure, stupid fun.

While the Abarth version of the Fiat 124 doesn’t increase the power substantially over the standard model (164hp vs. 160hp), it greatly improves the suspension and handling characteristics. The 124 Spider Abarth is updated to add Bilstein Performance Suspension with a front strut tower brace to keep the Bridgestone Potenza 205/45R17 tires planted when the power does eventually kick in. Any problems we had with body roll and looseness in sweeping corners with the Mazda, have been completely removed with this Abarth suspension setup. This Abarth is simply the best handling model on the ND platform and may be the best handling car we have ever driven. If there are any faults with the 124 Spider Abarth, and there are very few, it would be the learning curve to master the powertrain. With the MX-5 Miata the acceleration is fluid and predictable, but the 124 Spider Abarth power has peaks and troughs that the driver needs to adjust to while driving.

Pictured in front of The San Sebastian Estate

Spain, Courtesy of California

With a perfect driver’s car like the 124 Spider Abarth you are beckoned to continue driving and find new destinations. If you are looking for a quick European vacation without leaving Southern California – look no further than the Laguna Seca Estates. Located in Bermuda Dunes, CA the Laguna Seca Estates have become a popular vacation spot and ultimate Coachella party destination. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Nick Cannon, and Justin Bieber have thrown pool parties and relaxed in the community during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. We exit the highway, wind through a quiet neighborhood, and approach this rather unique oasis.

The 124 Spider Abarth felt right at home as we made our way through the large wooden gate and entered the Laguna Seca Estates community. We slow down to first admire the Rosso Red Fiat in front of the stunning Barcelona estate before settling into our residence at the large San Sebastián. On the interior, the estate is 4,500 sq. ft with 6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, and open space to accommodate your whole party. You can channel your favorite music to the Sonos system that plays throughout the home while settling in for a game of pool in the game room or socializing in the large kitchen. For further relaxation, the master bedroom features a fireplace and jetted bathtub.

Walking around back, you are instantly transferred to a place far from the deserts of California. A string of party lights hang from the palm trees and help illuminate the spectacular heated pool. A large rock waterfall sits as a barrier between two jacuzzi pools that are sure to be the highlight of any backyard party.  Under the covered patio, you can fire up the BBQ, sit by the outdoor fireplace, or open a bottle of wine at the bar. We begin a game of Bocce ball as the sun starts to set, the perfect end to a day full of vibrant European culture.

Photography by Manuel Carrillo III at The San Sebastian Estate
Additional photos of The San Sebastian courtesy of Laguna Seca Estates

Often the romance of real life is lost when we focus purely on the details. Sure, the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is essentially a warmed-over Mazda MX-5 on paper. But in the metal, it adds some of the drama and theatrics that mark of a true Italian classic. At around $28,000, you would be hard-pressed to find another sports car with the same attitude and excitement of the Abarth. It’s that same spirit that can turn a large group of homes in the desert into a Spanish vacation destination. Both offer up an experience that sticks with you and they become more than their actuality. So as we hit the road back towards Los Angeles, we threw the top down and decided to take the scenic route along the Mediterrairian Sea.

Special thanks to FCA for access to the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth and Chris at Laguna Seca Estates for access to the San Sebastian and Barcelona for this review. Stay tuned for our upcoming review of the 2017 Volvo S90 sedan.

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