Abarth 124 Rally Tribute: swansong

Photo credits: Francesco Carlo for Lovecars © 2020

The Abarth 124 has recently been discontinued, and that’s extremely sad to hear. We have to say goodbye to one of the coolest and most engaging cars that came out in recent years; hence why I feel extremely fortunate to having driven the naughty italian twice, this – last – time in the very special guise called Rally Tribute limited to just 124 units worldwide and swansong of the little spider-  inspired by the 124 rally, winner of the 2018 FIA R-GT Cup.

Exterior

The 124 Rally Tribute  is available – if you can still find one for sale – in only two colors: Turini White and Costa Brava Red with several red – or dark grey, according to the exterior color – contrasting elements such as mirror caps, brake calipers, center caps and front splitter. The standard 17″ Corsa wheels have been replaced with O.Z Ultraleggera dipped in Bianco Racing paint; they do look extremely cool. Icing on the cake of these limited-edition cars is the Carbon Fiber hard top, which can be removed and stored away freeing the soft-top to be folded up (when the hard top is on the soft one stays folded down).

Just like any other 124 that has undergone the Abarth treatment, the Rally Tribute features reworked front and rear bumpers with a sportier design; the matte black  bonnet – with its double bulge – and trunk pay tribute to classic Abarth’s racing cars that had the same feature to avoid annoying reflections.

The front is dominated by the large grille and peculiar LED headlights, while at the back the four exits of the Record Monza exhaust take pride of place.
Distinctive elements are the side shields made of brushed aluminium that celebrate the FIA R-GT wins.

Interior

Inside the cabin we find two sport seats upholstered in red leather with contrasting black stitching and the abarth writing embossed on the upper part. They incorporate two speakers in the headrests signed by BOSE – just like the rest of the audio –  to ensure maximum sound clarity even when driving top-down. Both seats are quite comfortable, even on long journeys, offering good lateral support when driving spiritedly; they’re heated too.

The central tunnel hosts a rotor which controls the infotainment, a small cubby hole covered in alcantara with the scorpion logo, the mechanical handbrake – quite a rare sight nowadays – and the lovely 6-speed manual gear stick. Alcantara is used again on the lower part of the dashboard which is rather minimalistic featuring four air vents, three climate control knobs, start/stop engine button and the multimedia display.

The 3-spoke steering wheel is perfectly round and  has a small diameter, sits vertically and is rather thin. The 12 o’clock red mark is a nice touch, reminiscent of racing cars, to make sure the driver always knows where the front wheels are aiming. The instrument cluster consists of three rounded elements: the big red rev counter in the middle flanked by the speedometer on the right and the trip computer on the left; they’re backlit in white to maximize readability.

There’s no glovebox, instead, we find a modestly deep compartment between the seats which can be locked with the key. I’m 1.8m and the driving position is spot on however, taller people might have headroom issues when the roof is up/on.

Specs

Under the long bonnet of the 124 Rally Tribute beats the familiar 1.4L 4-pot engine with Multiair technology and a Garrett turbocharger delivering 170hp at 5500rpm with 250N/m of torque on tap from 2500rpm, good for a top speed in excess of 230km/h and a 0-100 time of 6.8s. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual gearbox and a mechanical limited slip differential.

We find double wishbones suspension with anti-roll bar at the front and a multilink solution at the back; sporty dampers and springs provided by Bilstein with a specific tune for the Abarth and Brembo calipers biting 280mm ventilated disks. 205/45 front and rear Dunlop winter tires fit the Ultraleggera wheels.

The car stops the scale at a mere 1060kg, a featherweight which favors driving dynamic and fuel economy.

Driving Impressions

Getting in the 124 requires agility due to the low seat, especially now with the hardtop. Once you’re inside the cabin the driving position is bang on, the steering wheel has height adjustment and the seat has enough excursion.

One press of the start/stop button  to turn on the ingnition and a second one to bring the naughty 1.4 turbo into life; unlock the soft-top with the handle positioned between the seats and then pull the lever close to the upper ambient light to fold it into position with a clicking noise.

The 124 Rally Tribute has two driving modes: Normal and Sport. In Normal  it’s perfectly suted for comfortably driving down the motorway or cruising along the coastline. Personally I’ve spent most of my time behind the wheel in Sport mode to really feel what the Italian two-seater is really made of.

Flick the switch in front of the gear stick until you see SPORT appearing on the rev counter and the Record Monza exhaust valves fully open; the throttle pedal becomes super sensitive to foot imput. First gear in and I’ve already fallen in love with the gearbox, it’s precise, tight and with a short throw of the stick; absolutely amazing.

The engine has good low-end response but to extract its potential you should keept it spinning in its 2000-5000rpm sweet spot, and it’s free-revving enough to make heel-and-toe a satisfying experience. Pedals are perfeclty placed, the clutch is light and the throttle pedal is floor-hinged.

When diving into corners there’s a bit of bodyroll which results in a slightly vague response due to winter tires but the handling still is a lot of fun; pulling out of corners you can rely on the extra torque of the turbocharger and the limited slip diff. The steering is quick and light, so managing oversteer is rather easy.

Thanks to the low weight the 124 feels more powerful than it is and you can have fun even when you’re not grabbing it by the scruff of its neck.

Verdict

The Abarth 124 Rally Tribute is an extremely enjoyable car, never intimidating and with enough horsepower to be really exploited on public road. The manually operated soft-top  is extremely quick and easy to use and the addition of the Carbon hard-top makes it a true coupè keeping out unwanted noises from the cabin and improving the comfort during winter months. There’s a good amount of luggage space in the trunk despite the external dimensions might suggest. The Record Monza exhaust note dominates much of the experience along with the awesome gearbox: the optional flappy-auto shouldn’t even be offered.

By the time you’re reading this the Fiat/Abarth 124 won’t be produced and sold anymore due to new emission regulations, investing to update the 1.4L Multiair wouldn’t be sustainable nor justifiable based on the 4000 units that have been sold since 2016.

It’s a shame to see it go, leaving the MX-5 the only choice for those who seek a lightweight affordable sportscar with creature comforts.

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Francesco Carlo

Automotive photographer based in Florence. If he's not behind the camera, you'll find him on a roadtrip at the wheel of a supercar or reviewing the newest one.