What happens when you give the foundations of a Japanese built, rear-wheel drive, lightweight and affordable sports car to a bunch of Italians? The new Abarth 124 Spider.
To the untrained eye, the Abarth 124 Spider looks like a sports car that shares nothing with its donor car, the Mazda MX-5. Yet, in reality, the performance focused Fiat is built in Hiroshima by Mazda, so while we can quickly put aside the usual jokes that it will be the best built Fiat in history, it does have a great deal of its own Italian flavour.
For a start, it looks totally different. The front and rear are a strange mixture of Italian and American design, respectively. The car pays a great deal of homage to the original Fiat 124, particularly the front and side profile, though it does tend to have a strange Chrysler look towards the rear.
If you’re wondering, there is not a single Fiat badge on the Abarth 124 (which means there are these giant Abarth badges with a black background to cover up the original badging on the boot and bonnet), Australia doesn’t take the lower spec 124 in Fiat guise for now, deciding to focus on the performance model to start with. Thankfully, then, it’s still priced rather aggressively at $43,500 driveaway, which actually undercuts its 2.0-litre Japanese rival.
Now, while we can go on about how it compares to the new MX-5 and having had the Mazda in our garage for six months we know it rather well, we are going to leave that to an actual head-to-head comparison coming soon. For now, it's about the 124.
To be fair to the Italians, the 124 is an amazing looking car. The quad-exhausts, the side profile, the whole shape of the Abarth screams sports car, and not a cheap one either. No doubt anyone that sees it go past will think it some semi-exotic brand, because let's be honest, the great majority of people have zero idea what the hell an Abarth is. This is both good and bad, as you’ll spend a lot of time explaining the car’s history. Best to say it’s a niche Italian brand and leave it at that.
Of course when the question comes up as to whether or not there is a Ferrari-sourced V8 engine in there, you may have to come clean about the 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged unit, but it does have a respectable 125kw and 250Nm, meaning it will do 0-100km/h in a claimed 6.8 seconds, which is nothing to sneeze at.
For the launch of the Abarth 124 we came to Norwell race track, where we put the Italian sports car through nearly 20 flat out laps followed by a road drive.
On the track and at the limit, it's impressive how the little Abarth really goes. Thanks to its Brembo brake system (something you definitely don’t get on the Mazda) it took punishing lap after punishing lap without the slightest fade or issue.
The six-speed manual gearbox, which is not the exact same unit as the MX-5, is a little notchy but very easy to operate regardless. There were no automatics for us to try, but it's important to point out that the Abarth automatic models (add $2000) get a rear LSD, unlike the MX-5 autos.
In terms of ride, the Bilstein suspension set-up is a little firmer than we anticipated, which does make its road composure a little compromised, though we think you can easily live with it.
The 124 possesses similar body roll characteristics to the MX-5 when pushed hard into a corner, though not as much and not for the wrong reasons. It has a progressive sense of oversteer to it and that proved to be rather fun coming hot out of a corner, even though we did manage to perform an acrobatic 180-degree turn onto the grass when the traction control was switched completely off and the talent ran out.
The turbo boost in second gear is rather pleasing and it’s hard not to smile when you’re flat into it, but given the size of the engine it does tend to run out of puff rather quickly (5500rpm) and hence you don’t get any benefit of revving it out all the way to redline, which is totally opposite to its Asian sibling.
The steering is very good, a little light, but still very good. The turn in, the grip, the car’s front and rear balance and the whole dynamic capabilities of the Abarth are excellent. So if the question is whether or not the Italians have ruined a perfectly good sports car, the answer is a definite no. They’ve made it better, in a different way. But it’s not perfect. And the steering wheel has no telescopic adjustment, which is rather irritating.
The noise from the quad exhausts is loud, but it sort of sounds like if you’re revving the engine in neutral. If you option up the Monza exhaust (about $2K), it will change dramatically and certainly, we highly recommend it.
The interior is nearly identical to the MX-5, except for the seats and a little sports button that changes the engine and transmission characteristics, though we found it more of a gimmick than anything else.
The manual fabric roof is unchanged from the Mazda and you can do it yourself in less than five seconds, which to be perfectly honest, is so much better than waiting for a slow, heavier and speed-restricted automatic roof system.
The seats are unique and genuinely very good; also if you pay more you can even get proper Recaro bucket seats. For whatever reason, our ‘Isola d-Elba’ blue 124’s interior stitching was red, across the dash and the seats. Even the tacho was red. It would be nice if they matched the exterior colour of the car.
Speaking of the instrument cluster, the Italians have done some strange things. The speedometer in the Mazda goes up in normal increments of 20km/h, in the Abarth you have to guess where you are between 60 and 90km/h, and in Australia, that’s probably the worst speed range that you want to be guessing at.
The infotainement system is a direct transplant from Mazda and, as such, is a great clone of BMW’s iDrive and therefore one of the best in the business.
If you option up the visibility pack for $2490, you get a rear-view camera, sensors, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
This is somewhat humorous as Mazda doesn’t offer that on the MX-5, even though it’s now evident that it’s available on the MX-5 platform, and in fact, the Fiat uses the Mazda version of these technologies.
It should really be standard, but even so, it’s worth the asking price just for the peace of mind. Even so, the drive-away price and the corresponding equipment list is actually very generous, making it a better value for money proposition than the Mazda.
Overall, the question of whether or not it’s better than the MX-5 will be answered in the first week of December when we run our comparison, but it’s safe to say this is easily the best car in the Fiat range both in terms of price, equipment level, dynamic ability and fit and finish.
If you’re after what will no doubt be one of the most fun and affordable sports cars on the market for the near future, the Abarth 124 is your only choice. It’s bound to make you smile every time you jump in.