Abarth 124 Spider v Mazda MX-5 comparison

The fact that both the Mazda MX-5 and the Abarth 124 Spider sports cars exist, side-by-side, is a good thing. In fact, they need each other to survive.

You've heard it before: the issue with making a sports car is scale. There is a great deal of development cost involved in getting a vision to production and then, because no one really needs sports cars, the return is generally not all that great.

Most manufacturers make sports cars based on their existing platforms (e.g. M3, C63, WRX STI etc), as the costs are significantly lower. So for a (relatively) small manufacturer like Mazda to create a bespoke sports car like the MX-5 in the modern market, it needed support. That came from the Italians, who were keen on reviving the Fiat 124 name. Together, they managed to justify a return on investment that led to the creation of both cars.

So, here we have two half-brothers fighting for supremacy, both sporting a six-speed manual and presenting a very good choice for those seeking a sporty convertible under $45,000.

The 124 and the MX-5 are both built in Hiroshima by Mazda. Fiat sends the engines to Mazda and they put it together. Excusing the jokes that the 124 must therefore be the most reliable ‘Italian’ car ever built, the reality is there should be limited concerns about which one is more durable or reliable than the other as a result of both coming out of the same factory (engine aside).

For Australia, the only version of the Italian convertible we get (for now) is the high performance Abarth, which is powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine, producing 125kW of power and 250Nm of torque. It’s currently priced from $43,500 (manual) drive-away.

Its purely Japanese sibling comes in two forms: the 1.5-litre and the 2.0-litre. For this comparison we put it up against the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, with 118kW of power and 200Nm of torque. It’s $39,550 plus on roads (manual), so when it comes to crunch time, the two cars are basically the same price.

In terms of value for money, the Abarth does come with better safety features, including a reversing camera as standard, which – believe it or not – you really do need in a car like this. There is also the optional rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring and what not. All of these are actually Mazda technologies, but Mazda Australia doesn’t see them fit for the MX-5. Not even as an option. But, realistically, you just need sensors and a camera.

Even so, you don’t buy a Mazda MX-5 or an Abarth 124 for their list of standard features – you buy them to have fun. To take the roof off in beautiful summer days and just enjoy life. There is a feeling that is hard to express when you’re in a convertible. A sensation of being free that on a perfect day or night, is worth every compromise one will make to own one.

Our recommendation would be that everyone should own a convertible at least once in their life, and with these two choices, there has never been a better time.

From the outside, the two cars look markedly different. Although they share the same wheelbase and whatnot, the Italians have tried their very best to differentiate their offering from the Japanese.

To the uninitiated, the Abarth can be mistaken for an Italian exotic potentially three or four times its price, a point driven home by the quad exhausts on the rear and the extended wheel guards. Frankly, unless you’re a car enthusiasts you have no idea what an Abarth is – which can work in your favour, so there is benefit to its unique looks.

On the other hand, it’s a little overdone. The gigantic Abarth badging that sits on top of a black cover over the Fiat badges on the bonnet and boot almost take away from the effectiveness of the design.

There are obvious hints of yesteryear through the design, with the belt line and the front paying homage to the original 124, but it is busy. It’s not the simple, almost cartoony look of the MX-5.

Side-by-side, the MX-5 looks smaller, almost like a different car. It has shorter overhangs that portray the lighter sports car look that it seeks. At the end of the day, design is subjective and even for us in the CarAdvice office, it was impossible to come to a consensus, so we will leave that to your discretion.

Jump inside and it’s all MX-5. The Italians have added contrast stitching and a slightly different steering wheel (which we don’t actually like) and a Sports button (which, so far as we could feel, does absolutely nothing).

You can option up proper Recaro sports seats for a little more, which probably isn’t worth it, but they do look nice.

There is bugger-all storage room, with the cup holders your best bet at keeping anything in the cabin static. Even your modern smartphone will struggle to remain in one place on the move. It’s all well and good to stay sports cars aren’t practical, but we would like our phone to have a place to live, thanks.

The steering wheel is not telescopic, so adjustment for taller drivers can be a little annoying. Thankfully, both cars have the driver seat’s right side slightly shaved for easier entry and exit.

The infotainment system is the MZD connect, and in our MX-5 it was originally buggy as hell. Being our long-termer, it has often reset itself completely and the Bluetooth would drop the connection. Since we had it serviced, the issues have disappeared so it appears to have been a software fault. The Abarth presented no issues.

The nine-speaker Bose audio system in both cars is excellent. It’s ideal for that type of car and you’ll never have to replace it for something aftermarket.

Both pump Bluetooth phone audio through the speakers in the driver’s seat, so the sound comes from behind your ears, which is awesome when you have the roof off and someone disturbs your peace.

It also means that the speaker volume doesn’t have to be so high, which is always embarrassing when you’re stuck at a set of lights, roof open, and the guy next to you is listening to your wife complain about the mess you left in the living room watching the Formula One at 1am.

Bring the Mazda-cloned key inside the cabin, foot on the brake, press the start button and the Abarth comes to life. It has a different growl to the MX-5. It’s raspier, tinnier, a higher pitch. You really should option up the Monza exhaust for a far more riveting sound. On the other hand, the MX-5 is very neutral with its engine note, almost subdued, at least on idle.

Engage first gear and its evident these two cars are not using the same gearbox. The one in the Abarth is, to put it kindly, annoying. The clutch pickup point is too high and in both our test cars, it was far less rewarding to drive than the Mazda.

The reason for this change is that the MX-5 has less torque, and hence uses a different gearbox than the 124, which uses the previous generation MX-5’s six-speed manual to handle the higher torque requirements of its turbocharged engine. You get used to it, but we would pick the MX-5’s gearbox anyday.

Initial thoughts are that the Abarth is significantly faster than the Mazda. Both off the line and in-gear. Even officially, it quotes a 6.8 second time from 0-100km/h (manual), Mazda has no official time but it’s agreed at around 7.1-7.3 seconds (manual).

Forget the number on paper though and it’s a different story. We lined up both cars multiple times and the Mazda beat the 124 on every single occasion. We swapped drivers, we tried different launch techniques, it helped a little but it really didn’t matter for the final result, up to around 100km/h, the MX-5 had the Abarth covered. Even in-gear, on the run, the Mazda would eventually pull away.

This may not make any sense as the numbers would suggest otherwise, but it’s what happened and we were just as surprised. We tried this, also, with two different Abarth 124s and two different 2.0L MX-5s (one set used for the photoshoot and the other for the video) and it did not change the outcome.

So for those that are leaning towards the 124 because of its ‘added performance’, you may want to reconsider.

We then took these cars through Brisbane’s Mount Nebo and Sydney’s Akuna Bay on separate occasions and it became obvious where the 124 is more dynamically capable when the road suits its character.

There is far less lean and body roll in the Italian version, making its directional changes through the twisty stuff a little less work. That didn’t mean it was faster, just more balanced.

The thing we just couldn’t come to love about the Abarth was how quickly it ran out of puff. There is an extra 500rpm between where the MX-5 and 124 make their top power (6000 v 5500rpm) but it feels like far more. Looking at the torque figure, the Abarth hits its peak at 2500rpm while the MX-5 needs 4600rpm to get there.

It makes the Mazda feel more robust, it loves to keep going in second or third gear and seldom do you find yourself switching between the two through the twisties, but in the Abarth it’s a never-ending struggle between second and third. It can get annoying.

This character is further exemplified on the road, where the Abarth feels laggy. The turbo doesn’t kick in down low and you feel like you have to work the little 1.4-litre engine to get it to move at low speeds. In the MX-5, it feels less cumbersome. There is progressive torque delivery and you can easily live with it in day-to-day traffic.

On the race track, the Abarth is more solid. Its lack of body roll and generally sportier suspension set-up is ideal. It’s also easier to sit high up in the rev range at all times which means there is next to no noticeable turbo lag, making it really fun to drive.

Best of all, the Abarth comes with proper Brembo brakes, which, despite lap after lap of abuse, showed little fade (though they could start a little bonfire). This is not the case with the generally weak Mazda brakes that must be replaced with slotted rotors, race pads and higher-spec brake lines for track days.

In that sense, the MX-5 is the better daily. It’s softer and much easier to drive around town and in start-stop traffic. Its torque delivery and drivetrain setup is better suited to a realistic drive route to and from work in a busy modern city. Meanwhile, the Abarth is the one you’d pick for a track day or if you intend on getting serious with mountain drives and don’t mind shifting gears a lot.

In terms of fuel economy, the Abarth claims 6.6L/100km against the Mazda's 6.9L/100km for a combined cycle. But as is the case with turbocharged engines, they are great for getting economy figures when driven sedately, but no one ever does that. So in the real world, we found the Mazda slightly better, but not enough to make it a deciding factor between the two.

In all seriousness, we started this comparison with an initial bias that the Abarth had it in the bag. It felt faster, it looked unique and, well, it wasn’t another MX-5. But after spending plenty of time in both, we picked the Mazda as the winner. Not because it’s necessarily the better car for everyone, but because it’s the better car for us.

We found its ride compliance, drivetrain set-up, manual gearbox and clutch to be the better pick of the two and although we love that turbocharged sensation from the 124, it gets tiring on the daily drive and, having to rev it so high to get it to properly move is laborious.

Usually we finish a comparison, hand both cars back and call it quits. But, in this case, we actually did this test for as much our own needs as yours, since we needed to buy a two-seater convertible – well, 'needed' and 'wanted' can be debated here, but lets not get into semantics.

So we are proud to introduce the latest to our fleet of vehicles, the 2.0-litre manual Mazda MX-5 GT.

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