Driven: Abarth 124 Spider

Globalisation has a lot to answer for. Big corporations often have more financial and political clout than many governments, and the way in which international markets are so highly interdependent often has many questioning whether this is really what we need. Is it right that Australian retirees should take a hit to their superannuation because a bunch of brokers in America were giving mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them?

Globalisation brings its benefits, too, and one of them is currently being flung through the Adelaide Hills with riotous laughter. The news that Fiat would bring back the 124 Spider as the latest of its retro reinventions was serious, as were the shrieks of marque loyalists when it was announced that it would be heavily based on Mazda’s latest ND series MX-5. But this was a good idea, as Fiat’s last convertible offering, the left-hand drive Europe-only Barchetta, was super cool for its quirkiness and rarity but didn’t exactly build on the legend of its purist sporting predecessors. At the same time, the Mazda MX-5 was continuing to cement its place as the primary crusader in the reinvention of the affordable and capable sports car.

Although the 124 and MX-5 are built in the same Hiroshima plant and the Fiat even wears a Mazda build plate, it is not a simple case of badge engineering. The chassis, suspension, wheelbase and track are identical, yet the Abarth is 140mm longer (thanks to larger overhangs) and 47kg heavier. Its 1.4 litre turbocharged four (lifted from the Abarth 500) is slightly more powerful at 125kw and vastly torquier than the 2.0 litre naturally aspirated four in the MX-5, and the power to weight ratio of both cars is virtually identical.

The Abarth is factory fitted with four piston Brembo brakes which are not available on the MX-5, and both cars have a mechanical limited slip differential. Every body panel is different giving the 124 Spider a distinct aesthetic, yet the cabin is identical save for badging, finishing trims and seating. Even Mazda’s infotainment system is carried over which is a definite bonus.

The styling of the 124 Spider certainly draws inspiration from other Italian cars of desire, the rear especially has a contemporary Maserati feel to it, and as such it looks and feels much more premium and less aggressively sporting than the MX-5. Pastiche references to the original Abarth 124 Spider are thankfully kept to a minimum and work quite well around the front end and the twin bulges on the bonnet, and the finished result is a sports car that probably fits in better on hills back roads than at a serious track day. It looks a little under-wheeled on the standard 17’s, but the factory prepared Abarth 124 Spider rally cars (see videos at the bottom) prove that all this body shape needs to look properly aggressive is a drop in height and some white tarmac rally wheels. And please Fiat, make that hardtop available.

The driving position is superb and the shift action remains a highlight, encouraging the driver to row up and down through the gears for the sheer joy of it. With standard Bilstein dampers and a strut tower brace the Abarth is sprung decidedly firmer than the MX-5. It doesn’t pitch and roll nearly as much under hard braking and cornering, but the limits of both cars are largely similar and both tails can be equally provoked to slip out given the requisite enthusiasm.

The turbocharged engine endows the 124 Spider with a markedly different character to the MX-5. Peak power is delivered 500rpm lower, and that extra 48nm of torque is fully realised at a crazy 2100rpm lower in the rev range (2500 v. 4600), which significantly reduces motivation to regularly visit the Abarth’s 6500rpm red line. Rather than changing up and down all the time, you end up riding the torque to surge between corners and the push in the back means the 124 Spider feels quicker point to point than the MX-5 does. The pop and crackle from the frankly loud Record Monza optional exhaust sounds better too, but the 124 misses out on the adrenaline that comes with the MX-5’s manic scream to its redline. The way the MX-5 surges over the final 500rpm before it hits the 7500rpm limiter is the highlight of that car; peculiar because an eagerness to rev has been a hallmark of Fiat sports cars since the fifties.

With the loss of flat-out thrills comes a car that is far more pleasant at eight or nine tenths. It feels decidedly quicker on the important round-the-block squirt and merging into traffic, in places where the MX-5 can feel a little breathless unless you properly get stuck in, and the Abarth probably makes a better proposition as a daily driver. As to where exactly that sits with the motorsport and rally heritage that Fiat are trying to tap into with this car, you can be the judge.

This is all just splitting hairs, and for many this change of character will probably enhance the Abarth’s appeal as a sports car. Folding the top down and taking to the hills, the Abarth is a proper hoot to drive and the basics are just so fundamentally right. Collaboration between these two major corporations has produced two sports cars that address the same problem in subtly different ways, neither result better than the other. Maybe globalisation does have its place, after all.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles

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1 Comment

  1. Tom Gilbert June 27, 2017 Reply

    Excellent Andrew. I'd seen these around but to be honest I had no idea of the Mazda association. Makes sense now. The rally video's certainly give a great indication of the cars ability. It looks proper fast. And the crackle and pop under run-on?... fabulous.

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