Ad­van­tage, Italy

The best built Fiat to date, the Abarth 124, was the work of the Ja­panese

Herald Sun - Cars Guide - - THE TICK -

THE Abarth 124 Spi­der was al­ways go­ing to be good. The abid­ing ques­tion was whether it could be truly great — and, the re­ally tough query, could the Ital­ian re­work­ing of the Mazda MX-5 im­prove on the Ja­panese orig­i­nal?

Think about that while I take a re­fresher run through a car that’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously old­school but also 21st-cen­tury mod­ern.

The Abarth road­ster is a re­born Fiat 124 from the 1970s, when the orig­i­nal Ital­ian car was pop­u­lar with drop-top fans and also suc­cess­ful in top-class ral­ly­ing.

Fiat Chrysler was able to short­cut the de­vel­op­ment process by do­ing a deal with Mazda to re­work its MX-5 into a 124. In fact, the Abarth would never have hap­pened with­out the MX-5 but Mazda was happy to get the ben­e­fits in­clud­ing a much larger pro­duc­tion run through its fac­tory at Hiroshima in Ja­pan.

It’s easy to say, and see, that it’s the best-built Fiat of all time. Thanks to the Ja­panese.

Both sides of the fam­ily are stay­ing quiet but Mazda’s com­mit­ment to get­ting the Fiat right is ob­vi­ous from the in­stal­la­tion of the 1.4-litre tur­bocharged Abarth en­gine and six-speed man­ual gear­box. The job was done by Ja­panese en­gi­neers in Ja­pan, some­thing I con­firmed re­cently with the Mazda man who did the job.

The num­bers add up in favour of the Abarth, which has 125kW and 250Nm, com­pared to 118kW/200Nm for the “big­bore” 2.0-litre ver­sion of the MX-5. The Ital­ian also has much more mid-range torque.

The styling is all Fiat and a straight steal from the orig­i­nal 124, from the up­right nose to the shape of the tail-lamps. It’s also got Fiat in­flu­ence in the cabin but only on such de­tails as the steer­ing wheel and gear­knob, and leather-and-mi­crofi­bre fin­ish seat trim.

There is a stan­dard re­vers­ing cam­era, some­thing Mazda stead­fastly re­fuses to fit in the MX-5.

The real bonus in the Abarth pack­age is also some­thing from Mazda but not avail­able on the MX-5 in Aus­tralia.

It’s a sportier chas­sis set-up that comes from fit­ment of Brembo brakes and Bil­stein dampers with 17-inch al­loys. Mazda USA sells the kit as a Sport pack but Mazda Aus­tralia is not tak­ing it, for now.

The other bonus in the Abarth is a limited-slip dif­fer­en­tial to im­prove the rear­wheel drive grip and im­prove the bal­ance in cor­ner.

Ital­ian buy­ers can also pay $2800 ex­tra for a rorty Monza ex­haust with four ex­haust tips un­der the tail and there is a “vis­i­bil­ity pack” at $2490 that in­cludes LED head­lamps, day­time run­ning lights, rear park­ing radar and rear crosstraf­fic alert.

But the ba­sic pric­ing gives the Abarth an ad­van­tage over the 2.0-litre MX-5 — it’s from $43,500 drive-away.

ON THE ROAD

The Abarth drives well — no, ac­tu­ally, it drives very well. It has the sort of mid-range turbo surge that makes twisty roads fun, great brakes and a ter­rific feel in all con­di­tions.

It’s an MX-5 for sure, yet with a slightly dif­fer­ent flavour and some dif­fer­ent strengths with­out any ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences.

I’ve driven the Abarth three times and each time I’ve liked it more. And that’s say­ing some­thing for some­one who has been an MX-5 fan since Day One back in 1989, when I was on the Aus­tralian pre­view drive for the orig­i­nal.

I’ve also had a lot of time in the MX-5, in­clud­ing closed­course sprint­ing in Albury and a brief taste of the coupe MX-5, the RF, in Ja­pan. It’s the best of its breed, even in­clud­ing the ’89 hero. My per­sonal pick is the 1.5 but the com­par­i­son car for the

Abarth is the slightly punchier 2.0-litre car.

Look­ing at the down­side of the Abarth, the speedo is a ma­jor fail for Aus­tralia. It is cal­i­brated in 30km/h in­cre­ments, which means you ba­si­cally have to guess your speed be­tween 60 and 90, or 90 and 120. Not good here, par­tic­u­larly in Vic­to­ria with harsh penal­ties and min­i­mal tol­er­ance.

The cabin is also heav­ily MX-5, apart from the steer­ing wheel which is chunkier in the rim with a big Abarth badge.

On that front, there are no Fiat lo­gos any­where and Abarth badges are prom­i­nent, in­clud­ing on the crin­kle-cut bon­net (strangely, there are Mopar de­cals on the win­dow glass).

The gearshift is not as crisp as that in the Mazda and the ba­sic ex­haust note is flat and bor­ing. But there is al­ways the Monza ex­haust, which should be an au­to­matic up­grade for any­one in­ter­ested in an Abarth. It’s got a re­ally fruity note.

The en­gine is a lit­tle smoother than the Mazda’s for me but there is turbo lag at the bot­tom end of the range and it gets asth­matic well be­fore the red-line. It’s a to­tal con­trast to the MX-5, which loves to be revved.

From rest to 100km/h takes a snappy 6.8 sec­onds but I re­ally like the mid-range punch from about 3000rpm in the right gear on a twisty road.

When the Sun­day run has the Monza sound­track as well, pop­ping and fart­ing with a sonorous howl to the top, things get even bet­ter.

Abarth also has a 124 Rally dream ma­chine putting out in ex­cess of 200kW but that’s not com­ing to Aus­tralia de­spite the ob­vi­ous ap­peal for track-day driv­ers.

The rest of the Abarth chas­sis pack­age is as good as or bet­ter than the donor, in­clud­ing the pow­er­ful Brembo brakes. Even the ride is sur­pris­ingly com­pli­ant with great grip and the chance to re­ally push down hard on the throt­tle in cor­ners with­out wor­ry­ing about the car get­ting flighty.

That’s pro­vided you have the tyre pres­sures right. One car we tested had a very brit­tle and bumpy feel, even­tu­ally traced to tyres over-in­flated to 36 psi in­stead of the spec­i­fied 29.

So I like the way the Abarth looks, which is slightly more mas­cu­line, and I’d def­i­nitely pay ex­tra for the ex­haust and an­other $1990 for ex­cel­lent Re­caro bucket seats.

But full credit to Mazda, for its con­tri­bu­tion of light­weight en­gi­neer­ing (the Abarth is a lit­tle heav­ier than the MX-5), the bril­liant man­ual op­er­a­tion of the roof, the iso­la­tion from wind buf­fet­ing, the phone setup that puts a speaker into the driver’s seat, and even the Bose au­dio and in­fo­tain­ment screen.

There is no of­fi­cial ANCAP score for the 124 Spi­der — the MX-5 gets five stars and it’s rea­son­able to as­sume equiv­a­lence. The servicing cost and intervals are good but there is still no spare tyre.

THE TICK

Hai. Si. Bewdy. That’s Ja­panese, Ital­ian and old-fash­ioned Aussie for yes. The 124 eas­ily scores The Tick be­cause it’s so much fun and be­cause it’s an MX-5 at heart and that ap­peal is im­pos­si­ble to re­sist.

What about the Abarth v MX-5 com­par­i­son? It’s a no-win sit­u­a­tion.

I love what Mazda has done with the car and re­spect the work of the whole team in Ja­pan un­der “Mis­ter MX-5” Kenichi Ya­mamoto. I can also see how the Ital­ian team has added some spe­cial sauce.

In Amer­ica, some­one re­cently de­scribed the Abarth as “a great car done good” but I think that’s wrong. And they were com­par­ing it with an MX-5 with the Sport pack.

For me, they are two great cars from the same ex­tended fam­ily.

Per­son­ally, I pre­fer the styling of the Abarth over the MX-5 but that’s be­cause I’m a rally tragic and I can re­call the 1970s rally run­ner.

I also pre­fer the turbo en­gine for its mid-range shove and re­sponse, as well as the Sport pack­age on the chas­sis.

So the Abarth 124 gets The Tick and it would also be my per­sonal pick if I was choos­ing be­tween the cars in a show­room. I’m sure the MX-5 will do bet­ter on re­sale and I’d be find­ing a Mazda dealer to look af­ter the car but on Sun­day morn­ings I’d have a giant smile as I jumped into an Abarth with the Monza and Re­caro up­grades.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.