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