Abarth’s new 124 Spi­der has X-fac­tor

Abarth’s new road­ster suc­ceeds in of­fer­ing a very dif­fer­ent driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to the Mazda MX-5 on which it’s based. By David Lin­klater.

The Tribune (NZ) - - MID WEEK MOTORING -

Mazda has stuck to its guns with the MX-5 for a quar­ter of a cen­tury: not too much power, not too much grip. Del­i­cate, not dra­matic.

The MX-5 is one of the world’s sweet­est sports cars and of course ev­ery­body knows it can han­dle more of ev­ery­thing. Mazda is keenly aware of that, but it’s al­ways left the tweak­ing to the af­ter­mar­ket.

Think of the new Abarth 124 Spi­der as the world’s most so­phis­ti­cated MX-5 up­grade, then. As you’ll no doubt know, the latest MX-5 was a joint ven­ture be­tween Mazda and Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles (FCA). What the di­vi­sion of labour was, no­body will say. I’m guess­ing FCA wrote a big cheque and Mazda did what it does best: en­gi­neer an awe­some sports

car.

FCA has its own ver­sion of the MX-5, called the Fiat 124 Spi­der. We don’t see that in New Zealand, but we do have some­thing bet­ter: the Abarth ver­sion, from Fiat’s of­fi­cial tun­ing arm.

Word of warn­ing: don’t be­lieve any vague in­sin­u­a­tions from Fiat’s mar­ket­ing depart­ment that ar­ti­sans at Abarth’s head of­fice in Italy lov­ingly craft the 124 Spi­der into a per­for­mance road­ster by hand. Just like the MX-5 and stan­dard Spi­der, the Abarth is built in Ja­pan by Mazda.

It does have plenty of FCA hard­ware, though. No body pan­els are shared (only the wind­screen header is car­ried over). The Abarth has an FCA 1.4-litre turbo en­gine with Mul­tiAir tech­nol­ogy mak­ing 125kW/250Nm, or 7kW/ 50Nm more than the Mazda’s Sky­Ac­tiv 2.0-litre.

The six-speed man­ual and au­to­matic trans­mis­sions have dif­fer­ent ra­tios to the Mazda. The Abarth is 50kg heav­ier than the MX-5, but still faster to 100kmh: 6.8 sec­onds ver­sus 7.3.

The Spi­der rides on stiffer sus­pen­sion than the Mazda, with Bil­stein shock ab­sorbers, Brembo brakes and an old-school me­chan­i­cal lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial. A chrome quad-tip Abarth sports ex­haust is stan­dard, with the op­tion of the so-called Monza dual-mode ex­haust for more vol­ume.

Here ends the lec­ture about Ja­pan and Italy. Be­cause we’re here to eval­u­ate the finished prod­uct, not the R&D politics.

It looks the part, right? It stands as a cool homage to the orig­i­nal 124 Spi­der, which cel­e­brates its half-cen­tury this year.

More to the point, it feels spe­cial as soon as you hit the start but­ton. The ex­haust is not in­tru­sive, but it is suit­ably throaty. There’s a global short­age of the op­tional Monza pipes at the mo­ment so we haven’t heard them, but FCA peo­ple as­sure us that they take the sound­track into the OTT sphere.

On the road, the Abarth is still im­pres­sively com­plaint and you’d hardly call the turn-in ag­gres­sive. But there’s a mus­cu­lar­ity lurk­ing un­der­neath that’s easy to un­leash.

All things con­sid­ered, the $52,990 Abarth still looks like great value com­pared with the $46,990 Mazda MX-5 2.0.

Not crazy-fast, but Mul­tiAir en­gine of­fers en­ter­tain­ing punch. Lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial is stan­dard.

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