Fa­mil­iar­ity breeds con­tent

Fiat's new road­ster may look sus­pi­ciously like a Mazda MX-5 but that's not a bad thing

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - First Drive - PETER BARNWELL peter.barnwell@news.com.au

JA­PAN’S Mount Fuji race track is an odd place to launch an Ital­ian con­vert­ible but once you know the story be­hind the new Abarth 124 Spi­der, it makes per­fect sense.

The spi­der rolls off Mazda’s nearby Hiroshima pro­duc­tion line and Abarth’s par­ent com­pany Fiat ships its en­gine and other bits and pieces to Ja­pan for as­sem­bly.

It’s a dif­fer­ent look­ing car on the out­side but all the hard body points are iden­ti­cal and the in­te­rior is pretty much MX-5 right down to the cen­tral con­trol screen and dash. Even the roof latch is the same and so are most of the rear-drive un­der­pin­nings in­clud­ing the multi-link rear sus­pen­sion.

Abarth, which is Fiat’s per­for­mance arm, puts its own me­chan­i­cal lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial un­der the 124 and shoe­horns a 1.4-litre turbo into the en­gine bay.

The end re­sult is that the 124 has com­fort­ably more oomph than the MX-5; 125kW/250Nm com­pared to 118kW/200Nm in the MX-5 2.0 litre.

The Abarth ex­hales through quad ex­haust tips with a loud Monza ex­haust sys­tem op­tion­ally avail­able. Fiat has a cheaper vari­ant of the 124 but

that won’t come here be­cause the com­pany wants to avoid com­pet­ing on price with Mazda.

The Abarth ver­sion is ex­pected to be priced at about $40,000 plus on-roads, roughly the same as the top-of-therange MX-5 GT 2.0.

Aside from the dif­fer­ent en­gine and dif­fer­en­tial, the Abarth has Bil­stein dampers, stiffer sway bars and Brembo four-pis­ton front brakes.

It rolls on ul­tra-low pro­file 17-inch rub­ber and comes with a six-speed man­ual or con­ven­tional six-speed auto with pad­dle shift. It also has a sport mode and switch­able sta­bil­ity con­trol for track driv­ing.

The ex­tra equip­ment means ex­tra weight — about 50kg more than the 2.0-litre MX-5 — but the ex­tra bal­last doesn’t slow it down much.

Abarth says it clocks a 0-100km/h sprint in the mid 6.0 sec­ond bracket, com­pared with a claimed 7.3 sec­onds for the MX-5.

It is thirstier, though, con­sum­ing 7.5-litres/100km com­pared with 6.9L/100km for the 2.0-litre MX-5.

The sharper-edged styling gives the 124 a strong street pres­ence and it looks a big­ger car thanks to the flat-top rear and front guards and large flat bon­net.

In­side, the 124 fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­ates it­self from the stan­dard Fiat with leather/ mi­crofi­bre sports seats, Bose au­dio, cli­mate con­trol air­con, a re­verse cam­era, push-but­ton start and tyre pres­sure mon­i­tor­ing.

Ad­vanced driver-as­sist safety fea­tures are op­tional.

ON THE ROAD

From a driver’s per­spec­tive, the Abarth and MX-5 are pre­dictably sim­i­lar — we are talk­ing de­grees of dif­fer­ence and noth­ing greater.

The Abarth has a turbo en­gine but it’s a smaller ca­pac­ity unit run­ning low boost and there is that ad­di­tional weight as­so­ci­ated with the turbo in­stal­la­tion, in­clud­ing a front-mounted in­ter­cooler. The MX-5 feels more com­posed at the limit pos­si­bly due to the stiffer Abarth sus­pen­sion jig­gling a bit more on bumps.

On the other side of the coin, it’s eas­ier to steer on the throt­tle with pro­gres­sive move­ment to over­steer even if you jump on the gas early out of a cor­ner.

The Abarth is stronger at some points through the en­gine rev range due to its greater torque out­put but en­gine red­line is 6500rpm with the real ac­tion ta­per­ing off a bit ear­lier than that.

ear­ing is bang on for the Abarth’s en­gine out­put as the power is al­ways on tap.

The man­ual Abarth we drove had a sweet shift feel but sur­pris­ingly not as sweet as the MX-5.

With big Brem­bos on all four wheels stop­ping power is ex­cel­lent with no fade af­ter quite a few laps of high-speed track driv­ing. Same for the Bil­stein-based sus­pen­sion that of­fers a firm and con­trolled ride.

The Abarth re­tains the MX5’s abil­ity to hang the tail out when pushed but the chas­sis is bril­liant.

VER­DICT

The real ques­tion here is Abarth or MX-5?

It all comes down to price and taste. If Fiat can bring the lit­tle Abarth in at a sen­si­ble price then it’s a wor­thy con­tender.

The Abarth has bet­ter brakes and more grunt but we’re not sure that would trans­late into faster lap times.

The dis­tinc­tive and more ag­gres­sive look could, how­ever, put it over the line for buy­ers seek­ing that wow fac­tor.

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