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