Fiat adds dash to a Mazda dish
IN many ways the Abarth 124 is a Fiat accompli.
Where most cars start as a blank canvas, the 124 was somebody else’s masterpiece. The basic structure of the car was decided before Fiat’s designers were allowed to work their magic.
Rather than an original recipe, it is an Italian twist on Mazda’s signature dish, the MX-5 roadster. But this is no simple “swap the badges and call it a Fiat” exercise.
The front windscreen and folding canvas roof are shared with the Mazda but every panel on the car differs. The engine and transmission are unique.
The likeness is undeniable but the Abarth is more squarejawed and sporty, from its long, flat bonnet to the quad exhaust pipes at the rear.
Under the bonnet, the 1.4litre four-cylinder turbo produces roughly the same power as the MX-5 but it has significantly more torque available lower in the rev range (250Nm at 2500rpm v 200Nm at 4600rpm). The extra torque requires a different six-speed transmission.
Fiat claims the 124 will sprint from 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds, while Mazda claims 7.3 seconds for the GT 2.0-litre MX-5.
Other differences on the 124 include Bilstein dampers, limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes and stiffer sway bars.
Inside the variations are limited to the seats, steering wheel rim and speedo and tacho. The centre screen, control knobs and switches are the same, although the 124 has a sports button that alters steering feel, throttle response, stability control threshold and, on the auto, shift points.
Most importantly, it has its own character, differing in engine sound and driving characteristics. It also has a price tag that — at least initially — will make sports car enthusiasts sit up and take notice.
An introductory deal, which will last “for the forseeable future”, prices the little Italian sports car at $43,500 driveaway, about $140 less in the traffic than the equivalent 2.0litre MX-5 Roadster GT.
Despite the almost identical pricing, Fiat Chrysler Australia boss Steve Zanlunghi says Fiat isn’t targeting the 124’s twin under the skin.
“We’re not specifically going after Mazda MX-5 buyers,” he says. “We look at Mazda (as) a mainstream kind of brand and Abarth’s a performance brand and that’s what we’ve put in the product. We’re looking for performance enthusiasts. We’ve got about $5000 more worth of equipment in it than the MX-5 so it’s really good value as well.”
Options include a $2490 “visibility pack” that includes blind-spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, rear parking sensors and daytime running lights.
He says potential buyers now drive “anything from roadsters to hot hatches” and the Abarth has been priced to create a halo effect and get the Fiat brand “on a roll” in Australia. Our time with the Abarth starts on a tight, twisting racetrack, where the little roadster is in its element.
The 1.4-litre turbo feels strong low in the rev range, so we punch out of some corners without having to reach for a lower gear. The shift action of the manual (no autos were available at launch) is shortthrow and precise, adding to the enjoyment, while the steering is evenly weighted and accurate.
We left the stability control on for the first part of the exercise and it did little to dampen the enjoyment, allowing the tail to hang out a little before intervening.
On a wet skid pan with stability control turned off, the Abarth lets you know when you’re pushing the limits before it’s too late to correct.
The brakes are superb, pulling up time after time with little fade.
The only disappointment is the exhaust note, which is sportier than the Mazda but still a little subdued for enthusiast tastes. There’s no pop on upshifts and no crackle when you’re on the brakes coming into a corner.
An optional Monza exhaust costing $1895 should be available by the end of the year, giving the 124 the soundtrack to match the driving dynamics.
On the open road, the ride is undeniably firm but not uncomfortably so. It gets a little jiggly on pockmarked back roads but doesn’t crash and thump unduly over bumps. Road and tyre noise are constant companions, as you’d expect from a low-to-the-ground roadster with a canvas roof.
Inside, the seats are grippy and supportive, the steering wheel looks sporty enough but the cockpit is light-on for Abarth touches.
It’s easy to feel as if you’re driving a Mazda because the switches and dials are so familiar. One big tick for the Abarth — it has a reversing camera; the Mazda doesn’t. The MX-5 is a special car but with the 124 Fiat has upped the ante, with more driver enjoyment and a sharp price.
They may have started out with a fait accompli but the Italians have delivered an accomplished Fiat.