Fiat adds dash to a Mazda dish

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - First Drive - RICHARD BLACKBURN CARSGUIDE EDI­TOR

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.

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