For those unfamiliar with the Abarth 124 Spider, here’s a quick overview: Based on the chassis of the Mazda MX-5, the Abarth 124 Spider adds unique styling, handling, and powertrain technology helping it stand apart from the iconic vehicle upon which it is based.
As a fairly well-known reference point, the MX-5 will be the go-to basis for comparison, because no other manufacturer delivers low-price, rear-wheel drive, roadster motoring like Mazda - a cause they’ve stayed the course with for almost 30 years.
But now, wrapped in Italian styling, and powered by an evocative turbocharged engine, could Mazda’s biggest worry be a variant of its very own car? Enthusiast have long called for tighter handling and turbocharging for the compact MX-5 and now finally it’s here in factory-backed form - only this time it isn’t Mazda’s stamp on the bonnet.
Vehicle Style: Two seat sports convertible
Price: $41,990 (plus on-roads) $44,970 (as tested)
Engine/trans: 125kW/250Nm 1.4-litre 4cyl turbo petrol | 6sp manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.5 l/100km | Tested: 8.6 l/100km
In Europe and the United States a slightly less performance-focussed version of the 124 Spider is available, badged as a Fiat and with a less aggressive styling treatment, but for performance-crazed Australia the only variant available is the gruntier Abarth.
Priced at $41,990 (plus on-roads) it is just a touch more expensive than a fully-laden 2.0-litre MX-5 GT from $39,550 (plus on-roads), but it compensates with added equipment such as Brembo front brakes, specially-tuned suspension, and of course, the turbocharged engine under the bonnet, which at 125kW and 250Nm outgrunts the Mazda by just 7kW but a more impactful 50Nm.
Exterior styling is completely changed save for the windscreen frame, fabric roof, door handles and door mirrors, though the interior is much closer to the Mazda with a few trim differences, and unique seat trim treatments being the only real stylistic dpearture.
Although it is longer, with a bigger boot and longer, higher bonnet to fit in the associated turbocharger and intercooler hardware, the basic compact roadster formula stays intact, and that’s no bad thing for it’s the changes that Abarth have made to the MX-5 that really shine.
- Standard Equipment: Leather and microfibre seat trim, single-zone climate control, manual folding roof, auto lights and wipers, heated seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearknob, keyless entry and start, sports pedals, soft-touch dash and door trims, red-accented tacho, alarm, 17-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch touchscreen with console rotary selector, AM/FM radio, Bluetooth connectivity, USB input, limited smartphone app support, nine-speaker Bose audio
- Options Fitted: Leather Abarth seats $490, Visibility Pack (LED headlights and DRLs, rear park sensors, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert) $2490, Record Monza exhaust (accessory) $1895
- Cargo Volume: 140 litres
The interior of the Abarth 124 Spider is very, very Mazda-like. Most parts stay the same, there’s some trim differences: Trimmed (instead of body coloured) door uppers, unique seat styling, and detail changes to the instruments and steering wheel.
Everything else - infotainment, switch gear, wiper stalks, et al - stays as you’ll find in an MX-5 meaning there may not be as much potential Italian flair, but instead it’s logical, user-friendly, and hopefully reliable.
The cabin itself is no bigger, and the low slung stance means a big drop from standing to sitting, but once you're snug behind the wheel the 124 Spider feels like an extension of the driver’s body. Sub six-footers will find the fit just right, but those over that mark may have to make compromises depending on their stature.
Dropping the roof is as simple as pulling a latch at the leading edge of the roof and manually pulling the fabric top down to catch behind the seats. It couldn’t be quicker and easier, and is possible with just one hand.
Standard kit includes climate control, keyless entry and start, satellite navigation, Bose audio, heated seats, and auto lights and wipers with optional leather seats (as tested) or Recaro seats also available, plus a Visibility Pack that adds extra safety features, along with a reversing camera.
Boot space gets a small leg-up compared to the Mazda too, at 140 litres. That extra 13 litres won’t change the world, but it does add a sliver more versatility to the Abarth. Cabin storage is a little lacking there’s no traditional glovebox (it’s between the front seats instead) and the centre console and centre stack provide very limited options for cabin stowage.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 1.4 litre MultiAir four-cylinder turbo petrol, 125kW @5500rpm, 250Nm @2500rpm
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear wheel drive with limited slip differential
- Suspension: Double wishbone front, multilink independent rear, Bilstein spring, Abarth dampers
- Brakes: 280mm ventilated front rotors with Brembo calipers, 280mm solid rear rotors
- Steering: Electrically assisted power steering
Mechanical changes to the Abarth include bigger brake hardware, firmer suspension, different gearing for the six-speed manual transmission, and the biggest change of all - a Fiat designed and built 1.4 litre turbocharged engine in place of the 1.5 or 2.0 litre naturally aspirated Mazda engines.
The result is impressive - naturally the more torquey nature of a turbocharged engine fills in the blanks that the Mazda engines sometimes exhibit - happy to loll about town in a high gear at low speeds, the 124 Abarth is a perfectly relaxed and civilised drive.
At least, it is until you floor the throttle and awaken the 1.4-litre turbo engine. For one thing the noise is glorious, the car we drove was fitted with the Record Monza exhaust from the Mopar accessories catalogue (you can’t order it from factory, but you can fit it at any time for $1895) Be warned, it’s not subtle, ever, but it stamps the 124 Spider with distinct authority.
Cars that aren’t fitted with the noisy zorst (there’s none on FCA’s press fleet but we found our own) still have a sweet engine note, and still get a little vocal when pushed, but are certainly calmer for a quiet alp around the block, something your neighbours are sure to appreciate.
The power still swells as revs build - peak torque hits at 2500rpm - not exactly as high as a naturally aspirated engine but a little further up the rev range than a typical turbo mill. There’s also much more punch when accelerating from any speed, without the need to run to redline for peak performance - though you still can if you desire.
The gearshift accuracy and spot-on clutch weighting of the MX-5 has been changed just a little, though not in any drastic way. The six-speed manual is a genuine joy to flick from gear to gear and even in slow-moving city traffic the clutch is never a chore, and still feels so perfectly controllable that the Abarth encourages you to drive like a star.
Firmer suspension means none of the identifiable body roll that's an MX-5 trademark. In the Mazda that’s partially where the feeling of speed comes from, but in the flatter, firmer Abarth there’s a true go kart feel, that encourages cornering, with enough sting in the tail to provoke more ready, but controllable oversteer.
Ride is a little firmer, as you would expect, but even over patchy surfaces the Abarth 124 Spider can take most bumps and patchy surfaces in its stride without losing composure or jarring the cabin.
Naturally the roadster experience is kept intact too. With a cabin that’s dimensionally the same as an MX-5 the same low noise top down cruising is possible, there’s some wind rustle at higher speeds, but with the side glass raised its easy to manage.
Abarth claims an official 6.8 seconds from 0-100 km/h, which is certainly brisk, particularly for an engine of only 1.4 litres capacity, though it’s not supercar territory by any stretch of the imagination, it is half a second quicker than a 2.0-litre MX-5
ANCAP Rating: The Abarth 124 has yet to be tested by ANCAP. The structurally similar Mazda MX-5 received a five-star rating when tested by ANCAP in 2016.
Safety Features: Four airbags (dual front, front seat side), active head restraints, seatbelt pretensioners, rear view camera, tyre pressure monitoring, electronic stability and traction control, pedestrian protecting bonnet.
Additional safety features including rear park sensors, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert are available as part of the Visibility Pack option.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/150,000km
Servicing: Service intervals are set at 12 months/15,000km (whichever occurs first). Capped price servicing is not yet available on the Abarth range.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
With finely balanced rear wheel drive handling, and wonderfully accurate steering the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins are a purist's delight. Some may find the cabin environment a little dated but with a pair of tiny rear seats, and a much bigger boot versatility is at least taken care of.
The obvious competitor for those that want to go topless and keep a keen drive is the Mazda MX-5, with which the 124 Spider shares its underpinnings. Aspirated engines make the MX-5 a wholly involving drive and like the Abarth you don't need to be going fast to have fun. Sharp styling and more compact dimensions also help define the two as very different beasts.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Is the Abarth 124 Spider better than the Mazda MX-5? Well, honestly... no. Everyone has their own idea of the perfect sports car.
Although it is turbocharged, the 124 Spider doesn’t multiply torque by insane chassis-twisting amounts, though the handy turbo boost does make it feel more lively down low, and the moderate performance gains are in keeping with the traditional roadster attributes of lightness and engagement over outright performance.
This is a car that can still be bucketloads of fun at reasonable speeds - there’s no need to break the law just to have a little fun - and in speed-limit obsessed Australia that’s no bad thing at all.
Of course the tight packaging means there’s a few compromises, particularly to interior space, but the 124 Spider is hardly angling for family car of the year status. It is however darn good at being nimble, sporty and fun. Not better or worse than the MX-5 that led to its creation, but certainly different, creating an exciting new option for buyers in the segment.
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