Abarth 124 Spider: Scorpion’s sting, samurai skills

That Italy’s only budget roadster comes out of Japan is actually quite a good thing.
Monday May 22, 2017
We like: Retro styling, dynamc revisions, seats, the Abarth certification plate, not a lunatic car but thrives on being driven madly.

We don't like: The oversized Abarth badge on the boot, that water temp and fuel gauges are not respectively labelled ‘aqua’ and ‘benzina’, that the cabin looks too similar to MX-5’s.

 

B Richard Bosselman

RAW fish and pasta sounds like a survivalist meal and as for drinking up large on Lambrusco and sake – well, that special blend would assuredly dictate a messy end to even a quiet night out, right?

So, blending the flavours of Japan and Italy can be … challenging. But not always. A Japanese built, rear-wheel drive, lightweight relatively budget enthusiast compact roadster re-interpreted by the sporting department of Italy’s car-making conglomerate makes for a very tasty dish.

The Abarth 124 Spider – a Mazda MX-5 made over by Milan – is a different flavour to that served by Hiroshima’s top chefs, but no less tasty. It demonstrates that the right level of culinary flair can deliver a truly memorable fusion.

And that’s not just my thought. Pursuit of a partisan purist view saw MotoringNetwork take this special brew car to the people who know this roadster best and could have been its harshest critics.

If anyone was going to find flaw in this extreme reworking of the world’s favourite roadster, it would surely have to be members of the national MX-5 supporters’ movement, yes?

The video shows how that day went. The written test, meantime, presents my view from a week spent with a car that, in my view, simply confirmed long-held thought that there’s no such thing as a bad MX-5.

Design

What is it? That’s a question Abarth owners will love to hear.

The first plus point about the Abarth Spider is it’s not a badge re-engineering project, a major relief surely when their car’s most immediately obvious handicap is that its direct rival is the highly-praised Mazda donor.

And yet, at least until you compare cockpits, it’s not immediately obvious – even to MX-5 owners – that the Abarth is, at best, a half-brother in look, very much more - even though it eschews a Mazda powertrain for a Fiat-built engine and gearbox – a twin under the skin and shares a common birthplace, with both lines coming off the same Mazda production line in Hiroshima.

That tie-up probably produces the best-built Fiat car in history – Mazda’s pride in achieving seamless panel fit and paint quality certainly showed in the test car – but it hasn’t inhibited this car from achieving, at the kerbside, a look that is defiantly – and, to the untrained eye, totally – different.

No body panels are shared (only the windscreen header is carried over) and the nose and tail are altered; the front more than the rear. Everything forward of the windscreen is a complete re-rendering – the Abarth look provides a bonnet with scalloped vents and there’s a more aggressive bib spoiler - whereas the rear end is more a matter of Italy adding on an extended rear wing. It’s not so much integrated as, well, tacked on.

It’s not simply a matter of Fiat thinking it could improve on the Mazda styling – which is really tight and quite good – so much as it wanting to remake this machine into a homage to history.

The whole numerical reference is to cement tie between this car and the original Fiat 124, an icon made from 1966 to 1980 (though never in right hand drive).

The cues come through, but not quite as brilliantly. Whereas the first 124 was as the MX-5 is now – lean and perfect – the reprise has lost some of that delicate daintiness; it hasn’t gone to seed, but is a bit heavyset in places.

While the cars share the same wheelbase, from the side the Abarth looks a touch longer and has a taller, blunter nose and slightly bigger posterior.

Still, overall, I think it’s quite a smart-looking car, one that might could do with laying off on a few second helpings of pasta for a week or yet is nonetheless still a head-turner, particularly when delivered with the bonnet and rear wing in matte black.

The overall shape and – let’s agree, the beautiful Rosso colour and those stunning wheels - lends suggestion it is a bit more exotic and definitely more expensive.

The latter’s no illusion. In some places, this version undercuts its 2.0-litre Japanese rival. New Zealand is not one of those places, but the premium is not major.

At $52,990 (and another $2000 for the six-speed auto), the six-speed manual on test has a $3995 premium over the most expensive MX-5. The cheapest version of the Mazda is basically $11k cheaper. there’s no hardtop option for the 124, like the Mazda MX-5 RF,

Because? Well, much of it is reflective of the production and delivery process: The car, after assembly in Japan, goes to Italy for finishing (even though it has a Fiat engine, thjat’s sent out to Japan for installation) and then is sent out to market – for NZ, that means it travels about five times further to reach a showroom than an MX-5 would.

You might think the spending margin would be greater because of this, but look into the spec differences and that also shows how Fiat effected some savings.

Regardless that Kiwi cars are enhanced over and above standard factory specification, with LED lights, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and rear parking radar, plus Abarth sports seats with Italian leather, the Italian model has fewer features than a flagship 2.0-litre MX-5. Notably, it eschews active cruise control and smart headlamps that auto-switch between high and low beam. On the other hand, it does take something Mazda should have thought to provide the MX-5 RF: A reversing camera.

So, to a degree, you’re paying for more Italian flair. And those scorpion badges – the one on the boot so garishly gargantuan you’d think Abarth otherwise made trucks (when, in fact, it has only one other car, drawn off the even smaller Fiat 500). By the way, don’t bother looking for a Fiat badge. They might pay the bills for this project, but that give naming rights.

Driving

This is what matters most with any MX-5. It matters just as much, of not more, for an Abarth 124.

The challenge for the Italians was how to make an already great driver’s car, if not better, then at least different, without going too far and destroying that delicate but oh-so-right flavour.

The approach has been to re-engineer but not, wholly, reinvent. That comes about with implementation of a whole lot of smallish changes – different dampers, wheels, front brakes, anti-roll bars – and one big one, with Abarth (if not national) pride dictating that an Italian engine is used.

Outwardly, the latter decision choice might seem strangely bull-headed, since the 124’s ‘Multiair’ four-cylinder engine is smaller in capacity than either the 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre engine available in the MX-5, being a ‘mere’ 1.4

But, you know, it’s another example of why cars cannot be judged on cited capacity alone.

It’s a great example of Italian cheek that the 124 does not carry a ‘turbo’ badge, yet it is the addition of this very ingredient – one that Mazda denies its own followers – that makes a big difference.

Also serving in their version of the 500, the Abarth mill pumps out 125kW at 5500rpm and 250Nm at 2500rpm, a decent dose against the 96kW/150Nm and 118kW/200Nm coming out of the Mazda mills.

The extra energy is put to good use Even though the manual Abarth is 50kg heavier than the weightiest stick shift MX-5, it is faster. A claimed ability to sprint from 0-100kmh in 6.8 seconds and hit a cited top speed of 232kmh reinforces that it is quicker to the highway limit and overall than any street version of Mazda’s roadster.

Okay, so straight line speed really isn’t the game for either car, but the Abarth’s extra 50Nm of torque, and its availability from 2500rpm, makes a big difference to how the cars drive.

Around town and driving off-boost there’s a bit of a torque hole, but it’s nonetheless still sharper-witted than the MX-5 and once you’re at speed on on boost – well, there’s a part of the video showing an overtaking move that really demonstrates how much wally it delivers when it has to. The boost in second and third gears is rather enlivening and it’s hard not to smile when you’re flat into it.

By the dynamic is different. Most obviously, and unsurprisingly given the size of the engine, it tends to start losing puff from above 5000rpm and, while it will rev out to the red line, you don’t seem to get any additional performance benefit from, which is totally opposite to its Asian sibling. Also, the 1.4 doesn’t necessarily sound as invigorating as the Japanese engines, though that can be fixed with a special exhaust, costing an additional $2000. Unfortunately, the sub-contractor making the fruity ‘Record Monza’ pipe set cannot meet demand – maybe they need to cut down the lunch break and siesta from six hours to hour – and the test car didn’t have it. As result, the quad (yes, twice the count Mazda provides) chrome exhaust only sounds modestly parpy and never remotely Ferrari-like.

The engine marries to the same Aisin transmission that Mazda uses, but it has been strengthened to cope with the extra muscularity. There’s no discernible difference in shift feel, but maybe the gearing is a touch shorter. Then again, maybe you just get through the firmly gated slots a bit quicker.

Aside from the more potent, if less fizzy, powerplant, it’s business as usual. Not.

Another Italian implementation the Sport mode. What seems like a frippery soon becomes the default setting. It makes the steering a little heavier, the throttle response quit obviously sharper and the traction control not so intrusive to allow the car to squirm around a bit at extremis.

Quite a bit. I mean, there’s tons of grip, but as with the donor, though the chassis balance is sublime thanks to the engine sitting behind the front axle there is a fair amount of body roll.

That’s interesting in itself because the Abarth has fattened anti-roll bars, am engine bay brace and Bilstein dampers – all stuff the Mazda doesn’t provide.

As result, the car is stiffer and should be quite a bit sportier. And it is … sometimes.

From where I sat, the car felt firmer than the MX-5 at low speed – so much so it created vibration that caused my GoPro to jiggle when attached to the raised passenger-side window ((which it never did in the MX-5) – and yet, when going fast, the car felt a bit softer. But only in respect to delivering a degree of diagonally opposed bounce when cornering at quicker speeds. Which was weird because, until that happened, you’d swear the Abarth had a flatter longitudinal mannerism.

Anyway, as with the MX-5, it’s huge fun and very predictable. It has the same progressive sense of oversteer to it as the you-know-what and when you push too hard, it will get squirrelly, but there was only one occasion when I felt there’s was potential for it to swap ends and, even then, the remedy was simply to back off a smidge (okay, and maybe pray just a little).

When that doesn’t work, just give a stab of the brakes (four-piston Brembos up front, another change) and it finds its line again. And those brakes are brilliant; my drive day with the MX-5 club was a doozy, over some incredibly punishing roads, yet the Abarth took it all in its stride and also took – ahem – a few MX-5 scalps alone the way.

The slightly weird thing for MX-5 types is that they’ll notice how different it is to drive and yet, insofar as the from-the-wheel situation is concerned, it’s not that different at all.

Well, save for the new seats, which being – erm – bigger-boned, I found more comfortable and form-fitting than Mazda’s. They also look better; the rippled leather finish is an Abarth trademark that suits the car.

Otherwise, though, you’re looking at the same interior as with the MX-5, with the same couple of flaws – the between the seats lock box that’s difficult to access when you’re sitting in there (so, too, the cup holders, which are just a tad too tall for takeaway cups – they pop the lids), the lack of telescopic adjust for the steering column – and all the pluses: the superb driving position and pedal placement, the beautifully-balanced manual operation of the soft-top roof and so on.

In front of the small diameter steering wheel is the dash which is racierthan Mazda’s in that it features a sporty red tachometer in the centre and speedometer to the right. It only has 30kmh increments, whereas in the Mazda the counts are in 20kmh spaces, so be wary. Also, it did seem a bit disappointing that the temp and fuel gauges aren’t labelled Aqua and Benzina, which would make the car feel that little bit more Italian.

The infotainment system is a direct transplant from Mazda and, as such, is a great clone of BMW’s iDrive and therefore pretty good, though I wish Mazda would hurry up with its Apple CarPlay integration. Not that you can hear much of the stereo when running with the roof down.

Decision

Two questions: Have the Italians ruined a perfectly good sports car? And does a car made in Japan rate as an Italian sports car just because it’s had a bit of refettling by one of their more famous tuners?

I’d say the answer to the first is ‘no’. like I said at the start, there’s no such thing as a bad MX-5, and that includes the Abarth 124. In some ways, in fact, it’s a better MX-5 than Mazda delivers: While this isn’t a total loony tune, it’s definitely a bit more madcap when given the message. I quite like that.

For an answer to the second question, watch the video. I put this one to 10 owners. Their responses – each and every one provided independently - might surprise.