2017 Abarth 124 Spider Review
Alex Rae’s 2017 Abarth 124 Spider Review with specs, performance, ride and handling, safety, verdict and score.
In a nutshell: It drives and sounds better than the MX-5 but its looks and pedigree aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
2017 Abarth 124 Spider review
PRICE $41,990 WARRANTY 3 years/150,000 km ENGINE 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol POWER 125kW at 5500rpm TORQUE 250Nm at 2500rpm TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic DRIVE rear-wheel drive DIMENSIONS 4054mm (L); 1740mm (W INC MIRRORS); 1233 (H) TURNING CIRCLE N/A KERB WEIGHT 1080kg SEATS 2 FUEL TANK 45 litres SPARE space saver THIRST 5.2 L/100km
THE ABARTH 124 SPIDER comes to market with a bit of a handicap and that is that its direct rival is the highly praised Mazda MX-5. Essentially, the two cars are virtual twins under the skin, but there are some key differences; that said, the MX-5 is currently out-selling the Italian by more than two-to-one. But that’s actually not that bad… the MX-5 is a strong seller and, so, Abarth’s bean counters are likely to be pretty happy with the sales performance of the 124 Spider…
There’s not many success stories when it comes to red-badged vehicles – think Toyota Lexcen (Holden Commodore), Holden Apollo (Toyota Camry) or Ford Maverick (Nissan Patrol) – and while some might dismiss the Fiat as simply another badge-engineered copy, it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
What is it?
The Abarth 124 Spider is the end result of a joint development between Fiat and Mazda on its latest ND MX-5. The car is built in Nippon, Japan, but Fiat’s project receives an Italian made 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and the design was performed by its team in Italy before seeing the ND MX-5. Hence every body panel on the 124 is different to the Mazda, however, the cabin remains largely similar except for the cost-option to fit Recaro seats.
The cars share the same wheelbase but from the side the Abarth looks a touch longer and there’s no hardtop option for the 124, like the Mazda MX-5 RF, but it is under the Abarth’s skin where the measurable differences lie and make the Abarth a more exciting drive.
The 124’s ‘Multiair’ 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine is smaller in capacity than either the 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre engine available in the Mazda MX-5 but it produces more power and torque than either of those engines (125kW/250Nm). That’s only 7kW more than the most powerful MX-5 but it’s 50Nm more torque, and because that torque is available from 2500rpm it makes a discernible difference on the road. Connected to the exhaust outlet is a sports exhaust which is also sorely missing from the Japanese rival.
The increased power is enough to help the 124 sprint 0-100km/h in under 7.0sec, which is again better than the MX-5, but straight line speed isn’t the game for either roadster, so, Abarth has added some trick bits to the driveline and suspension.
The brakes upfront are four-piston Brembos, the suspension is tuned with ‘Abarth by Bilstein’ dampers, it has stiffer anti-rollbars, a front strut brace and there’s a mechanical limited-slip differential in both manual and automatic models (MX-5 gets an LSD in the manual only).
The price starts from $41,990 (+ORCs) with six-speed manual transmission or, add $2000 more for the six-speed automatic variant. Considering the Mazda MX-5 GT 2.0-litre starts from $39,890 (+ORCs) the Abarth is a pretty good deal. And it’s on the road the 124 furthers the argument in its favour.
What’s the interior like?
At 4054mm long and 1740mm wide the Abarth doesn’t leave much room for occupants or boot space, which at just 140-litres is pretty small.
Both seats don’t afford much room around them and with the two cup holders in place, behind the centre armrest, operating the manual transmission can be problematic. Thankfully these can be removed and one can be relocated down in the passenger foot well.
The driver’s seat provides basic adjustment but the steering wheel is tilt adjustable only which compromises a good driver’s position for taller and shorter drivers. In front of the small diameter steering wheel is the dash which features a sporty red tachometer in the centre and speedometer to the right. It only has 30km/h increments so sitting on most Australian speed limits requires a careful look.
With the roof down, vision is great, but with the roof up, the folding soft top blocks a fair chunk of rearward vision, so the Abarth is available with blind spot monitoring to help mitigate any wayward lane changes (with the cost-optional Vision Pack). The manual folding roof itself takes all of 10 seconds to pop up or down and shouldn’t be a problem for most drivers – it also doesn’t require getting out of the car.
Mazda’s familiar 7-inch infotainment makes its appearance in the Fiat and is controlled by the same rotary dial and shortcut buttons. It’s an average system that’s starting to show its age, and although there are two USB ports they only provide basic music connectivity without advanced functions such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
What’s it like on the road?
One of the best features of the 124 Spider is the sports exhaust which gives instant gratification, even when dawdling about town. One could be added to the MX-5, but there’s a nice off-beat burble from the 1.4-litre turbo and adds to the roadster sensation.
Around town and driving off-boost there’s a bit of a torque hole down low, but it’s better than the MX-5 (we tested the manual 124) and the short gearing means the nice, firmly gated, Aisin six-speed manual transmission is a cinch to shift. The clutch is well matched and quite light, meaning even stop-start traffic isn’t a chore. Indeed, the manual transmission in the Abarth is a stronger than its Mazda equivalent (to deal with the increased torque output) and offers a nicer shift, too.
Up in the foothills and in Sport mode the Abarth’s steering becomes a little heavier, the throttle response sharper and the traction control not so intrusive to allow the car to move around a bit. Like the MX-5, the 124 has a well-balanced chassis thanks to the engine sitting behind the front axle but a fair amount of body roll. It’s not as easy to point and shoot through corners as, say, the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ (which are reasonable competitors), but it’s rewarding when steered correctly (meaning don’t take the thing by the scruff of the neck and try and throw it around as it will bite and just end up feeling slow and clumsy): slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
There’s less nose dive in the Abarth compared to the Mazda too but the 124 can still feel that it’s bouncing diagonally opposed due to the still-soft suspension and body roll when cornering at quicker speeds. The Brembo brakes feel quick and sharp to react (with just enough progression to keep you from head-banging the steering wheel) and never felt tired pulling up the 1080kg Spider.
What about the safety features?
The Abarth 124 Spider has not been ANCAP rated. An optional Vision Pack adds blind spot monitoring and cross traffic alert. Beyond that, it gets the usual safety features, including stability and traction controls and airbags.
Why would you buy one?
It’s not a ‘fast’ car in acceleration terms, but the Abarth 124 Spider is a lot of fun to drive – a great driver’s car – and it’s hard to ever get tired of its uncivil exhaust note. It provides good value in its segment and compared to Mazda’s current offering we’d take the Italian for its improved performance and, of course, that sound.
Perhaps the most polarising difference between the two is how they look. During our week-long test the 124 received a lot of compliments but it also had some doubters (particularly on a drive with some MX-5 owners), but if it tickles your fancy the Abarth 124 Spider is every bit as good.