The imitation game

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

Talking points

• Derived from Mazda’s MX-5 architecture and built in Japan by Mazda.
• Stronger turbo performance and a firmer, edgier chassis set-up than MX-5.
• Aimed more at club motorsport enthusiasts than everyday roadster aficionados.

If you wanted to build a high-performance, lightweight, two-seater roadster, there’s no better place to start your research than with the Mazda MX-5. Better still, do a deal with Mazda to take the fundamental MX-5 chassis, cabin and soft-top architecture, add your own well-regarded turbo engine plus a selection of performance-focused driveline components, and wrap it in bodywork evoking images of past iconic models. Welcome to the Abarth 124 Spider.

Abarth is a performance and development arm of Fiat, and while there are standard 124 Fiat roadsters available overseas, the Abarth 124 Spider is the hero car and at this stage the only version available here. It comes with the full gamut of performance options, for a drive-away price of $43,500 in six-speed manual and $45,500 in a six-speed auto, which positions it line-ball with the top-spec MX-5 2.0 GT once you include the Mazda’s on-road costs.

Multiple mechanical modifications

Beyond the bodywork, which is marginally bigger than MX-5 and with subtle hints of the late-1960s Fiat 124 styling, there’s a raft of mechanical modifications, starting with Fiat’s MultiAir 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine. It produces 125kW and 250Nm, or 7kW and 50Nm more than the 2.0-litre MX-5, but importantly it does so quite a bit lower in the rev range, so the Abarth has a much stronger mid-rev-range launch feel when the turbo is on boost.

Like the Mazda, there is a mechanical limited slip differential and a sport mode selector, which enhance traction and power delivery during cornering. The Spider also comes standard with high-performance Bilstein shock absorbers, stiffened anti-roll bars, a strut tower brace and Brembo front brakes. It’s all highly desirable equipment for a club track day but of questionable advantage in terms of everyday comfort or handling on suburban roads.

Firm ride disadvantage

Alterations to transmission gear ratios combined with a lack of turbo boost from rest mean more thought is required for clutch engagement on take-off, a distraction in traffic and an annoyance on steep slopes. The ride is notably firm, which apart from being potentially tiring is actually a disadvantage over uneven road surfaces. The advanced precision and accuracy provided by the stiffened suspension set-up only becomes obvious on a smooth racetrack. Real-world fuel economy is also well shy of government test figures.

Cabin and load space are virtually identical to MX-5, and much of the interior is unchanged, including limited storage spaces. There’s convenience in a seven-inch touch-screen and multimedia control, along with many subtle styling cues to accompany the famous Scorpion badge. You get black leather/microfibre seats, 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels, sports pedals and, regrettably, a poorly graduated speedo in the revised instrument cluster. Thankfully the one-handed soft-top deployment remains an outstanding feature.

The Abarth 124 Spider does have individual character in its turbo response, dynamic feel and distinctive sound which will entertain enthusiasts more than those who simply love a light, agile and comfortable roadster.

ABARTH 124 SPIDER
Price:
$43,500 drive-away.
Drivetrain:
1368cc in-line four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine. 125kW@5500rpm, 250Nm@2500rpm. Six-speed manual. 205/45 R17 alloy wheels (no spare).
Fuel economy:
7.9L/100km (RACV test), 6.5L/100km (govt test). 95-RON petrol. 45-litre fuel tank.
Safety:
ESC with ABS.  Four airbags (including head-protection). Reversing camera. Not yet tested by ANCAP.
Standard features:
Leather-wrapped steering wheel. Bluetooth. Seven-inch touch-screen. Halogen headlights.
Options:
Six-speed automatic transmission $2000. Fully leather seats $490. Visibility pack $2490 (LED headlights and daytime running lights, adaptive lighting system with auto-levelling, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, reversing sensors). Premium paint $490.
Service/warranty:
12 months/15,000km services, 36 months/100,000km warranty.

Written by Ernest Litera
June 29, 2017