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Fiat Abarth 124 Spider long-term review

By Scott Newman, 23 Nov 2019 Reviews

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider long-term review feature

A sports car with Japanese and Italian passports

Introduction - The Dual Citizen

Not everyone is a fan of the growing trend of jointly developed sports cars. It’s a hot topic at the moment due to the arrival of the Toyota Supra, itself a product of collaboration with BMW, but it’s been going on for a while now and will only become more prevalent.

The reasons why are obvious – globally, the sports car market is shrinking, making it difficult to justify investing in a bespoke platform; far better to hop into bed with another manufacturer and work towards a common goal.

There are a number of ways to go about this, each of which has been illustrated in recent times. The easiest is to simply make the same car and switch the badges, like with the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ; then there’s the approach of taking the same box of bits but developing them separately, like Toyota and BMW have done with the Supra and Z4 respectively. The third way is to change certain parts in the hope of imbuing a unique personality, which is the tack taken by Mazda and Fiat with the MX-5 and our new long-termer, the Abarth 124 Spider.

These two cars share a chassis and are built in Mazda’s Hiroshima plant, a fact that played a major role in the 124’s gestation. Originally, the partnership was between Mazda and Alfa Romeo, with the ND MX-5 set to provide the basis for a new Alfa Spider, but following the late Sergio Marchionne’s dictate that Alfas must be built in Italy, a new partner within the FCA fold was sought. Enter Fiat.

The original Fiat 124 Spider was built between 1966 and 1985 and was surely one of the cars that provided inspiration for the original MX-5 in 1989 – lightweight, rear-wheel drive and with a highly tuned four-cylinder engine under the bonnet.

It’s a recipe the new 124 Spider adheres to, though it actually uses a smaller engine than any of its predecessors. The 124’s four-pot displaces just 1368cc, but a turbocharger provides plenty of extra punch.

Overseas markets have access to a Fiat 124 with 103kW/240Nm, but Australia scores only the hotter 125kW/250Nm Abarth variant. In addition to the extra grunt, which drops the claimed 0-100km/h time from 7.5 to 6.8sec and lifts the top speed from 215km/h to 232km/h, the Abarth scores Brembo four-piston front calipers, Bilstein suspension, a limited-slip differential, exterior makeover and a much shoutier soundtrack courtesy of the Monza exhaust. 

MOTOR comparison: 124 Spider v MX-5 v BRZ

The standard 124 Spider starts at $41,990 for the six-speed manual (before on-road costs) or an extra $2000 for the auto. However, until October you could put your bum behind the wheel from just $38,750 drive-away, which strikes us as a bit of a bargain.

Our new garage occupant, though, is one of 30 Monza Editions. This is essentially a fully loaded 124, including the two-tone leather seats and Visibility Pack – adaptive LED headlights, rear park assist, blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert – which are cost options on the standard car.

It retails for $47,580 (again, an extra $2K for the auto), but if you’re quick you might be able to nab one for $44,340 drive-away. If you’re curious, the warranty is three years or 150,000km, though you’ll be doing well to hit the latter before the former.

Picture: Sexy two-tone Recaros are heated and an option on the standard Abarth 124

Over the next five issues we’ll examine the case for buying the Abarth. The default choice in this segment is the car on which it’s based, the Mazda ND MX-5, which outsells the ‘Italian’ at a rate of about six-to-one.

In the case of the mechanically identical Toybaru twins, buying one or the other is likely to simply be a case of badge preference, but by replacing a high-revving naturally aspirated engine with a torquey turbocharged one, the case in this instance is likely to be less clear cut. On first impressions, it should be fun finding out either way.

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Fruity exhaust
2 - Slick gearshift
3 - Torquey engine

Things we hate
1 - Ride isn’t great
2 - Doughy throttle
3 - Blind spot beeper

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Update 1: Training the Eye

A closer look at the Abarth’s, err, looks

Place the Abarth 124 Spider and the Mazda MX-5 side by side, remove the badges and ask someone unfamiliar with the parentage of each car to identify which is Japanese and which is Italian and I suspect that most would get the answer wrong.

Consider the evidence: one is a smoothly sculpted, shrink-wrapped roadster powered by a high-revving, naturally aspirated engine, while the other is aggressively styled with a heavily turbocharged downsized donk. Tradition would suggest the former would be Italian and the latter Japanese, but the reverse is true.

Of course the MX-5 now has more than three decades of history and the ND doesn’t stray markedly from that, but it’s interesting that Fiat felt the need to change the recipe. After all, retaining the MX-5’s zingy engine as well as its platform would have provided a clear link to the original Abarth 124 Rally from the 1970s, which used a 1.8-litre DOHC four-pot with twin Webers to produce 94kW and 159Nm. But we’ll focus on the Abarth’s mechanicals in a future update; for now, it’s back to the styling.

The 124 Spider is the work of Fiat’s ‘Centro Stile’ studio in Turin and it doesn’t share a single body panel with the Masashi Nakayama-penned ND MX-5. According to Fiat, the 124’s styling is “classically beautiful with well-balanced proportions and a sporty cabin-to-hood ratio”. Hmmm.

Personally, I think the 124’s bold design looks like it has fallen out of a Japanese comic book. Back to my earlier point, not only does the Fiat not look Italian to my eyes, it looks distinctly far-east. Its unusual looks are growing on me, but I certainly wouldn’t call it classically beautiful.

Centro Stile tacked on a massive 139mm in length, though it appears to have divided this roughly equally between front and rear, which is perhaps what Fiat means by “well-balanced proportions”.

This might sound like I have a bit of a downer on the 124’s looks; perhaps initially, but its unique styling is growing on me. Others too, it seems. Last month’s update generated a few comments from readers who unequivocally preferred the Abarth to the Mazda purely from a design perspective, though they may be a vocal minority, as a highly unscientific social media poll had 75 per cent of respondents favouring the MX-5.

There’s much less to quibble about on the inside, for the two cars are virtually identical aside from the seats and some cosmetic differences. One thing I don’t understand is why the 124 Spider hasn’t adopted the reach-adjustable steering column introduced in the MX-5 at update time – the cars are produced in the same factory with bits from the same suppliers. The Abarth’s driving position isn’t too bad, but the wheel is a little low and far away for my tastes, forcing a Stirling Moss-style straight-arm technique.

Future updates will cover off proper performance driving, so it’s probably a good idea to discuss what the 124 is like day-to-day, coping with the tasks it will complete for the vast majority of its life.

It’s a lot of fun, primarily because of that 1.4-litre turbo engine. With the quad-tip Monza exhaust, the noise it emits is truly ludicrous, a bassy, almost flatulent note that’s redolent of a Group N Mitsubishi Evo. From behind the wheel it’s great fun, especially as every now and then it releases a vicious crack on an upshift, but if you start early or finish late, your neighbours might not be so chuffed.

There’s plenty of torque on tap, the maximum 250Nm produced at 2500rpm, but selecting Sport is key if you wish to avoid substantial turbo lag. On a few occasions I’ve pulled out into traffic, spoiled by the response of most modern engines, only to be left with another motorist approaching rapidly and my foot on the floor, willing those little impellers to spin up quicker. Sport sharpens throttle response markedly, but adds unwelcome steering heft.

The ride can be pretty sharp, though a recent stint in an MX-5 2.0 proved there isn’t much difference between the two, and now the weather is getting better, being able to drop the roof in a matter of seconds with one hand is proving handy. It really is a brilliantly clever piece of design: quick, easy and intuitive.

Next month, a decent drive with a fellow platform-sharing Italian sportster.

2019 Fiat Abarth 124 Spider Pros & Cons

Things we rate
1 - Unique styling
2 - Fuel economy
3 - Droptop motoring

Things we hate
1 - No reach adjust
2 - Turbo lag
3 - Blind spot beeper

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