Last year we saluted Fiat for the canny reasoning that resulted in the 124 Spider, its first rear-drive sports car since the original model was discontinued in the early 1980s. Although the amalgamation of Mazda MX-5 mechanicals and Italian styling was not a flawless integration by any means, it delivered the kind of desirable product that was so obviously missing from Fiat’s limited and conventional line-up. However, to Abarth, Fiat’s feisty tuning division, the 124 is of arguably much greater import. Where its parent, through minimal investment of resource, gained a useful image bump (particularly in the US) and a very decent roadster, Abarth gets the chance to apply its underused talents to an already admirably talented piece of kit – a dramatic shift from its current norm of uprating the Fiat 500’s modest abilities. The fact that there is also a manifest gap in the market for Abarth’s version does it no harm, either.
Mazda is famously conservative when it comes to boosting the MX-5’s power, and although the Spider doesn’t dramatically increase its established output, the 36lb ft of additional peak torque (and a much greater dose of it at lower revs, of course) supplied by the turbocharged 1.4-litre Multiair engine promises to be significant in a car that weighs not much more than a tonne. Furthermore, by returning the mechanical limited-slip differential denied to the cooking versions of the 124 Spider, Abarth has been allowed to set out its stall.
This looks like an authentically sporting sort of spider – and potentially the small Italian roadster we’ve been waiting for since long before the misconceived Fiat Barchetta was axed. Certainly, it will need to be if Fiat is to justify the asking price: starting at £29,565, the Abarth is almost £6k pricier than a top-spec MX-5. Those are fancy, feelsome boots to fill – but the pay-off ought to be the best scorpion-badge-wearer since the Autobianchi A112 Abarth of the mid-1970s.
DESIGN AND ENGINEERING
Naturally, the Abarth shares its major body panels with Fiat’s version of the Spider, although that hasn’t prevented easy differentiation between the two. In large part, that’s because of the tuner’s ‘racing anti-glare kit’, which is a splendidly facetious description for the matt black treatment enacted on the 124’s long bonnet. This signals its maker’s sentimental awareness of recent history and places the car in homage-like context – but there’s more besides. The car’s aggressive front bumper has been significantly redesigned to accommodate larger air intakes and the rear has a ‘Record Monza’ quad exhaust to go with further scoops in the panelling.
The pipes are connected to the same turbocharged 1.4-litre Multiair engine as in the Fiat 124 Spider, albeit in a heightened state of tune here, the previously modest 138bhp at 5000rpm wound up to 168bhp at 5500rpm. That’s slightly more than is developed by Mazda’s naturally aspirated 2.0-litre lump, but it is the heftier peak torque, delivered 2000rpm sooner, that distinguishes the Italian four-cylinder unit from its Japanese opposite. Beyond the engine bay, the Abarth probably shares more mechanical components with the equivalent MX-5 than its Fiat sibling.
Like Mazda’s most expensive variant, the Abarth gets the Bilstein dampers and rear limited-slip differential not available on the cooking model, although the front double-wishbone and rear multi-link suspension are standard throughout both ranges. As you might expect, the specific chassis tune is Abarth’s own and its 124 gains stiffened anti-roll bars and a higher specification of Bridgestone Potenza tyre than Fiat’s Spider. As Turin’s engineers did, Abarth claims to have maintained the MX-5’s perfect 50/50 weight distribution despite having the same longer nose and weightier engine as the cheaper 124 Spider.
We didn’t have a chance to check that weight distribution but we’d be mildly surprised if it didn’t replicate the 55/45 spread recorded by the Fiat. We also haven’t yet driven the six-speed Sequenziale Sportivo automatic in the UK. The auto is popular overseas, although our experience suggests that the short-throw standard manual gearbox, tested here, is the smarter investment.
After the noticeable changes to the 124’s bodywork, it’s a little disconcerting to find the 124’s cabin so dependent on smoke and mirrors for a sense of identity. The feeling is by now a familiar one: we experienced it in Fiat’s version of this car and no one with knowledge of the MX-5 could fail to spot the wholesale carry-over of Mazda’s architecture. Whether or not this is a problem is wholly subjective, though, because – objectively, at least – the interior remains a dainty and very dapper masterstoke.
You sit splendidly low, everything around you aesthetically pleasing and well put together, and aside from the fact that you’ll unwittingly click the infotainment controller down with your left elbow and there’s almost nowhere to put anything, it’s all beautifully organised, especially when you take the car’s diminutive size into account. Abarth’s embellishments are, if anything, even milder than those enacted by Fiat. Most notably, you get the scorpion badge, a larger edition number plaque, a vividly red rev counter and a button to engage Sport mode.
Otherwise, it’s mostly just trim materials that have changed, but these are very well handled, especially with regard to the leather sport seats and Alcantara trim of our test car. Whether or not a smattering of gratifyingly tactile surfaces goes any further to justifying the Abarth’s substantial premium is debatable but, to our testers, they did produce a measurable upswing in appreciation for the surroundings compared with those of the Fiat 124. Not bad for smoke and mirrors.