An all-new Spider from Italy is always something to get excited about … even if it isn’t really Italian.
Modern car manufacturers, the cynics might say, are little more than assemblers of parts. Large automakers conceive, design and test a potential new product, but once the basics have been signed off, the procurement arm of the firm sources the best deals for all the required bits. You name it, from alloy wheels to transmissions, engine blocks, turbochargers, pistons, interior trim, wiring looms and so on; most manufacturers source all of these crucial items from outside suppliers.
And it makes sense, too. Why cast your own components or mould your own bumpers when a specialist firm is more skilled and can do it at a lower price? While automakers take the credit for “making” a new car, in many instances very little apart from conception and assembly is actually carried out by said manufacturer.
When Fiat decided to resurrect the 124 Spider nameplate on the 50th anniversary of the famed model, the Italians went one better than sourcing the best parts it could from the supplier industry … it used the best-selling roadster in the market, the Mazda MX-5, as a template. With more than a million MX-5s sold since 1989, it’s safe to say that Mazda knows a thing or two about producing small roadsters. In fact, Fiat even asked Mazda to build the new model in its Hiroshima plant. Fiat recently employed the same strategy when it bought the rights to rebrand the new Mitsubishi Triton as the Fiat Fullback (read our test of the latter here). Badge engineering is a well-known, common practice; look no further than the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ for another recent example.
Of course, being Italian, Fiat was not going to rely on Japanese styling for the reincarnation of its roadster. All the sheet metal of the Fiat/Abarth 124 Spider is unique. For inspiration, the firm looked back to the Tom Tjaarda-designed 1966 version and borrowed a few design cues to link this new model to the Pininfarina-produced original. The most obvious of these are the hexagonal air intake, the shoulder line, those headlamps and the overall proportions. The latter means that the 124 is a bit longer – 140 mm to be exact – than the MX-5, despite an identical wheelbase. Team opinion was divided on the appearance, although we couldn’t deny the 124 shape is eye-catching and possesses an air of baby Maserati. Sadly, Fiat SA will not be offering the signature Abarth two-tone scheme with contrasting black bonnet.
Slide inside – easier for taller drivers if the roof is stowed – and the Mazda’s DNA is clear. Bar the Abarth badges and script on the seats, the interior is identical to that of the latest MX-5. Again, that isn’t a bad thing, except that the Mazda’s cramped proportions are present here, too; taller drivers will struggle with the confined cabin and the tallest of our team found themselves brushing up against the roof when it was up, and almost looking over the windscreen frame when the soft top was stowed.
The biggest difference between the Mazda and the Fiat is the powerplant. Under the elongated hood of the 124 is a 1,4-litre turbopetrol versus the Mazda’s naturally aspirated 2,0-litre mill. As you may have noticed, this isn’t quite a Fiat, but rather an Abarth. Those in the know will recall that Carlo Abarth was a legendary tuner of older Fiats and Fiat eventually bought the firm to use as an in-house racing division. Of late, the wholly owned subsidiary has turned its hand to the tuning of series-production cars such as the 500 and 124 Spider.
Fiat South Africa will sell only Abarth versions of the 124. This means power outputs of 125 kW and 250 N.m are sent to the rear wheels via a Mazda-sourced six-speed gearbox, although the gearing is a tad longer in the Italian than the Japanese donor car in order to better utilise the fatter torque curve of the turbocharged engine. While the motor is good and the extra mid-range torque is a boon, we felt that the soundtrack is too tame.
Speaking of torque, an extra 50 N.m over the MX-5 helped the Abarth scoot to the benchmark 100 km/h sprint time in just 6,80 seconds, bang on what Fiat claims for this model, and a half a second quicker than the best time we achieved with the Mazda (read that road test here). That time was posted despite the two cars having an identical power-to-mass ratio.
The braking performance was equally impressive, as the average time earned the 124 Spider an excellent rating. To judge the Abarth Spider purely on its straight-line stats misses the point, however. The aim of owning a roadster is to live la dolce vita. Wait for a sunny day, drop the roof and head for the mountains. With a stiffer suspension setup than that of the MX-5, including revised dampers, springs and anti-roll bars, there is noticeably less body lean. An unfortunate side effect, however, is more scuttle shake.
On twisting roads, the Abarth shines. With three pedals and a mechanical shift action to deal with, the Abarth draws you into the driving experience. Drop a gear, turn in and the 124 feels planted. The short wheelbase means the car is alert and, if you carry lots of mid-corner speed, the quick turn-in and mechanical limited-slip diff curb understeer with a wonderfully crisp, old-school sense of driving, much like that of a classic British roadster such as an MG or Triumph. The grip limits aren’t extremely high, but the fun factor is. If you overstep the mark, particularly at low speeds, you are rewarded with a predictable and easy to control slide.
As far as an exercise in badge engineering goes, this is a fine example. Fiat took a great car and built upon the excellent traits that were already present. Styling aside, the Italian carmaker has given the Abarth just enough of an edge for it to feel different from the MX-5. The torquier engine, revised gearing and sportier suspension setup all imbue the 124 with a unique character. There is one fairly large but, though: a significant price difference between the two cars.
In most markets, top-of-the-range MX-5s (similar to the version sold by Mazda locally) and Abarth 124 Spiders are near identical in price. In SA, that is not quite the case. At the time of writing, the difference in list price was about R210 000. Although we are well aware that the Abarth will be sold in smaller numbers and therefore exclusivity is ensured, no amount of Italian style and elegance can justify that premium. As good as it is, the Abarth 124 Spider is not R210 000 better than the MX-5.
If it's a fun roadster you want, the Mazda remains our choice.
*From the February 2017 issue of CAR magazine